In less than a week, Marylanders will pick a new top executive for the first time in almost a decade. Both Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Republican candidate Larry Hogan have spent the past month making their final push for the Nov. 4 election.
Although Maryland is historically a blue state, predictions say this race will be a close one – within 10 points.
Much of the campaigning has highlighted the candidates’ approaches to revamping the economy, with discussions about taxes, public-private partnerships, the regulatory environment and small businesses; education, with a focus on the achievement gap and prekindergarten; and crime, with Brown drawing attention to Hogan’s gun-friendly past, among other issues.
Even the campaigning itself has become a bit of a campaign issue, with notably negative attack ads coming from the Brown campaign and its affiliated groups focusing on Hogan’s past in regard to gun control and women’s reproductive rights.
“I think it has probably turned off some voters,” John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University, said of the negative campaigning. “One of the things interesting about negative ads is that it can drive the other person’s numbers down, but it can also drive your numbers down, too.”
He suspects some who may have supported Brown moved to Hogan’s side because of those ads, but added that Brown probably saw success in tying Hogan to national platforms that are not popular in Maryland. Hogan’s recent endorsement by the National Rifle Association, Bullock said, may have upped support from some voters, but hurt his numbers elsewhere. Although Hogan said he doesn’t plan to roll back gun control measures, Brown has used the NRA endorsement, as well as Hogan’s previous opposition to gun control reform, as ammunition.
Max Hilaire, chair of Morgan State University’s political science department, believes the race could be swung by turnout. Heavily Democratic Montgomery County saw an extremely low turnout in June’s primary election, he said, and in a state where the central counties – Montgomery, Baltimore and Prince George’s – largely determine elections, that could be dangerous for the Democrats.
“Brown has not proven to be a very charismatic candidate,” said Hilaire. He pointed to the recent push Brown has made to reach black voters, a base some may have predicted months ago would have been securely in Brown’s camp. Should Brown be elected, he’d become the state’s first black governor and only the third African-American to be elected to the top executive office of a U.S. state.
Hogan has bet his campaign on Maryland’s economy. Citing numerous tax increases under the O’Malley administration, he has repeatedly promised that he will cut government spending and reduce the tax burden on both Maryland residents and businesses.
A vocal critic of Maryland’s recovery from the 2008 recession, Hogan said his plan to reduce the rate of unemployment in the state – Maryland ranks 29th in unemployment in the U.S. – is to focus his attention on making the state more attractive to businesses.
“Job creation is the No. 1 issue,” Hogan said in an interview. “In our economy, 80 percent of the jobs come from small businesses, and we’ve killed 8,688 of them, which is why we’ve lost 200,000 jobs and people are suffering.”
By reducing the financial strain on businesses in the state, he continued, a Hogan administration would bring more businesses to Maryland and, consequently, more jobs. While some of the programs’ tax revenue funds are vital to state residents, he said, he plans to find places where funds could be better used and taxes can be reduced on corporations and individuals.
“We believe that targeted tax relief will help put more money into the economy and help bring more revenue in,” said Hogan. “Immediately we’re going to call for independent, outside audits of every single state agency and department. If we can find where tax dollars are being wasted, we can actually put some more money into the programs where people need it the most.”
Brown’s hopes to spur the economy through infrastructure investments, general business and industry-specific tax incentives, improving the regulatory environment and public-private partnerships.
“My focus would be on things like infrastructure that would include roads and rail, like the Purple Line [Washington] and Red Line [Baltimore], but it would also include infrastructure like schools and data networks,” Brown said in an interview.
He added that the business climate could be strengthened through improving the regulatory and licensing environment, which some industries feel is cumbersome.
“We’ve got to work with the private sector to make sure that while we are protecting the environment, and while we are protecting consumers and while we are protecting the workforce, we’re doing it in a way that businesses – in a very cost-effective … efficient way – can comply with whatever regulations need to be in place,” he said.
Regardless of who is elected Maryland’s next governor, there is a finite amount of change the governor’s office can effect on state taxes, said Morgan State’s Hilaire.
“We’ve heard tax promises in the past,” Hilaire said of both candidate’s promises to not raise taxes. The director of public works and the comptroller both have a say in taxes and fees that state residents face, he explained, so there is little chance either Brown or Hogan has the silver bullet to fix the problems caused by the recession.
Bullock said Hogan has been right to attack Brown on his promise not to raise taxes – a promise he has also made – when taxes have gone up under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s watch.
