What does Larry Hogan have in common with Donald Trump and Ben Carson?

Donald Trump has been a real estate developer and so has Hogan, but Hogan has no casinos to his name. Ben Carson has lived and worked in Maryland for most of his life, as has Hogan.

All three happen to be members of the Republican Party, and Trump and Carson are running as political outsiders with no governing experience, as Hogan did. Most of these similarities are superficial, except the last one.

There are some conservatives who question Hogan’s Republican credentials. Some on the fringe of his own party call him a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a term freely used on the right for anyone who disagrees with them and tries to get along with Democrats.

Hogan is the kind of Republican who gets elected in Maryland; Carson and Trump are not. Hogan is the kind of Republican who downplays social issues. He refuses to even engage in discussion about abortion, Planned Parenthood and gun control, which he calls settled issues. The only kind of immigrants he mentions, if at all, are Asian-Americans, like his wife, Yumi, who came to this country for a better life for themselves and their children.

Popular in Two Polls

Hogan, in other words, is the kind of Republican governor who, nine months into office, is popular in two statewide polls published last month. He got a 58% job approval rating in a Goucher College poll, and 61% in a University of Maryland/Washington Post poll.

In the Goucher poll, only 18% disapproved of his performance and 23% didn’t know. At the same time, 54% had a favorable view of the Republican governor and only 15% had an unfavorable view, but nearly a third of residents (30%) didn’t have an opinion. Without a doubt, Hogan’s valiant battle with lymphatic cancer and his outreach to other cancer patients, particularly children, has made him a sympathetic figure.

Also in the Goucher poll, Hogan received lower ratings on his handling of specific issues:

  • On public education, his worst ranking, 40% approve and 33% disapprove, reflecting the strong criticism he received from Democrats and the teachers union.
  • On economic growth and development, 52% approve and 21% disapprove;
  • On job creation, 42% approve and 28% disapprove;
  • On his handling of taxes, 52% approve and 29% disapprove;
  • On crime and criminal justice, 43% approve and 32% disapprove;
  • On transportation and infrastructure, 50% approve and 29% disapprove;
  • On environmental issues, 42% approve and 27% disapprove.

Ehrlich Was Popular, Too

Hogan’s personal popularity certainly arises out of his own upbeat personality, but as the Post pointed out, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich enjoyed similar high ratings in his first year as governor. Patrick Murray, the executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, likes to point out that Ehrlich remained personally popular throughout his governorship, and his favorable ratings were in the mid-50s when he ran for reelection.

Despite that popularity, Republican Ehrlich was beaten by Democratic Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley because of the Republican’s stand on issues.

Democrats will continue to pound Hogan on any issue that appeals to voters, particularly education, like when Hogan withheld $68 million in school funding, while the governor continues to tout record $6.1 billion spending on K–12 education.

Some pragmatic Hogan supporters wonder why he gave Democrats that rock to throw at him when $68 million is such a piddly amount in a $40 billion budget.

Hogan felt he had compromised enough on other budget issues, and needed to show his resolve, even when revenue numbers improved; he was also pragmatic enough to concede long-term defeat on the issue. The $68 million in the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) was the only discretionary amount in school funding — one that O’Malley failed to fully fund in his first years, as well.

The Democratic legislature passed legislation to make that GCEI funding mandatory in future years. Hogan allowed that measure to become law without his signature, saying a veto would put him and Republican legislators through a fight they were likely to lose.

So that issue is off the table for the rest of his term, but it will not necessarily go away. There is a commission currently studying the education formulas passed in 2002, and its report is due next year. That commission is likely to seek changes in formulas, and it is hard to imagine it will not ask for more money, at least in some areas.

As Hogan makes his governing decisions during the next three years, he’s bound to make choices that can help or hurt his popularity. For instance, Baltimore’s political, business and media leaders view his decision not to fund Baltimore’s Red Line light rail as a huge mistake and a permanent blot on his administration.

When he proposed a revamped express bus system for the city last month, these elites saw the proposal as a lame half-measure that is unlikely to succeed.

But that doesn’t mean that the transit decision would seriously affect his approval rating and popularity in most areas of the state, except with voters who already disapprove of him.

Another Republican Outsider

Former Howard County Executive Chuck Ecker died last month, at 86, after a battle with cancer. He served as county executive from 1990 to 1998, and is an earlier example of the kind of Republican that gets elected in Maryland.

Ecker grew up on a Carroll County farm, and spent 36 years in public education, first in his home county, then Prince George’s County and, finally, Howard County, where he eventually became associate superintendent for business management and finance. He had never been politically active, but was well regarded in the business community.

When Republicans and business leaders grew unhappy with how Democrat Liz Bobo was handling the job, they recruited Ecker to run against her. He was a fiscal conservative with long years in public administration, but no political experience. Ecker eventually won the election by 450 votes, a margin of less than 1%, and easily won reelection. He had to deal with budget issues that were his forte, and did not dabble in social issues.

Somehow, by the end of his second term in 1998 he had caught the political bug. He decided to run for governor in the Republican primary against Ellen Sauerbrey, the former Baltimore County delegate who had come within 6,000 votes of beating Democrat Parris Glendening in the governor’s race four years before. Ecker, always a laid-back administrator of few words, ran a low-key race and lost every county, including his own, by a wide margin, getting only 19% of the votes statewide.

That may have been the end of a successful career in public service, as he turned 70 that year; but in 2000, there was an unexpected opening for a superintendent of Carroll County schools, the conservative home county where he had spent 11 years of his early career. After two years as interim superintendent, the school board hired him for the permanent job, and he served eight more years till he was almost 80.

There was a subdued funeral for Ecker at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Service last month, attended by three former county executives, including Bobo. He was remembered fondly by friends and former colleagues as a friendly manager who was inpatient with too much talk but never got angry, and enjoyed interacting with employees at all levels.