By Adam Pagnucco.
Last week, Governor Larry Hogan caused a splash in Ocean City with his new Executive Order mandating a post-Labor Day start for public schools. A few Democrats, led by Baltimore City Senator Bill Ferguson, Montgomery County Delegate Eric Luedtke and Montgomery County Senator Rich Madaleno, have pushed back hard. The two sides occupy their natural political territory: Hogan touts the economic benefits that employers in resort areas could receive from busy Labor Day weekends, while the Democrats reassert their traditional defense of public schools (whose officials overwhelmingly oppose the order).
Some Democratic lawmakers are spoiling for a fight, but wiser heads should prevail. If the Democrats try to overturn Hogan in the next general session, they will be handing the Governor a nice win for three reasons.
- A post-Labor Day start is popular.
The Governor’s use of polls, especially those showing his high job approval ratings, clearly gets under the Democrats’ skin. But Hogan is not the first politician to leverage polls to his advantage and he certainly won’t be the last. Three different polls taken by Goucher College in the fall of 2014, the spring of 2015 and the fall of 2015 find support for starting school after Labor Day at 71%, 72% and 72% respectively. The most recent poll finds support at 69% or above for every gender, racial, age and party group isolated, including 72% approval among Democrats. Support for starting school after Labor Day is about even with support for sick leave and redistricting by an independent commission (another signature Hogan issue) and is above support for legalizing marijuana and opposition to fracking.
- The Democrats are divided.
A number of Democrats have sponsored at least one of three recent bills mandating Labor Day school start times. They include the following five Senators and nineteen Delegates:
Senator John Astle (Anne Arundel)
Senator Ed Kasemeyer (Baltimore County/Howard)
Senator Katherine Klausmeier (Baltimore County)
Senator James Mathias (Eastern Shore)
Senator Jim Rosapepe (Prince George’s/Anne Arundel)
Delegate Curt Anderson (Baltimore City)
Delegate Darryl Barnes (Prince George’s)
Delegate Kumar Barve (Montgomery)
Delegate Pamela Beidle (Anne Arundel)
Delegate Eric Bromwell (Baltimore County)
Delegate Mark Chang (Anne Arundel)
Delegate Diana Fennell (Prince George’s)
Delegate Barbara Frush (Prince George’s/Anne Arundel)
Delegate Tawanna Gaines (Prince George’s)
Delegate Cheryl Glenn (Baltimore City)
Delegate Keith Haynes (Baltimore City)
Delegate Anne Healey (Prince George’s)
Delegate Sheila Hixson (Montgomery)
Delegate Carolyn J. B. Howard (Prince George’s)
Delegate Aruna Miller (Montgomery)
Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes (Eastern Shore)
Delegate Theodore Sophocleus (Anne Arundel)
Delegate Jay Walker (Prince George’s)
Delegate Alonzo Washington (Prince George’s)
In addition to those Democrats who support the Governor’s position (even if they’re not happy with implementing it through an Executive Order), many more will be loath to vote against something that has more than 70% public support. If the General Assembly leadership tries to ram through a bill next year overturning the Executive Order and they cannot get enough votes to override a veto, that would be a nightmare scenario. The Governor would look strong on a popular issue and the Democrats would look weak – VERY weak.
- It’s a regional wedge issue.
If the Democrats try to overturn Hogan, understand what that could look like to Marylanders who live near places like Deep Creek Lake and the Eastern Shore: an effort by politicians from MoCo and the City to prevent economic prosperity in their areas. As one Democratic lawmaker who is not from the resort counties told us, “The jurisdictions that need the tourism are desperately in need of local government revenues, they are among the poorest in the state. To ignore that borders on public policy malpractice.” Governor Hogan wants to depict Democrats as pointy-headed, urban elitists who don’t care about the rest of Maryland. Democrats need to be careful about giving him ammunition for that argument.
Some may point out that Labor Day is not as strong a voting issue as education, transportation and taxes (the latter being OWNED by Hogan) and that the numbers may move as school systems rearrange their calendars. Fair enough: poll numbers can and do move, with those on marriage equality being the prime example. But making them move far enough and fast enough to justify a legislative response will likely require a massive PR campaign to do it. Who is going to wage such a campaign? It won’t be the Democrats themselves, whose communication capacity is dwarfed by the Governor’s – a problem on which no apparent progress is being made. It probably won’t be the state teachers union, which opposes the Executive Order but told the Post that overturning it was not a focus of theirs in the next general session. If not the Democrats or the teachers, who else is going to do this work?
Hogan WANTS the Democrats to fight him. There’s a reason why he did this through an Executive Order and a press conference rather than simply having the State Board of Education do it for him. The Governor wants this story to go on for months to maximize his benefits from it. So does the original architect of the issue, Comptroller Peter Franchot, whom the high priests of the Democratic establishment regard as an apostate. Do General Assembly Democrats really want to give these two a bigger win than what they already have?
Let’s remember the Governor’s goals here. First, he wants to increase his reelection vote percentage above the 51% he received last time. Second, he wants to get enough Republicans elected to the General Assembly so that his vetoes can be upheld, thus forcing Democrats to negotiate with him on virtually everything (including redistricting). The easiest way to do that is to pick up seven GOP seats in the House of Delegates, which the Republicans did in 2014. And third, he would like to eradicate the Democratic Party from all areas outside the Baltimore-Washington corridor, a feat that is already dangerously close to reality. If the Governor can accomplish all three objectives, he will change Maryland into a genuine two-party state, at least at the level of state and local government. And he thinks the Labor Day issue will help him get over the top.
The Governor is dangling the bait. Will the Democrats take it?