Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan remained on the sidelines last year when the majority-Democratic legislature haggled over a paid-sick-leave bill.
The measure never made it to his desk.
Now Hogan, a Republican, is taking the idea long championed by Democrats and trying to make it his own.
It is part of a calculated move by the first-term governor as he reaches the midpoint of his four-year term, attempting to cast himself as a centrist in a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 and independents make up the fastest-growing voting bloc.
In the past month, Hogan has introduced his most comprehensive legislative agenda since taking office, offering measures that would cap tuition increases for state universities at 2 percent, promote job growth in green industries and require companies with 50 or more employees to provide five days of paid sick leave.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said Hogan’s actions should not come as a surprise, given the governor’s desire for a second term and the moderate-to-liberal leanings of his constituents.
“He’s going to move to the center,” Miller said. “That’s where the people are.”
The proposals will probably siphon attention away from Democrats who are still reeling from Hogan’s surprise victory two years ago and who are searching for ways to compete in 2018 with Hogan’s $5 million war chest and sky-high approval ratings. The governor’s 2014 opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), tried to defeat him by saying Hogan would push a right-wing agenda on issues such as abortion and guns. But the governor has steered clear of those topics, presenting a moderate political persona.
“He has been strategic and good at identifying policies that are popular with Marylanders,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College. “It’s part of being a successful Republican governor in a blue state. He has to find issues that work for a wide range of Marylanders.”
Hogan, widely popular across party lines, has repeatedly declared that it doesn’t matter on which side of the aisle an idea originates.
“I pretty much go where I think [it] makes sense,” Hogan said in a recent radio interview. “I’m taking things [Democrats] say they support and saying, ‘This is how we can make it better.’ ”
The strategy has infuriated many in the Democratic-majority legislature, who say Hogan’s initiatives lack substance, differ in key ways from their party’s proposals or were unveiled without consultation with Democratic legislative leaders.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), for example, compared Hogan’s paid-sick-leave bill with the one passed by House Democrats last year, noting that the governor’s would exempt more small businesses and would cover only employees who work at least 30 hours a week.
“They sound good,” Madaleno said of the governor’s proposals, “but the details show little progress for people.”
Analysts said minor differences between Hogan’s proposals and bills that Democrats put forward could easily be lost on many voters, frustrating opponents of the governor who want to differentiate his agenda from theirs. Last year, Democrats in the House got into a heated exchange over how to draw such a contrast.
“Individuals don’t pay attention to nuance as much as insiders and wonks,” Kromer said. “If people feel the direction of the state is good and economic conditions are improving, they’re going to give the governor a lot of leeway.”
As Hogan’s approval ratings have risen, the governor has stockpiled considerable campaign cash for his reelection campaign.
He and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R) took in about $4.5 million in 2016, and Hogan now has more than $5 million available — far more than potential Democratic challengers such as Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz ($1.6 million), Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III ($250,000) or Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore ($125,000).
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who recently told Democrats that they “can’t be wearing a jersey with both colors on it,” struck a more bipartisan note this week, saying he welcomes Hogan’s input on “necessary” bills that are priorities for Democrats, particularly paid sick leave.
“I don’t think it hurts or impacts our agenda at all,” Busch said of Hogan’s latest moves. “He has his own base of support and we have ours. Anytime you get the governor to work on a piece of legislation, it’s a benefit.”
Hogan’s centrist approach could damage his standing among conservative Republicans in the state, many of whom are still angry over the governor’s disavowal of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Garrett) said the governor’s sick-leave and environmental proposals have caused “a considerable amount of concern” among conservative lawmakers. He said Hogan campaigned on a promise to make the state more business-friendly after years of strict new regulations under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Beitzel, who was a delegate for Trump at the Republican National Convention, said he is worried that Hogan’s antipathy toward the new president could cause the state to miss out on a promised burst of new defense spending or lose out on the future FBI headquarters.
Still, Beitzel said he and the vast majority of his colleagues strongly support the governor’s overall agenda and think he is moving the state in the right direction.
Miller, the Senate president, said he doesn’t think Hogan’s agenda goes far enough on key issues facing Marylanders. He pledged to work with the governor to expand it, including by doing more to address climate change and protect the Chesapeake Bay.
“My job is to get people to work together to solve the state’s problems,” Miller said. “I belong to a party but I’m also elected by all 47 senators, including Republicans. . . . My job is to isolate the far left and isolate the far right and bring people of goodwill together.”
Correction: Earlier versions of this article misstated the amount of campaign funds reported by Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III at the end of 2016. The correct amount is $250,000.