A cancer survivor, Maryland governor took early measures to combat coronavirus

Corky Siemaszko

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan went before the cameras last week and broke some bad news to his constituents — the state had recorded its first death from the coronavirus.

“We pray for his family,” Hogan said of the victim, a man in his 60s with an underlying condition. “Unfortunately, we are only at the beginning of this crisis and while this is the first death in Maryland it will not be the last.”

Hogan also noted that a 5-year-old girl was among the confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, a development all the more alarming because the vast majority of infected people have been older.

“This fight against pandemic is a race against time and we must take action now,” Hogan said. “We cannot afford to delay.”

That has been Hogan’s mantra from the start of the crisis. The Republican governor took steps to protect Marylanders on Feb. 27, when he first inked parts of emergency legislation to increase funds for the fight, cancelling out-of-state travel for state workers, establishing a help-line for the public and meeting regularly with his coronavirus response team. In comparison, on the following day, Trump called the coronavirus “new hoax” drummed-up by Democrats to damage him and his administration.

Hogan also declared a state of emergency in Maryland on March 5 — more than a week before President Trump made a nationwide emergency declaration.

The end result is that Hogan and fellow governor Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York, have at times eclipsed Trump as a national leaders in the battle against the deadly pandemic. And the steps Hogan has taken in Maryland to combat the coronavirus have been as aggressive as those taken by other take-charge governors in hard-hit states like Mike DeWine of Ohio, who is also a Republican, and Jay Inslee of Washington and J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, both Democrats.

Hogan hasn't been shy about criticizing the Trump administration’s slow response in the first days of the crisis or its inability to say for sure when badly needed supplies like masks, ventilators and test kits will be available.

“I can tell you that there's quite a bit of frustration on the part of all of the governors that we don't have answers to those questions,” Hogan said earlier in the week. “And the first answer is no, we don't have enough test kits and neither does any other state, and no, the federal government does not have an answer.”

Hogan’s frustration comes from a deeply personal place — he is a 63-year-old cancer survivor, putting him in one of highest risk categories for coronavirus complications. So his life depends on this.

But the fact that Hogan has been willing to criticize the Trump administration does not come as a surprise for people who have followed the career of a Republican who was first elected governor in 2014 and was re-elected four years later in a deep blue state.

Hogan, who is only the second Republican to be re-elected in the state’s history, was “never a fan” of Trump and made that clear even before he won the GOP nomination in 2016, said Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“What set Hogan apart from other Trump critics, however, is that most of those critics eventually fell in line behind Trump or left office,” Eberly said. “Hogan governs in a different manner and has rarely hesitated to criticize or disagree with Trump — sometimes forcefully and sometimes more subtly.”

Last July, when Trump lashed out against revered Baltimore congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, and called his Baltimore district “dangerous” and “disgusting,” Hogan fired back via his spokeswoman saying “Baltimore City is truly the very head of our state.”

When it comes to Hogan's aggressive approach to the coronavirus crisis, none of the academics and journalists interviewed by NBC News found fault. "I haven't heard a whiff of serious criticism," said Josh Kurtz, editor of the Maryland Matters news site, who has covered Hogan for years.

"Gov. Hogan has been way ahead of the federal government in addressing and responding to the coronavirus,” Kurtz added. “He's been proactive and open with Marylanders. In his role as chairman of the National Governors Association, he's been involved in some of the earliest federal briefings on the virus and has been good about relaying that information to his team and to his constituents."

When NBC News reached out to Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who has sparred with Hogan in the past on various issues, Ferguson's spokesman gave an assessment of Hogan that could pass for praise in these politically fraught times: "We have nothing negative to contribute at this point," said Yaakov Weissmann in an email.

Hogan, unlike Trump, was quick to recognize the coronavirus threat and quick to mobilize the other U.S. governors, Eberly said.

“As chair of the National Governors Association, Hogan was already in a leadership role and I think he used that role quite wisely to get people to understand just how serious the situation was,” Eberly said.

How has Hogan managed to thrive in a blue state like Maryland during a period of intense political polarization?

Part of it is Marylanders just like Hogan, the experts said. He is married father of three, grandfather of four, and his wife Yumi Hogan is the "first Korean-American first lady in United States history," according to his official biography.

“He exudes competence and confidence,” said Stella Rouse, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

And Hogan’s not afraid to tell off his constituents when he sees them straying from the rules that have been set in place to protect them.

“Despite our warnings, despite rapid escalation of virus, some people are treating this like vacation with parties and large gatherings,” Hogan said during his Thursday update. “If you are engaged in this type of activity, you are in violation of state law and are endangering lives of fellow Marylanders.”

Another reason Hogan thrives, Kurtz said, is that “Maryland isn't as liberal as people assume it is.”

“Hogan has found the sweet spot where a lot of the voters are,” Kurtz said. “He's held the line on taxes and a lot of people like that. He's a pretty unassuming guy, and handled a cancer diagnosis early in his tenure with good humor, grace and grit.”

In 2015, Hogan revealed he’d been fighting skin cancer and appeared in public with his white mane gone and bandages on his face. “Before you get into speculation about what the other guy looked like, I wanted to tell you about it,” he joked.

Rouse said Hogan is more a pragmatist and less of an ideologue, which is a rarity in the national Republican Party these days.

“The result is he has a lot of political capital in a state that is 2 to 1 Democratic,” Rouse said.

Eberly agreed.

“He made clear when he ran for governor that abortion and marriage equality were settled law and he had no desire to re-litigate them,” Eberly said. “On gun control, he made no mention of dialing back what Democrats had accomplished.”

Now, Eberly said, Hogan maintains a statewide approval rating that “seems to defy gravity.”

Kurtz said there is already talk of Hogan running for Senate in 2022 when his term ends, but what might dissuade him is that he would have to take on Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who is a Democrat.

“Van Hollen is pretty popular, and a Republican hasn't won a Senate race in Maryland since 1980,” Kurtz said.

Hogan could also, conceivably, run for president in four years.

“Hogan likes to describe himself as a John McCain/George H.W. Bush kind of a Republican,” Kurtz said. “If that kind of a Republican ever comes back in fashion, he could be a serious contender.”