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Maryland Senate panel rejects Hogan appointee

A Senate committee on Monday rejected one of the two members of Gov. Larry Hogan's cabinet awaiting confirmation, citing concern about acting Planning Secretary Wendi Peters' management style.

Hogan, a Republican, said Peters was "roughed up, I think in a pretty unfair way" during her confirmation hearing.

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After Peters was rejected by the Senate Executive Nominations Committee in an 11-6 vote, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor was "incredibly disappointed and ashamed" at the committee's actions, saying concerns about Peters' style were based on "innuendo and baseless accusations."

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said "this entire episode has included disturbing undertones of sexism throughout."

After the vote, Hogan withdrew the nomination.

Earlier in the day Hogan questioned why the Democratic-controlled Maryland Senate had not voted to confirm Peters or acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader, who has been on the job since mid-December and not received a hearing.

Hogan called for a swift confirmation of Schrader, and described the state's health department as "a rudderless ship ... in the middle of a crisis."

Hogan said the state was busy "protecting" its Medicaid waiver and determining contingency plans to react to Republican-led health care reforms in Congress. The governor said it was a poor time for the department to be without a confirmed leader.

"It's absolutely ludicrous," Hogan said. "We literally have billions of dollars at stake and the possibility of hundreds of thousands of people losing their health care coverage."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who joined in the vote against Peters, said he warned Hogan in a private meeting four weeks ago that the nomination was in trouble. He urged the governor to keep her as deputy and bring in a professional planner to lead the department. Miller characterized Peters as a "paralegal who's in charge of 21 professionals."

"This lady is not qualified," Miller said Monday night.

The Calvert County Democrat pointed to a stack of employee complaints against her, including monitoring their computers and barring them from decorating their cubicles with personal items.

"When you add it up in totality, it isn't a close call," Miller said. "I'm sorry it came to this because it really shouldn't."

When Peters appeared before the committee in February, she faced tough questions about how she ran the Maryland Department of Planning since taking over in July, and whether the agency adequately monitored the work of county planning officials.

"It wasn't a good hearing, and there were some disagreements about the factual accuracy of some of her statements," Sen. Bill Ferguson said last week as Hogan first raised concerns about the timing of confirmation votes. Ferguson is chairman of Executive Nominations Committee.

Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said there were also concerns about Peters' qualifications, particularly that she was not qualified to take a test as a certified planner.

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Ferguson said Schrader's nomination is intertwined with the efforts of the Trump administration and Congress to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a new health insurance system. The Baltimore Democrat said some lawmakers hope to see the Hogan administration — and Schrader in particular — speak out more forcefully in defense of Marylanders' health care interests.

"We'd like to see the governor stand up to the Trump administration, and we'd like to see Secretary Schrader clearly and without reservations oppose efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act," Ferguson said.

Ferguson, who holds power over when hearings are scheduled, said Schrader will receive a hearing before the General Assembly adjourns next month, but did not guarantee a vote.

He said senators have "certainly heard concerns from individuals and advocacy groups" about whether Schrader was qualified, but it was "too early to say one way or the other" about his qualifications for the job.

An engineer by training, Schrader most recently held posts as Hogan's appointments secretary and deputy transportation secretary. He also worked for 16 years as an executive with the University of Maryland Medical System.

"As is clear at the federal level, change in health care policy is complicated, and expertise is really important," Ferguson said. "The nominated secretary will have to answer questions to the level of sophistication that we think is appropriate for that complex job."

Schrader is among a handful of Hogan's nominees receiving extra scrutiny from senators, who said an initial vetting raised concerns about their policy positions, qualifications or backgrounds.

One candidate for the state school board, Brandon Cooper, withdrew his nomination after sharp questioning about his personal finances and a legal record that includes bench warrants and serious traffic infractions. Appointees to the Handgun Permit Review Board, which considers appeals to concealed carry gun permits, are being held up because senators worry the governor's other appointees are overturning state police decisions too frequently.

Ferguson said the committee has approved the vast majority of Hogan's appointees, even when members had reservations about them.

"The governor deserves to build his team and he and the administration have a great deal of latitude and we have tried to exercise deference," Ferguson said. "However, we have a constitutional duty to the people of Maryland to advise and consent."

Meanwhile, Peters' rejection Monday night sparked a sharp clash between Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey bitterly recalled that the previous cabinet nominee turned down by the Senate was also a woman — Lynn Buhl, who was rejected in 2003 after being named secretary of the environment by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

But Sen. Ed DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he was not comfortable voting for a nominee he did not believe was qualified.

"It wasn't about her being a female," he said.

Hershey, an Upper Shore Republican, then charged that Democrats were voting against her because she was reversing the policies put in place by former Secretary Rich Hall, who served under Gov. Martin O'Malley.

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