By Barry Rascovar
Oct. 23, 2017 – Gov. Larry Hogan is riding high with strong poll numbers, low unemployment and ambitious plans to turn Maryland into a cutting-edge economic-development state.
Yet amid these positives, Hogan has a tendency to veer into a form of pettiness and vindictiveness that to some degree mirrors Donald Trump’s off-message moments.
Hogan at times gets testy when his decisions are challenged. It’s as though he cannot stand even the mildest of criticisms.
A week ago, he briefly turned nasty after an event honoring his efforts as governor to support causes dear to the Jewish community of suburban Washington.
A handful of people told Hogan how disappointed they were he had mandated a post-Labor Day start to the school year because it could lead to the elimination of days offs in Montgomery County schools for the Jewish high holidays. (The same situation is cropping in Baltimore County schools).
Hogan’s glad-handing, smiling demeanor changed. He said he was “outraged” by even the suggestion his move would result in no days off for those two sacred Jewish holidays.
“That’s nonsense,” he said, then suggested angrily that the entire Montgomery County school board should be defeated at the next election.
Sounds like one of Trump’s tantrums in which the president responds to the slightest critique with searing criticism of the speaker and urges his defeat on Election Day.
A few days later, Hogan displayed moments of ill temper at a Board of Public Works meeting in which he laced into the interim school chief of Baltimore County for failing to have all county schools air-conditioned immediately.
This is an old tale, one Hogan and state Comptroller Peter Franchot have used yearly to vilify Baltimore County officials. The county has embarked on a billion-dollar system-wide renovation to solve this decades-old problem but it cannot happen overnight – though the tag-team of Hogan and Franchot imply that it can.
To conclude his week, Hogan assailed a federal appeals court for daring to conclude a giant, 40-foot cross-shaped war monument on government property violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.
An “outrageous . . . overreach,” Hogan wrote. The court’s conclusion, he concluded, is un-American. “Enough is enough.”
He also vowed to fight the court decision – though the state does not own the land where the “Peace Cross” sits at a busy intersection in Bladensburg and thus is not a party in the lawsuit.
This is the kind of social issue Hogan avoided during his campaign for governor in 2014 so as not to inflame a sensitive issue that might hurt him with voters.
Yet defending a Christian symbol erected on government land plays well with Hogan’s conservative Republican base.
That minorities might find a 40-foot Latin cross objectionable doesn’t seem to enter the governor’ calculations.
Hogan’s stance on the Peace Cross has similarities to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s revisionist approach to constitutional provisions regarding church and state.
Moore was removed as his state’s top judge for installing a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building’s rotunda and then refusing to remove it when this was deemed unconstitutional.
Moore, like Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka, is a zealous believer in Christian “moral law” superseding constitutional law. The two men would concur with Hogan’s stance on the Bladensburg Peace Cross.
The irony is that earlier this year Hogan removed a statue from the State House grounds due to its inflammatory, racist implications. He respected the sensitivity of offended minority groups.
Yet in the case of the Peace Cross and the possible elimination of school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan appears not to care about offending minority groups.
He seems oblivious to the fact a giant Latin cross on public land might offend non-Christians, or that this imposing religious symbol at a busy intersection gives the impression that government is endorsing Christianity.
What if a similar-sized Latin cross dedicated to soldiers were placed on the grounds of the Maryland State House? Would Hogan see anything wrong with that?
There’s really no difference between that hypothetical and the Bladensburg situation.
The Peace Cross issue could be resolved by moving the monument to a private location or urging the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to turn the land and monument over to a non-profit group, such as the American Legion.
That would be a common sense answer, but Hogan is more interested in reaping political points with his conservative voters, not in solving a problem that has deep constitutional overtones.
As for school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan’s criticism may strike some supporters the wrong way.
The governor has captivated many Jewish voters by giving scholarships to parochial schools, increasing ties to Israel and increasing aid to Jewish social agencies.
But his post-Labor Day school commencement edict is creating problems. In some years, local school boards may not be able to schedule 180 days of classes and also give days off for the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar.
If that happens, there could be a political reaction against Hogan’s stance.
There is a middle-ground, common-sense way out for the governor that avoids offending Jewish voters: Make it clear that the state school board has the authority under his executive order to grant a waiver to local school systems if such a bind crops up when creating future school calendars.
That would be more of an on-message approach Hogan could take to would avoid making issues like these a point of contention in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.