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Larry Hogan, ‘consoler-in-chief’ for West Baltimore? Please. | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan, right, visits west Baltimore at Pennsylvania and North Avenues the day after riots broke out there and in other parts of Baltimore, sparked by the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.
Gov. Larry Hogan, right, visits west Baltimore at Pennsylvania and North Avenues the day after riots broke out there and in other parts of Baltimore, sparked by the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Will it be noted anywhere — perhaps in a chapter of the book I’ve not yet been privileged to read — that, just two months after the Freddie Gray uprising in West Baltimore, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan killed a $2.9 billion transit project 10 years in the making and promising economic development for the city?

Certainly the governor will explain for the masses eager to read his forthcoming memoir why he scuttled the Red Line, refused nearly a billion federal dollars toward the light rail project and spent the state’s share on roads everywhere but in Baltimore.

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Or maybe there will be a sentence or two in his book, “Still Standing,” mentioning the $1.5 billion redevelopment of the state office complex in midtown Baltimore that Hogan voted to reject the following year. That project, known as State Center, had been years in the making, too, raising the hopes of Baltimoreans who lived in nine nearby neighborhoods.

In the wake of the destructive and depressing unrest of April 2015, those two projects held great hope for economic development in parts of the city that badly needed it. That Hogan, a supposedly moderate Republican businessman supportive of “bold, common-sense solutions,” rejected both job-creating projects would baffle any rational person reading the chapters of his book devoted to the Freddie Gray uprising. He claims interest in the “underlying causes” of the unrest — mistrust of police, but also poverty and blighted West Baltimore neighborhoods — yet within the next 18 months walked away from big projects that might have started to make a difference.

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In what he aptly calls his “baptism of fire” as Maryland’s new governor in 2015, Hogan provides a timeline of events leading up to the unrest following Gray’s death from injuries sustained in police custody, and it’s an interesting read. You might call it a gubernatorial procedural: Watching the protests of Gray’s death from Annapolis, seeing violent eruptions on April 25, preparing the Maryland State Police and National Guard to back up Baltimore police, taking action on April 27 when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seemed “paralyzed with fear and indecision.”

But, of the five chapters of the book made available this week to us at The Baltimore Sun, Hogan’s remembrances of his immediate post-riot travels through West Baltimore, including the neighborhood where Gray had been arrested, Sandtown-Winchester, are most interesting.

Encouraged to be the city’s “consoler-in-chief” by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — yes, I almost did a coffee spit-take when I read that — Hogan ventures into Sandtown-Winchester against the advice of police. You get the impression he had never been in West Baltimore before, and that might be the case. Hogan won the 2014 election with big support from voters in the suburbs and rural areas of Maryland. He won all but three of Maryland’s 23 counties and notched only 30,845 votes in the city.

“I stood at the corner, breathing in the acrid smell of the smoldering buildings, offering thanks and promises to stop the violence and begin the process of rebuilding,” he writes of visiting Pennsylvania and North Avenues after the fires, vandalism, looting and assaults on Baltimore police.

“We’re going to address the underlying causes,” he tells Tessa Hill-Aston, then president of the city chapter of the NAACP.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he tells residents. “I promise you, we’re going to try to bring some peace to the neighborhood. We’ll work on addressing some of these issues that you’re concerned about.”

Two days after the height of the unrest, as Baltimoreans came out to clean up the streets, Hogan and an aide visited the Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue and encountered what he calls “five or six rough-looking dudes.” One of them curses him. But Hogan starts a conversation with the men and hears their complaints about city schools and closed recreation centers.

“We can talk about all this other stuff,” Hogan tells them. “We can try to help fix some of these other things. But right now, we’ve got to stop the violence. And you need to help us. We’re going to keep working on the things you’re talking about that aren’t right.”

Of course, if Hogan had really wanted to do that, he would not have killed the Red Line. And being a businessman with long experience in real estate, he might have found time in the last four years to renegotiate what he and others considered a bad deal for taxpayers on State Center. Getting behind the effort to turn Maryland’s public schools into a “world-class” system would help the city, too.

The Hogan record includes support of law enforcement and decisive leadership to restore order after the eruptions of April 25 and 27. But it also includes his refusal to use the power of his office to be a change agent for Maryland’s largest and most beleaguered city, especially given his frequent criticism of Baltimore’s leadership.

A couple of other things:

I won’t defend Rawlings-Blake against Hogan’s stinging criticism, except for his disingenuous take on her garbled “space to destroy” comment, captured by local television on April 25 and exploited by right-wing critics, including Rush Limbaugh. Having seen Ferguson burn the year before, Rawlings-Blake took a cautious approach to demonstrators. But, giving space to demonstrators allowed others to exploit the situation and cause damage. Most of us, but apparently not Larry Hogan, understood what she meant by the next morning.

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Hogan also refers to Freddie Gray as “Crips gang-connected.” That’s the first I’ve heard of that. I looked at Gray’s criminal record. He was for the most part a low-level drug dealer. His record showed not-guilty verdicts, cases dropped, closed or put on the inactive docket. The last charge listed against him, from March 20, 2015, was attempted distribution of an unspecified illegal drug. The final entry: “Abated by death.”

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