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Mayor's feud with Hogan flares over city liquor stores

Six months ago, Maryland's incoming Republican governor and the Democratic mayor of Baltimore went out for dinner in Roland Park. They smiled and posed for photos together. They talked of a "productive" working relationship.

Now, rarely a week goes by without Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaking harsh criticism of Gov. Larry Hogan — blasting him over a range of decisions including cuts to city school aid and support for rebuilding liquor stores in riot-damaged neighborhoods.

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The tone of Rawlings-Blake's criticism of Hogan has struck some as a political misstep, but others argue it could be a smart strategy in a heavily Democratic city with a mayoral election less than a year away.

"The citizens of Baltimore want to know the mayor is standing up for what's best for the city," said Quincey Gamble, a former director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "If that's casting the governor as the perpetual opponent of progress, so be it. She's got to look like the city's No. 1 advocate."

Others said they think the mayor is making a political mistake.

"I don't quite get it," said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland who has been supportive of Hogan. "It looks like lashing out. Baltimore City desperately needs the governor."

The latest disagreement between Hogan and Rawlings-Blake is over whether taxpayer dollars should go to help rebuild 23 liquor stores in city neighborhoods that were damaged in April's rioting. The stores were already targeted for closure under Baltimore's proposed comprehensive rezoning plan, which is working its way through the City Council.

Rawlings-Blake argues that liquor stores contribute to crime and poor health conditions in impoverished areas. She told reporters Wednesday that using taxpayer money and private donations to fund their rebuilding is "not appropriate." She pledged to block such funding, unless the stores relocate to non-residential areas or transform themselves for a different use, such as a grocery store.

"However, I understand that Governor Hogan and the state have a different point of view," the mayor told news cameras at City Hall. "They appear to believe our neighborhoods need more liquor stores, not fewer."

Hogan administration officials argue that the city's position effectively would allow looters to determine the businesses' future.

"These business owners, the majority of whom are minorities, are the victims of crime who deserve the full support of the state and city," said Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Hogan. "They are Marylanders and members of our community, and using their tragedy as a political tool is wrong and needs to stop."

In December, after dining at Johnny's in Roland Park, both the mayor and governor talked of working together.

"Larry Hogan, from my interaction with him, does not seem to be a rabidly partisan person," Rawlings-Blake said at the time. "He seems to want to deal with the issues and look for solutions. My hope is the legislature conducts themselves in the same way, wanting to look for solutions and being willing to work across party lines."

But when rioting broke out in April after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody, divisions between the two became clear. Hogan said Rawlings-Blake did not return his repeated phone calls for more than two hours as rioting spread across the city, causing him to wait rather than call in the National Guard without her.

The mayor bristled at the criticism, and her spokesman responded by saying Hogan was acting like a "rookie."

Since then, the mayor has been a frequent critic of the governor.

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She has sharply faulted Hogan over his reluctance to fund a light rail Red Line through Baltimore and for refusing to spend $68 million the legislature earmarked for school systems, including Baltimore's.

The strained relationship between the two leaders was evident Monday, when Hogan appeared at a West Baltimore recreation center to announce state funding for a summer jobs program for Baltimore youths and for city businesses looking to rebuild after the riot. He was joined by former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is considering a run for mayor. A Hogan official praised Dixon as an "outstanding leader."

Rawlings-Blake was not present.

Later, the mayor's spokesman issued a statement criticizing Hogan and playing down the importance of the state funding he announced.

"We applaud the governor for supporting youth summer jobs, but we encourage him to remember that these young people will also need jobs when they become adults," spokesman Kevin Harris said. "Hopefully more announcements will follow with ... a decision to reverse devastating cuts to education that will leave Baltimore youth ill-prepared for the jobs of the future."

Richard Vatz, a conservative professor of communications at Towson University, said it's not surprising that Rawlings-Blake and Hogan are clashing.

"Sometimes when politicians don't get along it's because their policies are irreconcilable," he said. "I can't see how Rawlings-Blake and Hogan could get along when they have such a different views of what needs to be done."

The two are sparring now over whether the liquor stores will get money to rebuild. City officials said they would not award aid for them to re-open in residential areas, prompting Hogan to say a state program would provide assistance.

But the city has to sign off on those state grants and loans, both sides agree. And on Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake said she intends to place restrictions on whether the stores can get the state money. To be eligible, the mayor said, the stores will have to get letters of support from their local City Council member and the local community association. She is also requiring the City Council member to sign a pledge to work to transform the store from a liquor-selling operation to another use.

David H. Kim, chair of the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, said he believed the city administration was being prejudiced.

"Doesn't the mayor have better things to do than attack the liquor stores at this time?" he said. "There are bigger issues right now in Baltimore City than liquor stores."

Montgomery said the governor is in full support of the businesses.

"Despite the mayor's objections, the state will be approving loans for these businesses because it's simply the right thing to do," she said. "Whether these funds get used or not by city businesses is the mayor's decision, but it's something we strongly encourage her to allow without condition."

Eberly said he believed it only natural for there to be tensions between a Republican governor and Democratic mayor, but he said Rawlings-Blake should be cautious before criticizing Hogan too much.

"She needs him to fund the Red Line, schools and other projects," Eberly said. "For all these reasons, she should be biting her tongue and being very, very friendly. She'd be better off figuring out how to work with the governor to deliver these things to the city."

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