You cannot tune into cable television or local news and not see Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan talking about coronavirus.
As a new coronavirus spread through the country in late February, President Donald Trump repeatedly dismissed the threat.
“Within a couple of days, it’s going to be down to close to zero,” Trump predicted Feb. 26. The next day: “It’s going to disappear, one day. It’s like a miracle.”
While Trump dithered in denial ― and infections and deaths from the pandemic rose ― a different style of leadership was taking place in Annapolis. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican like Trump, was becoming increasingly alarmed by the spread of the virus.
Hogan, the chairman of the National Governors Association, convened a briefing for the nation’s governors of top physicians, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in Bethesda. What Fauci told Hogan convinced him many people would die unless government leaders started taking serious and arguably draconian steps.
“Dr. Fauci gave us really clear, really concerning facts. We weren’t hearing anything like that from the White House," Hogan said Friday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Hogan formed a team of epidemiologists and doctors from Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, and MedStar Health to advise him and submitted emergency legislation to allow him to tap into the state’s reserve fund to prepare for the pandemic.
On March 5, when the first three cases of the virus were discovered in Maryland, Hogan declared a state of emergency, more than a week before the president did the same.
“I’m listening to some of the smartest scientists,” Hogan said. “We have a phone call every day and they give us staggering data about what could happen if you don’t take action. If you don’t take action today, people are doing to die. I don’t want to wait around.”
Across the country, governors, mayors, business leaders and sports leagues have stepped in to fill what many have seen as a leadership void coming from the Trump administration, particularly in the early days of the pandemic’s spread in America.
Hogan and Maryland officials have been among the first in the country to take a number of dramatic steps. Maryland was the second state to close public schools, just moments after Ohio did. Maryland was the third to close senior centers, bars and sit-down restaurants, and just the fifth to declare a state of emergency.
To be sure, Hogan hasn’t pleased everyone. Some objected to his decision to quickly close many businesses, while others argue he could have taken even more severe actions to prevent spread of the disease. But for the most part, Hogan is drawing praise even from those who are often his critics.
“The state is reacting better than almost any state in the country to the coronavirus pandemic," said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat who is House majority leader. “I personally think the governor has been doing a fantastic job responding to it.”
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Howard County Democrat and a doctor, wrote one of the emergency pandemic bills that, among other measures, extended unemployment benefits to people who lose their jobs because of the disease. A frequent Hogan critic, Lam said the state’s response has been “thoughtful and measured."
“We have some good folks who are advising the governor on how to proceed on measures that make sense from both a public health standpoint and a community and governance standpoint,” Lam said.
Lam noted Maryland hasn’t necessarily been the first state to take any one action, but has been ahead of most states. “These are difficult decisions that need to balance the needs of the economy with science and public health,” he said.
Mike O’Halloran, state director of the small business group the National Federation for Independent Business, said businesses are struggling greatly during the crisis. But most understand why temporary closures are necessary.
“We understand the governor did it with the idea of being reasonable and responsible,” O’Halloran said, adding that many restaurants appreciate Hogan’s executive orders that permit take-out service and the delivery of alcohol. “These are unprecedented times. We appreciate what the administration has done to mitigate some of the hardship.”
As he listens to a briefing from the public health experts each morning, Hogan lets his team of senior advisers debate which step to take next ― before quickly making a decision.
“We made hundreds of decisions as soon as we get the information,” Hogan said. “I’ve been erring on the side of acting as quickly as possible. This might sound weird, but in a crisis, if you wait until you’re sure you’re making the right decision, you’re probably waiting too long.”
Since declaring the state of emergency, Hogan has held 10 news conferences and has appeared on national television 11 times, including on channels with greatly varying audiences, such as MSNBC and Fox News. He’s scheduled to appear Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for a second time this month.
During his first four-year term in office, the governor generally turned down national media appearances.
In a crisis, if you wait until you’re sure you’re making the right decision, you’re probably waiting too long.
Gov. Larry Hogan
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Hogan said he feels a duty to communicate as much as possible now.
“The public needs to hear the things I’m saying,” the governor said. “The more I can get my face in front of the camera telling the truth, the better. Unless we get people to understand this is a crisis, we’re not going to be successful.”
In appearances and news conferences, Hogan has struck a balance between conveying urgency and hope. He’s been stern ― chastising some Marylanders for treating the crisis as “spring break” ― while also seeming eager to inject optimism where he can.
Like a coach urging players to rally, Hogan said at one State House news conference: “We are all in this together, and if we all do our part to rise to this challenge and to meet this moment, we will get through this together.”
While he has criticized the federal government for its response, he hasn’t singled out Trump by name. In a Fox News appearance Thursday after a White House conference call with state executives, Hogan said: “I want to compliment the president and the vice president for really great communication with the governors.”
Nathan Volke, a Republican member of Anne Arundel County Council, said Hogan’s approach “is what people are looking for: ‘Stop the blame game and tell me how you’re going to fix it.’ ”
Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, says the governor has three communication goals: Be accurate and aggressive in getting information out, explain what he’s doing and why, and respond to questions as much as possible.
Political fights have to be brushed aside, Ricci said.
“What I’ve heard the governor say over and over again is, ‘We’re going to be honest and level with the people,’ ” he said. “There’s no spin or polish. That goes out the window in a crisis.”
Maryland’s Democratic legislative leaders, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, have joined the governor in making announcements and signing emergency legislation.
He has taken decisive action and he has messaged in a way that is upfront and transparent.
Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore
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Hogan said he’s learned to surround himself with good people, but also to trust his gut in times of crisis. And he’s absorbed the valuable lesson that it’s best to go bold when things are breaking bad.
Just months after Hogan took office in 2015, the state was confronted with arson and looting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in city police custody. Hogan had to learn to manage a crisis and quickly send in the National Guard. When corruption overtook the Baltimore City Detention Center, Hogan shut the jail down. When a self-dealing scandal broke out at the state’s largest hospital network, the governor immediately called for resignations and reform.
The crisis the state is now facing from the pandemic is much greater than the unrest that gripped Baltimore early in his tenure, Hogan says.
“This is a much bigger, much harder crisis,” the governor says. “This is like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
During the outbreak, Hogan has “projected a terrific image as a leader,” says Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.
“He has taken decisive action and he has messaged in a way that is upfront and transparent,” Hartley said.
Hartley said it has been to Hogan’s advantage politically that his response to the virus has been “better and different” than that of the federal government, which has been accused of sending mixed messages and not supplying necessary resources.
Today I was joined by @SpeakerAJones and @SenBillFerg to enact the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Protection Act of 2020, which supports our ongoing actions to combat COVID-19 and protects Marylanders from the economic hardships that may result from this pandemic. pic.twitter.com/LtbpoXteF9
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ― the vice chairman of the National Governors Association who leads the state with the country’s largest city ― has been the most visible governor during the outbreak, but Hogan is catching some eyes.
“The pandemic has put governors in the spotlight out of necessity, since Trump’s federal government was in denial and so slow off the mark,” Sabato said.
But Sabato said he believed Republican moderates like Hogan don’t have much of a future in the GOP.
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“We had to make what we thought was an unimaginable set of decisions,” Hogan says. “Who would have ever thought you would have to close all the schools in the state? Who would have thought you would have to close down private businesses? But we had to.”