By Erin Cox and Ovetta Wiggins
Published here in the Washington Post.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan used his sixth State of the State address Wednesday to elevate the unrelenting violence in Baltimore as the state’s most pressing problem, and to draw a contrast with the rancor defining national politics.
Hogan, a Republican, made a direct appeal to the Democratic-majority General Assembly to embrace his agenda. He pressed his approach to reducing violent crime, securing a sweeping tax break for all retirees and overhauling political redistricting — proposals he has floated for years but lacked the political muscle to pass.
In tone and substance, the governor drew a contrast with the theatrical State of the Union speech President Trump gave the night before, just 30 miles down the road in Washington. Government is strongest, Hogan told a joint session of the General Assembly, when opposing sides find compromise.
“He was obviously trying to be un-Trump. He was friendly, open,” state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) said. “It worked — no one tore up his speech — it was a bit of a ‘kumbaya.’ ”
The governor also implored lawmakers to toughen ethics laws after several Democratic lawmakers were indicted on federal bribery or fraud charges over the past three years, and pitched a plan to improve the state’s education system that is less costly — and less sweeping — than what Democrats have proposed.
Hogan put special emphasis on quelling violent crime in Baltimore, an issue that tops the Democratic agenda as well. He noted that the gun violence has claimed toddlers and senior citizens, and said no other issue debated in Annapolis is as important.
“People are being shot every single day in Baltimore City,” Hogan said. “This is an urgent crisis, and we have an obligation to do something about it right now. There can be no more excuses and no more delays.”
The governor urged lawmakers to toughen penalties for repeat violent offenders who use illegal guns and for those who seriously injure or kill witnesses as a way to intimidate them. He also wants more transparency and accountability from judges — one proposal calls for the publication of detailed, judge-by-judge information on sentences handed down for violent crimes across the state.
“Yes, we do need prayers, but prayers are not enough,” Hogan said. “We are also going to need you to take action to get these shooters off our streets.”
Baltimore lawmakers both appreciated the emphasis and criticized Hogan for suggesting law enforcement was the sole solution in a city with systemic poverty, lackluster schools and high unemployment.
“It shows a gross misunderstanding of how violence and criminality develop in the first place,” said Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City), chair of the Baltimore delegation. “You can’t find me a safe place where people don’t have jobs, don’t have good education, don’t have access to good recreation.
Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday announced their own anti-violence plan, including criminal penalties for lost and stolen guns, additional resources for parole and probation agencies and a statewide audit of gun crimes to identify where the weapons are coming from.
“Of course accountability has to be a component of crime reduction, but so does the long-term investment — ensuring people don’t choose crime in the first place,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said Wednesday.
Democrats are also pushing legislation to hold the Hogan administration accountable, including the state parole and probation agencies. They noted that nearly 31 percent of murder victims in Baltimore last year were on parole or probation when they were killed, and almost 28 percent of murder suspects were under state parole and probation supervision.
The division over the most comprehensive way to address violent crime notwithstanding, Hogan sought a conciliatory tone in his speech.
He paid tribute to two important Maryland Democrats: former House speaker Michael E. Busch, who died in April, and Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who stepped down as the country’s longest-serving Senate president this year amid a battle with cancer. Hogan also acknowledged the ceiling-shattering ascent of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, who is the first woman and first black person to lead the chamber.
“It is my distinct privilege to be the first Maryland governor to begin a State of the State address by saying: Madam Speaker,” Hogan said to loud and lengthy applause.
Democratic lawmakers said they support Hogan’s legislation to end witness intimidation and plan to work with his administration to provide more resources to the state attorney general’s office to prosecute violent offenders. The General Assembly has been less receptive to some of Hogan’s other proposals, including legislative redistricting and his push to eliminate or dramatically cut income taxes for retirees who earn $100,000 or less.
On Wednesday, Hogan also celebrated projects he values: the construction of the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, the expansion of a century-old tunnel in Baltimore that bottlenecks freight leaving the port, and his insistence that Pennsylvania and the Environmental Protection Agency do more to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
In discussing redistricting, Hogan noted that the Maryland State House was briefly an early U.S. capitol after the Revolutionary War, and that polls show a majority of residents today support his perennial proposal to let a nonpartisan panel draw congressional districts.
“When it comes to free and fair elections, we are failing to live up to that proud legacy,” he said. “In this highly partisan time in America, you have a chance to do the right thing.”
Hogan and Democrats have separately endorsed nearly identical proposals to spend $2.2 billion more on school construction projects over the next five years, enough money to launch every single education project in the state. The governor cited this agreement, among others, as the type of political alignment that can set Maryland apart.
“Sadly, the country that we all love is increasingly divided by toxic politics,” the governor said. “And while Washington seems to be more bitterly divided than ever, here in Maryland, we have faced our challenges with civility and moderation.”
He ended his address on a hopeful note that illustrated his appeal to critics of President Trump within the Republican Party, some of whom courted Hogan to launch a primary challenge last year.
Hogan declined to run, but he has continued to position himself as a potential GOP leader. On Wednesday, he said optimism and fairness are the antidotes to the partisanship and dysfunction of national political discourse.
“As America searches for healing and a path forward,” he said. “Let them look to us.”