After clashing with Trump over pandemic response, Larry Hogan now under fire for his own state leadership

Being at the center of controversy is a stark role reversal for Hogan, who since taking office in 2015 has cultivated an image as a “different” kind of Republican that is more pragmatic, less ideological and unaligned with Trump. After the pandemic began, Hogan demonstrated a calm but aggressive approach to combating the spread of the virus — instituting tough stay-at-home orders and claiming to have secured critical testing equipment for his state while the federal government struggled to help.

That has earned him praise from his Democratic colleagues, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who just this week succeeded Hogan as chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association. Even Ben Jealous, the Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Hogan in 2018, told CNN in March that his erstwhile opponent “has shown great leadership in pulling our state together during this crisis” — especially when compared to Trump.

With the NGA perch and his proximity to the media nexus of the nation’s capital, Hogan has been a constant presence on television demanding better and more efficient action from the Trump administration. On a promotional tour for his new book, Hogan blasted the administration’s actions while holding up his own record as a model for competent governance. The first Republican governor reelected in deep-blue Maryland since the Eisenhower administration, Hogan was briefly discussed as a viable primary challenger to Trump in 2020. And as Republicans map out their post-Trump future, he has earned some interest as a possible presidential contender in 2024.

But the reality of politics has brought the popular Hogan back down to earth this week. As coronavirus cases have risen in Maryland since late June, he has found this image as the consummate crisis manager and able governor challenged by liberal politicians from Democratic jurisdictions and government bureaucrats. The episodes have revealed the limits of Hogan’s power to overcome his political affiliation with the GOP and punctured his media profile of the “reasonable Republican.”

“I like Larry Hogan, I get along with him pretty well,” said Tom Hucker, a Democratic councilmember in Montgomery County. “But having said that, I think a lot of the praise, he benefits from stepping over the 1-inch bar that is Donald Trump. When you have the same party as Trump and you don’t lie in every statement and engage in racism, you look good by comparison.”

A fight over private schools

Hogan began the week with a major reversal of a decision by Maryland’s most populous and wealthiest county, Montgomery County, to keep private school campuses closed at the start of the school year. With the backing of Montgomery County’s Democratic executive Marc Elrich, the county health officer issued an order on July 31 that private schools in the county could not resume in-person learning until Oct. 1. Hogan’s reversal on Monday was countered two days later by a new order from Montgomery, citing different emergency authorities granted to health officers under state law.

“There are reasonable positions on both sides. But it’s gotten political. It’s gotten political for the governor and it’s gotten political for county officials who are taking shots at the governor,” Andrew Friedson, a Democratic member of the Montgomery County Council, told CNN Thursday. “The county executive and the governor just don’t like each other. There have been shots that have been taken on both sides, and it’s been unfortunate.”

The decision to prohibit private schools from opening their campuses to in-person learning came not from the Montgomery County executive himself but from Dr. Travis Gayles, the county health officer who was appointed by Elrich. By a quirk of Maryland law, Gayles holds a dual appointment in the state health department, meaning he is also a member of Hogan’s administration and answers to the state’s secretary of health.

In his July 31 announcement on private schools, Gayles cited the state’s rising case numbers and said the decision was based on “science and data.” Montgomery County’s public schools had already decided to remain closed for in-person learning through the first half of the school year.

Following an outcry from private-school parents, Hogan issued an emergency order on Monday to overturn Montgomery’s mandate and allow for private schools that follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for proper operation to choose whether or not to reopen.

“The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer,” Hogan said in a statement.

But Montgomery officials pushed back. Elrich told reporters on Wednesday that Hogan’s decision had “no logic.”

“I was surprised. I don’t think it was appropriate. I don’t think it is supported by data,” Elrich told reporters.

And that same day Gayles issued a new order for private school campuses to remain closed through September by citing a different state law giving county health officers the ability to shut down facilities to stop the spread of communicable diseases. In response to that, an August 6 memo from the state’s secretary of health Robert Neall (a Hogan appointee) backed up the governor’s order by directing health officials across Maryland that “nonpublic schools not be closed in a blanket manner.”

Neall’s memo all but guaranteed victory for Hogan in the dispute, and on Friday, Gayles rescinded his second order.

The offices of Hogan and Elrich did not respond to requests for comment, but the battle lines of the private-schools’ fight seem to have fallen on ideological and personal grounds.

Hogan, who himself attended Catholic parochial schools in Maryland, has been an advocate for private schools as governor. For years, he has successfully pushed for increases in funding for state-funded scholarships to private schools for students who receive free or reduced lunches. Elrich, meanwhile, is a former public elementary school teacher and has found himself on the opposite side of Hogan on issues ranging from transportation to taxes.

An election disaster?

Meanwhile, fears over the virus’s spread have left Maryland’s counties with a shortage of election judges willing to work poll places in November.

David Garreis, the president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials and the deputy director at the Anne Arundel County elections board, told CNN Thursday the state currently has just two-thirds of the necessary poll workers to conduct elections.

“We could have a failed election,” said Garreis. “You can’t open polling places if you don’t have election judges. It’s a process that needs people in order to function.”

Under Hogan’s direction, the state is conducting its election under its existing laws, despite these poll-worker shortages and expectations that more voters than usual will choose to vote by mail. Voters will be expected to either vote at their regular precinct location or request a mail-in ballot, which requires no excuse in Maryland, by October 20.

That’s a change from Maryland’s primary elections in June, which Hogan had rescheduled from the original April date at the beginning of the virus’s spread. The state sent every registered voter a ballot in the mail and also set up 42 voting centers as an in-person voting option. While the results of Maryland’s primaries have not been disputed, Hogan has since characterized it as an “unmitigated disaster” because several ballots were sent out to voters late.

Democrats have sharply criticized Hogan’s approach.

“It will certainly result in lower turnout,” Hucker said. He noted the higher costs of sending out mail-in ballot applications.

Prince George’s County executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat from a Washington suburban county, blasted Hogan for putting “politics above the health and safety” of her residents.

“There is no other way to justify his refusal to mail ballots to Marylanders, or his request that we, in the middle of a pandemic, ask hundreds of thousands of voters to go to crowded polling places,” Alsobrooks said in a statement Wednesday.

Hogan has pushed back by claiming that efforts to close or reduce the number of polling places because these shortages would disenfranchise minority voters — a remarkable response to Alsobrooks, the Black executive of one of the wealthiest majority-Black counties in the country.

“Proposals to close roughly 90% of polling places — particularly in minority communities — would result in voter suppression and risk violating the Voting Rights Act,” Hogan wrote in a letter to the state board of elections before its Friday meeting. “You would also be increasing the potential for crowds of voters at the few open polling places, resulting in hours-long lines.”

Hogan has placed the blame on the elections board — a bipartisan, five-person panel appointed by the governor — for an impasse over an alternative plan for conducting the general election. In his capacity at MAEO, Garreis has been lobbying the board to approve a new plan that would consolidate precinct voting places and open centralized voting centers at more than 280 high schools that could be properly staffed and in which social distancing could be achieved.

During its Friday meeting, the elections board voted to approve this consolidation plan — what Garreis told CNN Friday was a “step in the right direction.”

The decision for whether to accept it remains Hogan’s. The governor has not yet responded to the board’s plan.

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