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Gov. Hogan avoids talking Trump, to the dismay of some in Maryland

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's Donald Trump strategy? "Avoid the subject," analyst says.

As protesters crowded the international arrivals hall at BWI Marshall Airport last week to denounce President Donald J. Trump's immigration ban, online commenters bombarded Gov. Larry Hogan's Facebook page to demand that he take a position.

Two other GOP governors in Democratic states had condemned Trump's executive order to suspend refugee admissions and temporarily bar visitors from seven mostly Muslim countries. Protesters wanted Hogan to join them.

The governor's press staff labeled the comments spam and deleted them.

Prodded by reporters, a spokeswoman issued a statement that navigated a narrow path between praise and condemnation: The Hogan administration supports "strengthened and more clarified vetting" that also "upholds our American values."

Hogan's goal to be the first GOP governor to win re-election in Maryland in more than 60 years grew more complicated in November, when his fellow Republican won his surprise victory in the presidential election.

Republicans across the country are trying to strike the right tone in response to the president's actions, but the political climate in deep-blue Maryland creates a particular peril for its governor.

Hogan is popular here. Trump is not.

The governor's approval ratings have consistently topped 70 percent. Trump captured less than 34 percent of the state's vote in November.

As the new president's policies draw protests, Hogan has resisted pressure to engage on any national issues that could alienate either his crossover Democratic supporters or his Republican base.

He said during the campaign he wouldn't vote for Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton. In his State of the State address on Wednesday, less than two weeks into a presidential administration that has turned American politics upside down, he made no mention of Trump.

He declined to be interviewed for this article and has brushed off questions about Trump as "stupid."

"It's pretty clear he has a strategy here," said Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "And that's to avoid the subject."

How long Hogan can do that is uncertain, Scholzman said, given the likelihood of more controversy ahead.

"There will be something else and then something else. This game is going to be up, somehow."

For some Hogan supporters, silence is just fine.

Chris Diehl, a Republican charter boat captain from Conowingo who said he voted for the governor, said he'd rather Hogan focus on schools, roads, bridges and public health than the president.

Diehl, 52, said it would be foolish for Hogan to talk about Trump's policies when a state official has no influence over them.

"Most of the politicians in Maryland are pretty petulant and partisan," Diehl said. "I don't see any reason to give anyone who's going to run against him ammunition.

"If he was a U.S. senator, I might have a different opinion."

Hogan's political opponents show no sign of letting up.

The governor's aides say more than 2,500 people called his office over the past week asking him to take a position on the travel ban. Several groups planned to demand the same during a rally in front of the governor's mansion in Annapolis on Saturday.

"Donald Trump is the proverbial cloud on Larry Hogan's horizon," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "For Hogan, it's a rock and a hard place."

The coalition that elected Hogan two years ago — and drives his sky-high approval ratings today — includes moderate Democrats and independents, many of whom oppose Trump. It also includes nearly all of the state's Republicans, whose turnout in 2018 will be crucial to Hogan's re-election.

Alienating either could create a political vulnerability.

"If you're Hogan, you hold off going down that path of condemning Trump as long as you can," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College.

A spokesman for the governor dismissed pressure to weigh in on Trump as the work of misguided Democratic operatives.

"Certain members of the General Assembly have done a very poor job of hiding clear political intentions to tie the governor to Washington and to the new president for some perceived political gain," spokesman Doug Mayer said.

Democrats have called on the governor to defend Marylanders who receive medical insurance under the Affordable Care Act from Republican efforts to repeal President Barack Obama's signature health care legislation.

Hogan has said he wants to get rid of the bad provisions of Obamacare and keep the good. Aides identified the good as letting young adults stay on their parents' plans and requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

In letters to congressional leaders, Hogan has defended the state's Medicaid expansion, made possible by Obamacare.

But Democrats have leaned on Hogan to lobby Trump and to speak out against him specifically, which the governor has not done.

Mayer said the governor's press staff deleted the Facebook comments about Trump in order to prevent "coordinated political spam attacks from infiltrating and hijacking the page."

He said many comments appeared on various posts last Sunday, including one about the governor's newborn grandson. That was the day Marylanders descended on BWI to join nationwide protests of the travel ban.

"We have an obligation to the 146,000 people who like the governor's page to keep the conversation fresh, appropriate, and on topic," Mayer said.

Some of Hogan's supporters say it's appropriate and on topic to ask about Trump.

Micah Kleid, a 35-year-old marketing manager from Pikesville, says he voted for Hogan in 2014 and Clinton in 2016.

"Hogan needs to take a position," Kleid said. "And whatever his position is, I just want him to tell the truth."

Kleid said Hogan's position on Trump's policies wouldn't necessarily cause him to stop supporting the governor. But as a leader, he said, Hogan should speak up about a resident whose actions concern so many constituents.

"The only way that anything is going to get better in this country is if politicians come out and say what they believe," Kleid said.

Sarah Bodor, 44, said she called the governor's office twice last week to ask about the travel ban. She said she's a Democrat who didn't vote for Hogan but has been satisfied with the job he's done. That satisfaction would vanish if he supported the travel ban.

"I do not think history is going to treat very kindly a rejection of refugees," said Bodor, an environmental educator. "This is a time when we need the courage of our leaders to come forward. … There's a line in the sand right now, and people need to decide what side they're on."

The governor has deflected questions about Trump by saying he's focused on the Maryland issues he can influence. His State of the State address to the General Assembly focused exclusively on what he wants to accomplish here.

Julie Caverly said she went on Hogan's Facebook page Tuesday to see whether he had posted a statement about the president. When she didn't see one, she said, she left a comment asking Hogan to make a statement.

The 59-year-old retiree said she wasn't part of an organized effort.

A day later, Caverly said, her comment was deleted and she was banned from posting on any topic on the governor's page. Two other commenters with deleted posts also said they were barred from commenting.

"The worst part of it is seeing that I was banned," Caverly said. "Had I posted obscenities or something dreadful, I could understand being unable to post."

Mayer, Hogan's spokesman, said that sometimes people uninvolved in a coordinated commenting effort get banned from the governor's Facebook page.

"Definitely, and that's unfortunate," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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