The Washington Post: Once wary, black voters have warmed up to Republican Larry Hogan in Maryland

October 29, 2018
By: Paul Schwartzman & Ovetta Wiggins

As a lifelong Democrat, Jay Hopkins says he expects to vote for Maryland gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous even as he struggles to identify a compelling reason beyond party loyalty.

Yet Hopkins, an African American cook who lives in Baltimore, voices no shortage of praise for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, ticking off the incumbent’s efforts to reduce taxes and tolls and his decision to dispatch federal troops to restore order during the city’s 2015 riots.

“Hogan turned out to be a pretty fair man,” Hopkins, 67, said on a recent afternoon outside Mondawmin Mall, where the mayhem sparked by the death of Freddie Gray began three years ago. In fact, Hopkins said, he’s satisfied enough with the governor that he can envision crossing party lines for the first time to vote for him.

“The only thing I dislike about Hogan is that he’s a Republican,” Hopkins said. “If Jealous says anything stupid before the election — anything! — then I’m voting for Hogan.”

Like the national party, Maryland Democrats have long relied on African Americans to turn out in large numbers for their candidates, an expectation rooted in loyalty passed down through generations.

But Hogan’s black support has more than doubled since his first campaign for governor in 2014, from 14 percent to 33 percent, according to a Washington Post-
University of Maryland poll earlier this month
. A survey by Morgan State University released last week echoed the finding.

Jealous garnered support from 57 percent of black voters in the Post-U-Md. poll, far lower than the 97 percent of black voters in Maryland who backed Barack Obama in 2012. Hogan’s job approval among blacks nearly doubled, reaching 60 percent, while disapproval remained at 22 percent, little changed since his first month in office.

As the election nears, Hogan’s team is touting his standing among African Americans, releasing an ad starring a black fire dispatcher in Baltimore who talks about the governor helping him fix up a recreation center.

“A white Republican governor — hey, he acts like a regular human being to me,” the dispatcher says into the camera.

Bid against civil rights leader

Motivated by Jealous’s progressive platform and civil rights record or party fealty and anger toward President Trump, a preponderance of Maryland’s black voters are expected to support the Democrat.

Still, the growth of Hogan’s black support is noteworthy, particularly because Jealous is a nationally known civil rights leader who once led the NAACP. If elected, Jealous — who backs universal health care, a $15 minimum wage and a major increase in education spending — would be Maryland’s first black governor. The same was true of then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democrats’ 2014 nominee, whom Hogan upset in a low-turnout contest in which many African Americans stayed home.

Hogan’s popularity among blacks has flourished despite decisions that Democratic leaders say have hurt black neighborhoods, such as halting Baltimore’s $2.9 billion Red Line light-rail project and diverting some of the funds to road projects in predominantly white parts of the state. In contrast, fewer than 20 percent of African Americans approve of Trump.

“It speaks volumes to the perception of Larry Hogan — that he’s not a Republican; he’s just Larry Hogan,” said Clarence Mitchell IV, a black former state senator who hosts a Baltimore-based radio show. “He doesn’t govern politically. You may not agree with him, but he does what he thinks should be done.”

The Rev. Doug Miles, a leader of a nonpartisan coalition of congregations and civic groups in Baltimore, said Hogan’s standing among blacks is less about his accomplishments and more about accumulated frustration toward the long-dominant Democratic establishment.

“Fortunes in Baltimore have gone down rather than up,” the pastor said, citing entrenched poverty and crime and schools that never seem to get better. “What you’re seeing is the result of ineffectiveness of the Democratic Party over the past 25 years to deliver in a meaningful way for African Americans in Baltimore and Maryland.”

The Jealous campaign has 20 paid organizers focused on black turnout, is using prominent African American surrogates to energize black voters and is relying on outreach to faith and community leaders, senior adviser Kevin Harris said. But Jealous, who is being vastly outspent by Hogan, lacks the advertising dollars to tell voters much about himself, or to criticize Hogan’s record.

“We see it as less of support for Hogan and more that we have work to do to introduce Ben to African American voters,” Harris said. “Hogan . . . has had no follow-through on issues that concern African Americans: Crime is up across the state, health care is more expensive, schools have fallen in ranking, and Maryland’s economy is not doing as well as others in the region.”

