Are government programs aimed at helping Maryland’s most needy in danger following the gubernatorial victory of Republican Larry Hogan, who ran on a platform of reducing taxes and has a constitutional mandate to balance the state budget?
Although entitlement programs are often the first ones on the chopping block when an administration aims to tighten purse strings, area Jewish leaders aren’t worried yet.
“Obviously it’s too early to tell,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
About a month ago, Halber had what he described as a long breakfast with Hogan.
“I found him [Hogan] to be a person with a great passion for this state, and somebody who wants to bring about change,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe the governor-elect, a real estate executive who has never before held elective office, will be rolling back women’s rights or making substantial cuts to the programs that Jewish social service agencies have worked hard to obtain.
“The man really doesn’t have a social agenda that will offend the Jewish community,” said Halber. “His main focus is going to be the economy.”
Even if the incoming Republican administration did target social service programs, Halber went on, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly would never sign off on such measures.
All in all, he’ll likely follow in the footsteps of Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, in whose Cabinet Hogan served as appointments secretary, in his dealings with the Jewish community, said Halber.
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, agreed. He said that the BJC has a longstanding relationship with Hogan, who in previous interviews with the Baltimore Jewish Times, has stressed that he will continue the work of outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to foster business relations between Maryland and Israel.
“I think we’re going to see a governor who’s a very strong proponent of all those many different positions taken by his predecessors on Israel and, who knows, maybe even have a chance to offer some new initiatives of his own,” said Abramson.
Like the JCRC, the BJC will keep an eye on the governor’s budget to make sure that local Jewish initiatives get the funding needed to remain in operation. Abramson said that in talks with Hogan, the governor-elect has been extremely receptive to the BJC’s needs and has mentioned a desire to travel to Israel with Jewish communal leaders early in his tenure.
Data on how members of the Jewish community voted in the gubernatorial election are hard to come by, although a national study of voters conducted by J Street confirmed long-held assumptions about Jewish voters’ affinity with the Democratic Party. Drawing on a sample of 800 Jewish voters’ responses to questions about congressional races, the study found that 69 percent voted for the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district, even though the economy – a major Republican focus in 2014 – was the top issue for the majority of those polled.
The study did not shed any light on the phenomenon of split-ticket voters, a cohort that played a hand in Hogan’s victory. In Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, voters overwhelmingly re-elected Democrats to the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress. But Hogan still received 51 percent of the vote.
In Montgomery County and Baltimore City, where the bulk of the state’s Jewish community resides, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown handily defeated Hogan. In Montgomery County, Brown bested Hogan 157,500 to 94,000, according to the state Board of Elections. The Democrat’s margin in Baltimore City was about 3 to 1, with Brown getting 102,200 votes to Hogan’s 30,000.
In Baltimore County, however, Hogan came out on top, receiving 153,500 votes to Brown’s 100,000.
Susan Turnbull, chair of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party from 2009 to 2011, said that if the Jewish community wants to count on Hogan as an ally, it will have to educate the new governor on why specific programs and policies are important.
Whether it’s a Democratic or Republican governor, “the issues remain the same issues,” she said. “The needs remain the same needs.”
Obviously the voters of Maryland were unhappy, she added, seeing proof for this conclusion in low voter turnout. According to the Board of Elections, 45 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In Montgomery County, turnout was even lower, at 39 percent.
George Leventhal, an at-large Democratic member of the Montgomery County Council since 2002, said that while it is too early to tell what a Hogan governorship might mean, “I have heard good things about him. We all want to work with him.”
However, he said, if Hogan does make big cuts in government spending, it will be up to the county council to invest in some of those programs.
Longtime Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz, who was just elected to the county council from District 3, said Hogan as governor “certainly has to be a great concern.”
The important thing is to keep communications open with the new governor, he said. “Many times if you have discussion, things can get cleared up.”
Todd Schenk, CEO of Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), is hopeful that programs for the needy will not be placed under the knife.
“It would be nice to expect that funding for critical mental health, health care and social services is an apolitical issue,” said Schenk. “After all, JSSA is focused on helping people live productive, dignified, fulfilling lives in our community – an endeavor that makes both humanitarian and financial sense. … We look forward to partnering with a new administration, to help them address difficult social service and health-care issues in ways that provide great outcomes and a valuable return on taxpayer investments.”
Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer at Washington Jewish Week. Heather Norris is a staff reporter at our sister paper, the Baltimore Jewish Times.