It’s too early to say for sure that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is waging a “war on Baltimore,” as critics charge, but analysts say the city has lost so much political and economic clout over the years that the governor is free to spurn the city if he chooses.
In addition, Hogan has strong political and budgetary motives to continue to shift planned spending from heavily Democratic Baltimore to other parts of the state. The approach pleases his conservative supporters in rural and outer suburban areas, who have long grumbled that the city enjoyed favorable treatment and was a wasteful drain of resources.
Hogan’s tense relations with Charm City already have become one of the early themes of his nearly seven-month tenure. He’s off to a more contentious start with Baltimore than the last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who took office in 2003.
If things don’t improve, the city’s struggle with the governor could lead to years of bad feelings. It could add to strains on the city as it tries to recover from the rioting in April after the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died one week after being arrested by Baltimore police and suffering a severe spinal injury, and the surge in homicides that followed.
It also would offer a bitter reminder of how the city’s standing has changed. Older Marylanders can remember when Baltimore had more votes and more jobs than any other jurisdiction in the state and its leaders routinely moved on to top political posts in Annapolis and Washington.
“Baltimore is a fading star compared to other communities,” said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore-based economist and chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission.
“A lot of the state’s economic growth has taken place outside the Baltimore region, and with economic power comes political power,” Basu said, adding that the city retains importance as the state’s main urban hub.
Hogan and Baltimore leaders have tangled over the response to the April unrest, school funding and his unilateral decision to close a city jail.
Above all, the city’s establishment was aghast that he killed the Red Line, a 14-mile light-rail project that the city called its top priority both to improve transportation and create jobs. Hogan said it was too expensive but hasn’t offered a comparable replacement plan to enhance transit.
With the savings from axing the Red Line, Hogan sharply increased funding for road and bridge projects outside the city. His office issued a map of most of the state showing where the money was going, with Baltimore left off.
“Putting politics aside, this is just not the way to treat an entire region of citizens and businesses and other stakeholders who have spent 13 years working on a project,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) said Monday at a testy meeting between city leaders and state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn at which post-Red Line options were discussed.
Adding insult to injury, in Baltimore’s eyes, Hogan simultaneously gave tentative approval to a slimmed-down version of the Purple Line, a similar light-rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The choice could be seen as final confirmation that political power in the state has shifted from its historic center in Baltimore to the more populous, more prosperous Washington suburbs.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) spoke sadly about Baltimore’s shrinking influence at the Monday meeting in Hanover.
“People forget that Baltimore City was the economic engine of the whole state at one time, when we had [nearly] 1 million people,” Young said. “If the city dies, so goes the state.”
Baltimore has lost one-third of its population and three-quarters of its manufacturing base since 1950. Steel plants and related industries shut down in a classic example of postwar deindustrialization.
Electoral and economic power has dispersed to growing suburbs — especially around Washington, but also around Baltimore itself. The city’s population has dropped to 623,000, and Baltimore now ranks fourth in the state behind Montgomery, Prince George’s and suburban Baltimore County.
Hogan spokesman Matthew Clark dismissed the notion that the governor is picking on Baltimore as “absolute and utter nonsense.” Hogan actively campaigned in Baltimore, which is rare for a Republican.
Since the riots, Hogan’s administration has provided modest but welcome financial assistance. Clark promised that the governor would be discussing further measures “in the next few months.”
Rawlings-Blake expressed hope that she could work productively with Hogan despite the clashes.
“I believe there’s space for us to differ on policy and still work together,” the mayor said in an interview. “Some people can focus on the clout that we used to have. I’m focused on getting things done.”
Analysts agreed that each of Hogan’s decisions on Baltimore, taken separately, can be explained by factors separate from any supposed hostility toward the city.
For instance, Rawlings-Blake bore much of the blame for poor communication with the governor during the riots. Hogan didn’t give Baltimore schools all the money they wanted because he preferred to shore up the state pension fund — and other school systems also received less than anticipated.
There was broad support for closing the jail, although even some Hogan supporters conceded that the governor should have shown the routine courtesy of calling Rawlings-Blake ahead of time to inform her of the decision.
On the other hand, Hogan’s priorities for Maryland seem tailor-made to continue to penalize Baltimore.
The governor is committed to the restraining of state spending, from which the city has benefited disproportionately. It received a special package in 2013 to fund school construction, for instance, and the state paid to build the stadiums where the Ravens and Orioles play. (The Redskins picked up most of the cost of building FedEx Field in Landover.)
Baltimore has received special treatment partly because most recent governors were former mayors (Martin O’Malley, William Donald Schaefer) or hailed from neighboring Baltimore County (Ehrlich).
Hogan, who grew up in Prince George’s County and lived as an adult in Anne Arundel, lacks such a connection to the city.
The Red Line decision illustrated how Hogan’s priorities leave Baltimore wanting.
Hogan said during his campaign that he thought the Red Line was not worth the price of nearly $3 billion, of which the federal government was in line to pay $900 million. He also said after his election that he planned to shift attention away from the Democratic-dominated Interstate 95 corridor toward rural, predominantly Republican areas of the state that he said have “felt completely left out.”
True to his word, Hogan killed the Red Line and diverted all of the state money elsewhere. Rahn said Monday he was telling the federal government that Maryland wouldn’t be using the $900 million.
Hogan “was elected on a different set of priorities, and that does not include continuing to increase the amount of spending that goes to the city,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University.
The politics for Hogan are clear. He won less than a quarter of Baltimore’s votes, and analysts said he’s unlikely to focus on seeking more support there. He would have a better chance of cutting into the Democratic base in more affluent and independent-minded Montgomery, a factor that may have encouraged him to spare the Purple Line.
One risk for Hogan is that targeting Baltimore could trigger a backlash among Democrats around the state who sympathize with the city.
“We’re being hit at a time when the city is so totally vulnerable that it’s almost criminal the way the city is being treated,” said Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D), chair of the city’s delegation in Maryland’s House.
Still, evidence continues to accumulate that the state’s political attention has gone elsewhere. For instance, no prominent Baltimore Democrat is running for the Senate seat about to be vacated by a Baltimore icon, Barbara A. Mikulski (D).
The two top Democratic candidates are Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna F. Edwards — from Montgomery and Prince George’s, respectively.