“I always cringe whenever I hear a candidate say they’re not going to raise taxes because you just don’t know what the economy is going to be,” Bullock said. “It would be a great promise to make, but probably the best thing a candidate can say is that they’re going to trim inefficiencies and not saying where, because that puts them in a box.”
Brown announced a $1.5 billion savings plan that includes collective purchasing agreements among state, county and local governments, public-private partnerships, more efficiency in Medicaid and other savings measures.
Legislators in the General Assembly’s 2014 session passed a law expanding access to free prekindergarten to more underprivileged children in the state. The move was billed as a step toward closing the vast achievement gap between affluent students and school districts and underprivileged students in low-income areas; an ensuing debate surrounded the goal of eventually providing all Maryland children a free pre-K education.
“Pre-K is significant and considered one of the best practices by educators from kindergarten teachers to college presidents,” Brown said during the interview. “We know that, with a solid early childhood education, kids start kindergarten much more ready to learn.”
His plan includes rolling out a voluntary half-day of pre-K by 2018, which he said can be done with existing resources as well as revenue from expanded gaming, something he expects to increase when MGM National Harbor opens in 2016.
Towson’s Bullock had reservations about gambling revenue since the new Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore was bringing in less than expected, but either way, universal pre-K will be costly and most likely have to be implemented in phases, he said.
“It can be a challenge when you hang your hat on potential revenue,” he said. “I believe it will pay off in the long run, but how to implement it, that’s a part of the question.”
For his part, Hogan has said that he supports the idea of universal pre-K but doesn’t believe that it is a realistic promise to make. The problem, he said, is deep-rooted in the state.
“It’s not just a money problem,” said Hogan. “Both [former Gov. Robert] Ehrlich and O’Malley have spent money on schools.”
To even the playing field, Hogan said, Marylanders need to embrace things like charter schools. Many people don’t like the concept of quasi-public institutions, he said, but they help.
Another major talking point in the Hogan campaign has been the Common Core educational standards adopted by states across the country, including Maryland. Hogan has repeatedly promised that he would “hit the pause button” on the implementation of the countrywide academic standards that have been a subject of contention since their introduction years ago.
“We can’t be experimenting with our children’s education,” he said, calling the launch of Common Core in Maryland – which began last fall – an “unmitigated disaster.”
Though he said he was unsure about what his immediate plan would be after ending Common Core, he pointed out that SAT scores in the state last year were the lowest in years, marking the first time the state fell below the national average in scoring.
The most effective role the governor’s office can take in closing the achievement gap in Maryland’s schools, said Hilaire, is addressing some of the issues many of the struggling children face at home. By focusing on reducing poverty and making resources available to low-income children, the next governor can increase the odds of children making the most of their education, but much of the details are up to the local school districts, said Hilaire, even with the Common Core standards adopted in Maryland.
“Education is a local, jurisdictional matter,” he said. “It’s based strictly on property taxes and it’s up to the county executive and the mayor to appoint someone who is an effective leader to change the focus.”
Linking much of the state’s crime problem to a larger drug problem in Maryland, Hogan declared that he would, upon election, immediately declare a state of emergency in order to address the heroin situation.
Another portion of Hogan’s plan to address crime in Maryland is to reorganize Maryland’s gun laws. When pushed on his stance on gun control earlier this month he said that he believed Maryland’s laws passed in 2013 didn’t address the problem from the right angle. While the Firearms Safety Act of 2013 mandates fingerprinting, licensing and a background check before anyone can walk out of a Maryland store with a gun. Hogan wants instant, point-of-sale background checks and for the state to connect with a national database that tracks those with a history of mental health problems.
“The 2013 bill sounded good,” said Hogan, “but it didn’t address criminal history and mental health history.”
Brown said there are two areas the governor can focus on to address crime. One of those pieces is implementing law-enforcement strategies that have local municipalities partnering with state police in information sharing, but also having uniformed state troopers helping local police forces.
He would also like to take steps to further reduce recidivism in Maryland, which was reduced from 50 percent to 40 percent in the last four years, but still lags behind the 20 percent rate other states have achieved.
Brown plans to introduce new initiatives to reduce recidivism “that includes things like greater skills training for our inmate population, greater drug and alcohol addiction counseling and treatment, both in the institution and in the community, and some transitional services like housing, like employment,” he said.
Marc Shapiro is a senior reporter and Heather Norris is a staff reporter for WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.