There's nothing particularly subtle about Larry Hogan.
The Republican candidate for governor, who is waging a vigorous challenge to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown despite 2-1 Democratic dominance in Maryland, has delivered a simple, blunt, constantly repeated narrative since he entered the race in January.
According to Hogan, the Maryland economy is in the tank. It's all the fault of Gov. Martin O'Malley and Brown. Excessive taxes and regulation have poisoned the business climate. This may be Maryland's last chance to avert economic catastrophe.
"We've lost businesses, jobs and taxpayers at an alarming rate," Hogan says. "Our state is way off track."
The 58-year-old businessman has been launching such thunderbolts at the state's Democratic establishment far longer than he's officially been a candidate. For almost four years, since founding a group called Change Maryland, Hogan has pounded away at the O'Malley administration's tax and spending policies with a single-minded determination.
Friends say that's Larry — in public and in private.
"He's the type of person who wears his passion on his sleeve," said Steve McAdams, a real estate appraiser who has known Hogan for 22 years. "What you see is what you get."
What the state's voters would get if they elect Hogan governor is a lifelong Marylander who grew up in Prince George's County, the son of a congressman who later served as county executive. They would be choosing a successful commercial real estate business owner and a staunch partisan who nevertheless prides himself on an ability to build political bridges.
Marylanders would also be installing in the governor's mansion a man with a blended first family that got its start when a 40-something bachelor went to an art show in Columbia in 2001. By Hogan's account, he decided right away he was more interested in the South Korean-born artist than in the paintings. After a three-year courtship, Hogan married the former Yumi Kim 10 years ago and gained three daughters who now consider him their dad.
Hogan was raised in what he recalls as a mostly black neighborhood in Prince George's. He attended Catholic high schools and Florida State University.
The son of three-term congressman Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., Hogan was drawn to politics at an early age and worked in his father's campaigns. He speaks with pride about how his father, now 86, risked his political future as the only Republican on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to support all articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.
"He taught me more in one day about integrity than most people learn in a lifetime," Hogan often says. The younger Hogan was Maryland chairman of Youth for Reagan, and says his father and Ronald Reagan are still his personal heroes.
In the early 1980s, Hogan teamed up with an old high school friend, Democrat Timothy F. Maloney, to launch a bipartisan campaign to reform Prince George's government by creating single-member council districts. The change effectively ended the rule of a Democratic Party organization that had long controlled county affairs.
"Larry was very effective. He was a very hard worker," said Maloney, who went on to serve in the Maryland legislature.
Over the past three decades, Hogan has led his business — The Hogan Cos. — and made unsuccessful bids for Congress in 1981and 1992. When his friend Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won election in 2002 as Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, Hogan took a job in the Cabinet as appointments secretary.
In that role, he found himself at the center of a controversy that still has Democrats questioning his claims to bipartisanship.
The new Republican administration fired dozens of midlevel officials at agencies throughout state government. Critics charged that the administration was getting rid of people who effectively were longtime civil servants and replacing them with unqualified Republican operatives. Ehrlich and his allies denounced the charges as Democratic whining, but a General Assembly investigatory committee concluded that some workers had been improperly fired for political reasons.
Hogan, who was in charge of recruiting and vetting appointees, insists he did nothing wrong.
"There was a witch hunt that was put together to go after Ehrlich," Hogan said in a recent interview. "They never found a single abuse, and the chairman of the committee found no wrongful terminations."
Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, the Charles County Democrat who chaired the panel, doesn't remember it that way.
"The committee found the hiring and firing was simply outrageous. There was every evidence that politics played out there," Middleton said.
Hogan briefly considered running for governor against O'Malley in 2010 but deferred to his former boss, who decided to seek a comeback. Ehrlich was trounced by a 14-point margin in his bid to retake his old office.
Shortly after the 2010 election, Hogan set up Change Maryland and its website, which became a rallying point for opposition to O'Malley's economic policies. Gradually, the conservative advocacy group morphed into the Hogan for Governor campaign, which rolled over three opponents on the way to a comfortable primary victory in June.
Though Hogan has never held public office, he's comfortable and gregarious on the campaign trail, always assuring those he meets that he's going to win.
He eagerly quizzes small-business owners on minute details of their operations. Speaking to a gallery owner at an event in Cambridge, Hogan bragged that his first lady, who joined him that day, would be Maryland's No. 1 advocate for the arts.
As he made his way down a street in the Eastern Shore city, Hogan posed for pictures with anyone who asked, listened patiently to their stories, and warmly greeted every dog.
"The joke around my office is that I've shaken many hands but I've petted more dogs," Hogan said
J.T. Wright, who runs an automotive repair business on the Shore, was impressed by Hogan. "I think he's a wonderful candidate, and I hope his policies will be a lot more pro-business than we've seen in a number of years," Wright said.
Hogan is marketing himself as a Republican who can reach across party lines and find common ground with Democrats and independents. But his old friend Maloney, who is backing Brown, is doubtful. Maloney says Hogan's fiscal promises don't add up and would not pass muster with the Democratic-dominated General Assembly.
Hogan is running almost exclusively on fiscal issues, calling for a broad rollback of tax increases passed under O'Malley without specifying which ones or by how much. He contends he can eliminate billions of dollars of waste in state government while leaving vital programs unscathed.
Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, called Hogan's pledge "utterly impossible." He added, "There isn't enough so-called waste in the budget to cover the holes he would create with the tax cuts."
On social issues, Hogan has warned conservatives that he won't fight futile battles trying to roll back the clock on matters Marylanders have already decided. He has pledged not to try to change the state's abortion rights or gun control laws.
"He's trying to be a fierce moderate," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University.
Richard Vatz, a professor of political communication at Towson University and a staunch conservative, said Hogan is becoming a better candidate after making some early mistakes — such as calling his opponent "incompetent" and a liar. If Hogan can restrain his anger, Vatz said, he has a good chance of winning with his clear economic message.
"If people are focused on the need for change, they're a little less upset that a person is a little rough around the edges," Vatz said.
McAdams points to a gentler side of Hogan. The Edgewater resident said that when he was going through a painful separation, Hogan patiently talked him through the personal crisis and helped him build a strong relationship with his son.
"He's been kind of like a big brother to me," McAdams said.
Hogan says he has some traits few know about. "I'm also a reggae fan, which sometimes shocks people as an old Republican white guy," he said.
Asked about his tendency to express disagreements in black-and-white terms, Hogan had no apologies.
"I'm a pretty plain-spoken guy. And I think that's one of the reasons I'm doing so well," he said.