It was supposed to be a routine meeting of Maryland’s Democratic House caucus.
But that all changed when Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) brought up the sky-high approval ratings of Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
“When I go around my district, it seems Governor Hogan is gaining traction among my people,” Sydnor said, according to several lawmakers who were at the closed-door meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
What were the state’s Democratic elected leaders planning to do about it, Sydnor asked. What was the strategy to take back the governor’s office in 2018?
“That’s not our job,” replied Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, according to multiple delegates who were present. “Our job is to protect the House.”
Several lawmakers — who declined to be named because caucus discussions are supposed to be confidential — later described themselves as stunned. “There was almost an audible gasp,” one said. More questions followed, sharper and more accusatory than is typical.
The heated discussion highlights what many describe as a building frustration within the Democratic caucus over the House leadership’s response to Hogan, who is nearing the midpoint of his first term and is highly popular across party lines in the heavily Democratic state.
Some delegates say they are dismayed that Democrats, who hold a veto-proof majority in both houses of the legislature, have not been able to dent Hogan’s approval ratings. They are worried that the moderate Republican’s success could mean Democratic losses in the legislature in 2018, when Hogan, a former businessman, is favored to win a second term.
“Whatever we think we’re doing is not working,” one delegate said in an interview.
A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll placed Hogan’s approval rating at 71 percent, 10 points higher than last year. Just over half of Marylanders view the Democratic Party positively, about the same as last year.
The governor appears to have benefited from his decision to disavow GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who is trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 points in Maryland. Hogan receives high scores from voters even though they think less favorably of the Republican Party than they did a year ago.
Some delegates who attended the caucus meeting said in interviews that Democrats should try to create a progressive contrast to Hogan during the upcoming legislative session, including passage of a paid sick-leave bill that failed to advance this year.
One delegate said lawmakers are in a difficult position, however, because Hogan has not introduced robust or far-reaching legislation since taking office. He prefers to take executive actions, such as lowering tolls or changing the school calendar, which do not require lawmaker approval.
“How do you push against nothing?” the delegate asked. “He’s confrontational with rhetoric, but not with a legislative agenda.”
The Oct. 17 caucus meeting included about 55 of the 91 Democrats in the House of Delegates. Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has led the chamber for 13 years, was absent; delegates were told he was not feeling well after getting a flu shot.
Several committee chairs attended the meeting and provided updates on issues that could be taken up during the 2017 session, which begins in January. After some discussion about Hogan forcing schools to open after Labor Day, Sydnor raised the issue of the governor’s popularity.
Alexandra Hughes, Busch’s chief of staff, attended the meeting but declined in an interview to provide any specifics, saying such sessions are supposed to provide a forum to freely discuss issues. She said the legislature has moved a number of policies over the past two years that offer a clear contrast to Hogan’s agenda.
For example, during the 2016 legislative session, the House pushed for a $290 million package to help revitalize struggling Baltimore neighborhoods and address some of the city’s social ills; passed a bill that prohibits insurers from charging co-payments for contraceptives, eliminates the co-payment for vasectomies and requires insurance coverage for over-the-counter contraceptive medications; and fought for a transportation bill that creates a new process for prioritizing road projects.
In addition, Democrats have clashed with Hogan over how much school districts should receive in funding, among other things. The latest disagreement is over the school calendar.
“I think the House has drawn a clear difference with the governor on a number of policy issues,” Hughes said. “And I think those differences will speak for themselves moving forward.”
Davis would not discuss the caucus meeting, but he reiterated in an interview that House Democrats should not be focused on fighting Hogan.
“There will be plenty of times for the Republicans to get on one side and Democrats to get on the other side,” he said. “We need to put politics aside and be about legislating and governing.”
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College, agreed that delegates would be better off not to pick a fight with Hogan. “People are tired of the vitriolic nature of politics,” he said. “Certainly the notion of the Maryland House of Delegates trying to go after or bring down a popular governor is not what people want in politics right now.”
Charles Connor, the executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said progressives in the House have been “fighting tooth and nail” for more left-leaning policies. That approach stirs concern among centrists, who watched Hogan upset heavily favored Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) in 2014 by focusing on tax cuts and making Maryland more business-friendly.
Young, recently elected lawmakers are impatient for change, Connor said, and less willing to move incrementally than others with more time in Annapolis, including Busch, 69.
“People around the state, publicly and privately, have said it is an interesting time for leadership” who have to deal with lawmakers who are “not of the same generation,” Connor said.
Eberly cautioned that pushing Maryland further left may not serve Democrats well. “Maryland is already a pretty progressive state,” he said. “If they try to push it even further, they may end up strengthening the coalition of moderates and conservatives that elected” Hogan.
Two first-term delegates and one veteran said in interviews that progressive freshmen were not the only ones concerned about the response from leadership at the caucus meeting, or worried about losing House seats in vulnerable districts. “It was not the usual caucus,” said one delegate. “Was there tension? Yes.”
The delegate said Davis seemed to be saying it was up to the Democrats who challenge Hogan in 2018 to make a strong case against him. Three potential contenders — U.S. Rep. John Delaney, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — have been vocal critics of Hogan over the past year. Neither Delaney nor Kamenetz would comment for this story, and Baker could not be reached.
Hogan is only the second Republican governor in Maryland in nearly half a century. The other, Robert Ehrlich, served only one term and was far less popular.
“Most elected officials in Maryland don’t know what it’s like to have divided government,” Eberly said. “And they definitely don’t know what it’s like to have a Republican governor with such high approval ratings.”