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Maryland Gov. Hogan says governors don’t usually testify on bills. Ex-governors say it worked for them.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley responds to a senator's question during a hearing on gun control before the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. O'Malley testified before committees as part of his legislative strategy as governor. "Nothing communicates quite like leadership presence," he said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley responds to a senator's question during a hearing on gun control before the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. O'Malley testified before committees as part of his legislative strategy as governor. "Nothing communicates quite like leadership presence," he said. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has struggled to get lawmakers to pass his crime-fighting bills, he’s made one thing clear: He doesn’t intend to testify in person on his proposals.

In the state Senate in particular, Democratic leaders have repeatedly issued a standing invitation to the Republican governor to come talk about his bills.

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So far, Hogan hasn’t taken them up on the offer.

Now in the midst of his sixth General Assembly session since he was first elected in 2014, Hogan hasn’t testified for any of his bills during a public hearing.

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“The governor doesn’t usually go down and talk to the legislature,” Hogan said during a recent news conference when asked whether he would accept the senators’ invitation.

But Maryland’s three living ex-governors — Democrats Martin O’Malley and Parris Glendening and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — said public testimony can be a useful tool as part of a governor’s lobbying strategy. Testifying in front of a committee generates significant news coverage and underscores how important a bill is to a governor, they said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., right, and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele listen to questions from the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee on slot machines. Ehrlich said testifying before General Assembly committees was one tool he used as part of his political strategy when he was governor.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., right, and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele listen to questions from the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee on slot machines. Ehrlich said testifying before General Assembly committees was one tool he used as part of his political strategy when he was governor. (Sun photo by Monica Lopossay)

“Nothing communicates quite like leadership presence,” said O’Malley, who served two terms before Hogan. “You can issue all the tweets, position papers or speeches you want, but actually being among and with your fellow citizens and public servants in the legislative process certainly underscores the importance of the bill to the governor — whoever the governor is.”

The downside, O’Malley said, is that sometimes even testifying in person isn’t enough to get a bill to pass, and you have to be prepared for the possibility of failure. He recalls testifying multiple times on issues such as repealing the death penalty and authorizing offshore wind turbines.

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“We never gave up,” O’Malley said, before swiping at his successor. “I guess more cautious people who are driven by finger-to-the-wind or whose politics are guided by the latest polling, they probably aren’t the sort of people who want to get things done. They’d rather just preserve their popularity.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, defended the current governor’s legislative strategy. He compared it to the federal government, where the president doesn’t testify, but cabinet secretaries do.

Ricci said Hogan has other ways to get his message out, including Facebook, where the governor has hundreds of thousands of followers. Hogan also has met privately with lawmakers to press his agenda.

“His approach is a model for getting things done, as evidenced by the fact that in just the last few days or so, we killed a massive tax increase and advanced an important crime bill,” Ricci said Sunday in a statement.

Still, lawmakers crave the personal touch from governors.

Maryland’s Democratic state legislators have complained periodically throughout Hogan’s tenure that the governor isn’t as involved in the legislative process as they would like. Hogan has, at times, shown disdain for the legislature. During a 2016 radio interview, he compared lawmakers to misbehaving college students.

“It’s like they’re on spring break,” Hogan said on WBAL-AM. “They come here for a few weeks. They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony.”

He also has called out lawmakers during news conferences. Last year, Hogan used such a setting to criticize lawmakers for not passing his crime bills, calling the legislators “reckless” and “pro-criminal.”

The fate of Hogan’s crime bills caused another dust-up in Annapolis recently, when the governor said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, should resign from his leadership post if he won’t pass certain bills.

Smith responded by saying that Hogan “has got to start leading and stop polling.” And he issued an open invitation for Hogan to come and testify to the committee, which Hogan has not accepted.

“If this is such a priority and he has data to support implementing new mandatory minimums, then, please, come down to this committee and present to us,” Smith said.

Glendening, who served two terms from 1995 until 2003, said he has a good relationship with Hogan. He said that if he were advising the governor, “I would recommend an approach that goes beyond simple press conferences.”

But, he added: “Each governor must find his way on what works best.”

Glendening said he chose to testify in person only on his highest-priority bills, including for controversial gun control measures that were difficult to pass. He also testified in favor of a law that prohibits housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, sharing the story of his late brother, who kept his sexual orientation private for fear of losing his position in the military.

“The general advice that I received — from both legislators as well as professional staff — was that a personal appearance is not that productive, unless you are trying to use it as a way of making a major public statement,” Glendening said. “The media is much more likely to cover something like that.”

One drawback of attending hearings, Glendening said, is that lawmakers were unpredictable, and inevitably some would “go off on all different kinds of questions or debates.”

More often, Glendening said he used a mix of other public appearances and private appeals to lawmakers to garner support for his bills. To underscore the need to raise the state’s tobacco tax to pay for prescription drug coverage for children from low-income families, for example, Glendening said he did a string of public appearances holding up a bottle of amoxicillin and talking about how kids didn’t always get the medicine they needed. He urged Marylanders to call legislative leaders about the issue.

Glendening also held regular poker nights in the governor’s mansion to build relationships with lawmakers and visited their offices. Lawmakers liked having the governor come in person, he said.

“People would always be quite surprised and they’d make a big fuss about it,” he said.

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Ehrlich, who succeeded Glendening from 2003 through 2007, also went to legislative committees on his top bills. As a former state delegate and member of Congress, Ehrlich was comfortable with the legislative process and understood that a personal appearance makes an impression.

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“It always matters when the governor shows up. It’s an event,” Ehrlich said. “It’s a reasonable conclusion that people are going to see it as a priority for the governor. Anytime you’re able to communicate in such a direct way, it counts.”

Dr. Steven M. Berlin (left) testifies at a Senate hearing about his desire to see malpractice insurance reform as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (center) and Donald Hogan, an aide in his legislative office, listen.
Dr. Steven M. Berlin (left) testifies at a Senate hearing about his desire to see malpractice insurance reform as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (center) and Donald Hogan, an aide in his legislative office, listen. (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

Like the other governors, Ehrlich said he also used private meetings to make his case. And he said he used the biweekly Board of Public Works meetings, which usually draw media coverage, to make public appeals for his policies.

Ehrlich recalled several bills that he chose to testify on in person: legalizing slot machines, building the Intercounty Connector highway in the Washington suburbs, making criminal justice reforms, improving services for people with disabilities and enabling charter schools to open in Maryland.

In 2003, Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele stood before easels bearing details of their slots plan in the largest hearing room in Annapolis, making their case to lawmakers that gambling could help pay for public schools. It didn’t work that year, but slots and later table games eventually were legalized in Maryland.

“To me, and I think to my staff, it meant that: ‘Hey, here I am. This is my priority. This is serious. This is going to make Maryland better, and I’m here not just to testify, but also answer questions,’” Ehrlich said.

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