LARRY HOGAN works a room like Joe Frazier worked an opponent’s upper body: thoroughly, relentlessly, joyfully, leaving no part untouched. At an American Legion hall in Sharptown, a village on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the burly, energetic Mr Hogan shakes every hand, claps an arm around every shoulder and poses for two or three pictures per phone. “He’s a people person. He’s for the little guy,” says one observer. “He shows up,” says another. “He will listen to your problem.”
Mr Hogan is a Republican, and Sharptown is deep within Maryland’s only Republican-held congressional district. But he was equally well received at an earlier event in the Democratic stronghold of Baltimore, where he and the city’s mayor spoke warmly of their working partnership. What is surprising is how large a lead Mr Hogan holds over his Democratic rival, Ben Jealous, in a state where Democrats hold seven out of eight congressional seats and Hillary Clinton won 60.5% of the vote. What is equally surprising—and more welcome, as a reminder to Americans that the country was not always so fractious and polarised—he has built his career on bipartisanship and compromise.
Mr Hogan follows two conventionally partisan governors: Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who served from 2007 to 2015, and Robert Ehrlich, a one-term Republican who preceded Mr O’Malley. Mr Hogan learned political independence early. His father was a congressman who in 1974 became the only Republican on the judiciary committee to vote for all three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. The younger Mr Hogan twice ran for Congress and built a property firm, where he became frustrated by a Maryland that was “overtaxed, over-regulated and…had kind of an anti-business attitude…That’s why I ran for governor.” Despite trailing 13 points behind the Democratic nominee just weeks before the 2014 election, he won.
Mr Hogan has to be bipartisan. Democrats hold supermajorities in the legislature that can override his veto—and have done so, to pass bills that expand the state’s use of renewable energy and oblige employers to provide paid sick-leave. Mr Hogan needs their support to get anything done. Marc Korman, a Democratic delegate in the legislature’s lower house, says that the governor “will come around and do the right thing, but we have to fight to get there.” He cites an increase in funding for the Metro—the transport system serving Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC. Mr Hogan boasts about this, but took a lot of cajoling, according to Mr Korman.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with kicking the tyres before writing a huge cheque. And Republicans tend to be less enthusiastic about public transport and employer-paid sick leave than Democrats; Mr Hogan may not be a Trumpian nationalist or a rigid social conservative, but he is still a Republican. Moreover, Democrats who deride his bipartisanship as an electoral strategy or something forced rather than felt miss the point. It does not really matter if, for example, he approved $4bn for Chesapeake Bay restoration because he cares deeply about the dwarf wedge mussel or because he saw an opportunity to curry favour with the state’s environmentalists. The money is still spent.
In a survey released last summer, America’s two most popular governors were Mr Hogan and Charlie Baker, another Republican in a Democratic state (Massachusetts). Both are fiscal conservatives but socially liberal, or at least loth to rock the boat on social issues, and they act as a check on one-party government. With the Republican Party in its current state, neither man can use his post as a stepping stone to national politics: they would be trounced in the primary. Mr Hogan seems content with that, and with his role as moderator rather than vanguard. “Both parties are being driven to the extremes,” he worries, “and most people are somewhere in the middle.”