Gov.-elect Larry Hogan reinforced his vow of bipartisanship while also signaling a potential fight with Democrats over mass transit as he announced more staff appointments Tuesday.
Hogan said a prominent Baltimore Democrat, former Del. Keiffer Mitchell, will oversee some of his legislative initiatives — including a proposal to expand access to charter schools in Maryland.
Mitchell, a former City Council member and scion of an eminent political family, was named a special adviser to Hogan. Mitchell said he considered himself "a testament" to the Republican governor-elect's promise to work with Democrats.
But Hogan also declared, in introducing his choice for transportation secretary, that he wants the state to focus more on building roads than mass transit. He chose Pete Rahn, a former transportation secretary in Missouri and New Mexico.
"Let me say he's the best highway builder in the country, so that had a lot to do with us hiring him," Hogan said. Hogan also pledged to look at reducing tolls on state highways, bridges and tunnels later this year.
Rahn was the latest of 14 Cabinet appointments for the incoming governor. Nominees require Senate confirmation.
Hogan will take office Jan. 21 as only the second Republican to lead Maryland in more than four decades. At a luncheon Tuesday with the House and Senate Republican caucuses, he struck a bipartisan tone. Hogan said his election and that of the enlarged crop of GOP lawmakers was a "mandate for change." But he also appealed to Republicans to seek accord with Democrats to deal with the looming budget deficit.
"These are not Democrat or Republican problems," Hogan said. "They're problems facing the state."
GOP lawmakers echoed Hogan's sentiments, saying they expect the 90-day session's focus on fiscal and economic issues will make for less partisan conflict.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House minority whip, said with the budget woes facing the state, it doesn't matter much whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the governor's mansion.
"Now, regardless of who is in there, spending reductions have to come," said Szeliga, who represents Harford and Baltimore counties. "They'll force bipartisanship because we don't print money."
Sen. Stephen S. Hershey, a Republican from Queen Anne's County, predicted lawmakers "are going to want to work together and compromise on things." But he said Republicans' role in Annapolis has shifted from questioning and opposing initiatives of outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley to one of "protecting and promoting" the bills put forward by Hogan.
GOP leaders acknowledged the potential for conflict, but suggested Democratic resistance would be muted because of the election losses Democrats sustained last year.
"If the other side tries to harm him for political reasons, I think the people of Maryland will punish them," said Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader from Anne Arundel County.
Kipke said he didn't anticipate any emotional social issues this session like the fractious debates in recent years over the death penalty, gay marriage and gun control.
"I don't expect any wedge issues that will divide us," Kipke said. "That's what the governor campaigned on. We've got to get Maryland's economy in order. But we will see."
Some others were less sure all would be amicable.
"It's going to be a feeling out-period," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican. O'Donnell said he believed some lawmakers, particularly Democrats from Montgomery County, were "spoiling for a fight."
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the sole Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, stopped by the GOP caucus to urge state lawmakers to keep pressing for their causes despite being outnumbered in the legislature.
"We have a Republican governor, but you still have to fight in the trenches in the House and Senate," he said.
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, a Western Maryland Republican, said the GOP's larger numbers in the House — they will have 50 members now, to the Democrats' 91 — should make it more likely for Republican-sponsored bills to make it out of committee than in the past.
Democrats called Hogan's selection of Mitchell, who lost his re-election bid, a smart political move.
"The Mitchell name still holds some sway in this state," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Davis called Mitchell a "very level-headed, sensible guy. He'll be able to give the governor good advice on what's passable." He said Hogan might be able to "avoid some of the traps" encountered by former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
While the Democratic majority in the legislature and Ehrlich battled repeatedly, Davis said, he didn't expect the same adversarial relationship this year — at least at the outset.
"I'm not saying everything is going to go smoothly and folks won't be in each other's faces," he said. But, he added, "I don't think either side of the proverbial aisle wants to be seen as obstructionist or bringing gridlock to Annapolis."
Still, Hogan's choice of transportation secretary, and his remarks about wanting to build roads, suggested that may be one fiscal issue on which Democrats and Republicans would argue.
Del. Kumar P. Barve, chair of the House Environment & Transportation Committee, said that for all the talk of bipartisanship and appointments of Democrats, "to me, the issue is more of: Are you going to promulgate policies that benefit people from both parties? We'll have to see."
Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he believed that despite Hogan's questioning of the multibillion-dollar cost of light rail lines in the Washington and Baltimore areas, "there's a very strong business argument that's going to be made for the Purple and Red lines."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch credited Hogan with setting a more positive tone with his transition than Ehrlich did.
Busch suggested circumstances also may help the incoming governor in working with Democratic lawmakers. Hogan comes into office facing a smaller budget deficit than Ehrlich did, Busch said, and without controversial issues such as gambling looming.
"We all have the same goals, just not the same path to get there," Busch said.