'Saved the city' after the riots

In the same way he appeals to Democrats generally, Hogan has won over many blacks by distancing himself from Trump and repudiating some of his most controversial actions. Unlike the president, he avoids racially charged debates over topics such as National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem.

In Baltimore, he won plaudits for closing a scandal-plagued jail, visiting recreation centers and promoting a program to remove urban blight. That the governor styles himself as an affable everyman — one who survived cancer — appears to have only helped.

“He’s very folksy, and you feel like when he talks to you, he’s talking to you,” said Larry Young, another African American former state senator and radio show host whose regular guests include Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), Hogan’s African American running mate.

A year ago, the governor invited Young and a half dozen black journalists to his Baltimore office — the first time they’d received such an invitation.

Young recalled telling Hogan: “ ‘I can’t figure you out, man. One day you’re moderate; one day you’re liberal; one day you’re conservative.’ And he said, ‘That’s the way I want it. I don’t want to be locked into a particular persuasion.’ ”

Hogan’s first crisis after taking office was the rioting in the wake of Gray’s fatal injury while in police custody. The governor risked alienating blacks by criticizing then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), an African American, for what appeared to be a slow response to widespread looting and arson. He also activated the National Guard at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement had made police aggression a national issue.

But in the days after the unrest, Hogan was often greeted warmly after planting himself and his top advisers in the city.

“I don’t think everyone was saluting that the National Guard was here, but we knew it wouldn’t be good if someone didn’t come in and do something,” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, former head of the NAACP’s Baltimore branch. “That endeared the governor to the community because it saved the city from being burnt up.”

Beyond managing the situation, Hogan’s adversaries contend that his accomplishments on behalf of the African American community have been relatively insignificant. He’s been chastised for withholding funds needed to repair air conditioning and heating in public schools.

“What I keep hearing is, ‘I like Hogan; I like Boyd Rutherford.’ But what specific, concrete policies has he implemented?” asked Lou Fields, a founder of the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce. “Give me one or two things he’s done that has affected your life.”

Trump remains a factor

As a party, Republicans have long struggled to appeal to minority groups. A handful of other GOP governors have managed to gain favor, including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a friend of Hogan whose continual presence in black communities helped boost his African American support at one point to 36 percent. As Ohio’s governor, John Kasich promoted minority contracting, an effort that helped quadruple his black support.

“To the extent that Republicans can deliver without being ridiculous on civil rights, they will have a receptive ear,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s really not that difficult. Black voters want what everyone else wants.”

As a voting bloc, Johnson said, a majority of the black electorate identifies as moderate to conservative, which may help explain why Jealous is struggling. While Jealous supports marijuana legalization to pay for universal prekindergarten, for example, some black leaders, including clergy, are opposed.

“I’ve seen the decimation in our community over marijuana,” said Bobby Henry, a Prince George’s County attorney and minister. “In our community, it’s a shock that he wants to legalize it.”

Jealous also remains largely unknown to many voters.

“The other night, one of his commercials came on TV, and I said, ‘Who is that?’ ” said Robert Gilliard, 68, a black retiree and Democrat who was shopping at Mondawmin Mall. About Hogan, he said: “He’s against Trump, and that’s all right with me.”

A few feet away, Elena McDavid, 46, a black public school teacher, lamented that her knowledge of Jealous is limited to his criticisms of the governor. “He never says what he’s going to do,” she said. “I need to know his plan.”

Still, Hogan’s identity as a Republican renders him unacceptable to many black Democrats, including Joseph Weeks, 31, a Baltimore bartender who dismissed the governor as aligned with developers gentrifying the city.

“It’s scary to support a Republican in this day and age,” Weeks said, standing across from Hogan’s North Avenue campaign headquarters.

As she ate lunch at a Wegmans in Prince George’s County, management analyst Sharlonda Smith, 47, said she crossed party lines in 2014 to vote for Hogan because he promised tax cuts.

But she won’t vote for Hogan’s reelection because of Trump. “It’s not always about voting with your party, but right now it is,” she said. “A Republican right now — I just can’t do it.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Washington Post