Monday, November 30, 2015

Old Ebbitt Grill meets Governor Hogan

“The only bipartisanship you ever see is when they finally sign a bill and everybody says, 'Gee, isn't that wonderful?’” — Colin Powell

WASHINGTON DC is, of course, one the world's great capital cities, and one of the pleasurable aspects of being here has been sampling various food choices.

In addition to the French Bistro Cacao, Hank's Oyster Bar, the Tune Inn, a Salvadoran eatery called Judy Restaurant, we had a bite at a pop-up vegan restaurant, lunch at a Dutch falafel restaurant (who knew such a specific category even existed) and dinner at the quintessential Washington insider restaurant, Old Ebbitt Grill.

Old Ebbitt is a Washington institution. (I encourage you to click on the above link and read its colorful and entertaining history.) 

While there, we sat next to a lovely couple from Baltimore, Michael and Carolyn Gaines. Naturally we had to talk politics at least a little. As you are well aware, I'm about as liberal as they come: while many people complain about having too much government, I on the other hand don't think we have enough! 

Michael and Carolyn told me they eschew categorizing themselves and vote the issues. As wackadoodle as most Republican politicians are these days, that seems risky at best. Having read the below New York Times piece, however, about Republican Maryland governor, Larry Hogan, I kinda get how they might be willing to give the guy a chance.

One Governor’s Extraordinary Year

By Frank Bruni
November 29, 2015

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — NEWLY bald and always blunt, Gov. Larry Hogan was wondering about his hair. When it might grow back. How it might grow back.

Five months ago, it was white and he had lots of it. Would it be brown upon its return? Chemo can do that.

“Maybe I can get my natural color back,” Hogan, 59, said over lunch last week. “I’ve had completely gray hair since, like, 30. I’m thinking I’m going to have dark, curly hair.”

But, he added, “It’s not worth it. It’s maybe better to just have the hairdresser do it or get Just for Men.”

His words reflected the unexpected battle with cancer that has defined his first year in office.

They also suggested his positive nature and good humor, which help to explain another surprise: Hogan’s popularity as a Republican in a state that’s about as Democratic as they come.

Roughly 25 percent of Maryland’s voters are registered as Republicans, while 55 percent are registered as Democrats, with the rest in a third party or unaffiliated. But a poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland last month showed that 62 percent of the state’s registered voters approved of Hogan’s job performance. Just 20 percent disapproved. Among Democrats, his disapproval rating was higher — 28 percent — but it was still dwarfed by an approval rating of 54 percent.

At least for now, he commands respect from many voters who are typically sour on Republicans. That’s what I wanted to discuss with him.

Is there a secret to transcending the acrid partisanship that defines national politics these days? Is there a lesson in Hogan’s across-the-aisle appeal?

“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. “That’s always been my mantra.”

Washington politicians and presidential candidates have lost sight of that, in part because they get more attention and donations by throwing stones than by building bridges.

Hogan goes easy on the stones. His response to the April rioting in Baltimore was a prime illustration of that. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, a Democrat, became the target of furious criticism, but he took care not to fuel it.

“I try not to make it personal,” he told me, “and I don’t care about partisan politics one way or the other.”

Hogan’s election last November was one of several indications that many American voters are perhaps more politically malleable than they’re said to be, and that their desire for change, coupled with the allure of candidates who haven’t spent a lifetime in politics, may trump party loyalty.

In two other blue states, Massachusetts and Illinois, voters also elected new Republican governors, and in all three cases, the victor was someone with as extensive a background in business as in politics. Hogan, who had never held elective office, ran a commercial real estate firm.

But he has politics in his blood. His father, after whom he’s named, was a Republican congressman from Maryland, and set an example of avoiding reflexive partisanship when, in 1974, he was the lone Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote for all three articles of impeachment against President Nixon.

Hogan himself ran for Congress in his 20s and again in his 30s, losing both times. In becoming governor, he realized an ambition that had eluded his dad, who made a bid for the office in 1974 but was defeated in the Republican primary, a victim of Republican rage against him for his impeachment vote.

Hogan’s own family situation defies Republican stereotypes. He married his wife, a Korean immigrant, when he was in his late 40s, and became a stepfather to three Korean-American daughters, all grown now.

“We’re the first not-white family to ever live in the governor’s mansion,” he told me. “My son-in-law is Puerto Rican. I have a beautiful little granddaughter who is half Korean and half Latina. I’m the only white guy in the house.”

His lieutenant governor is black.

All of that, Hogan said, has undoubtedly influenced voters’ opinions of him.

So has his cancer. Back in June, he was given a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which had spread so aggressively that there were dozens of tumors throughout his body. He went through three surgeries and four spinal taps. He endured intensive chemotherapy. Two weeks ago, he announced that he was in remission.

The voters most aware of his illness are also the most supportive of his job performance, according to the poll I mentioned earlier.

But that may have as much do with the way he handled cancer as with the brutal fact of it. He became an outspoken advocate for cancer awareness, training a spotlight on others with the disease, hiding nothing from his constituents and using his illness to connect with them. It was a case study in the political potency of humanizing yourself.

He disclosed his cancer diagnosis at a news conference mere days after he received it and mere hours after a doctor had tunneled into one of his hips to extract bone marrow. He was on painkillers to boot.

“I literally was groggy and having a hard time standing,” he recalled. “But I did it anyway and I answered every single question. It was like truth serum.”

I asked him why he didn’t wait a little longer.

“I just wanted to be honest and open,” he said. “I wanted people to hear from me rather than some rumor about why I was in the hospital.”

Even before the cancer, Hogan garnered admiration from unlikely quarters for a governing style that demonstrates a few overlooked truths: Among Republicans, there’s more ideological diversity and flexibility than the lunge-to-the-right presidential primaries showcase, and for many of America’s governors and mayors, practicality outweighs purity.

“One thing that’s certain is that he’s no ideologue,” wrote The Baltimore Sun in an editorial in late May that assessed Hogan’s first legislative session, during which he took regulatory actions regarding water pollution that surprised and impressed some (though by no means all) environmentalists.

Hogan also concentrated on his campaign pledge to reduce taxes, control government spending and create what he felt would be a business-friendly climate that spurred economic growth. On other fronts, he was less adamant.

So while he readily locked horns with Democrats over money for education — they sought more than he deemed fiscally prudent — he let measures promoting L.G.B.T. rights pass into law without his signature, respecting what most Marylanders seemed to want without stoking the ire of conservatives. Lucky for him, they aren’t as numerous or assertive in Maryland as in other states.

“He’s never once mentioned what I call a cultural issue: gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage,” the Maryland Comptroller, Peter Franchot, a Democrat, told me. “He’s moderate in his rhetoric and he’s moderate in his choice of issues.”

The Sun’s editorial, “Hogan’s softer road,” observed: “This is a governor who is not interested in picking fights, in provoking opponents or in expending political energies on matters about which he has limited interest.”

The Sun noted that after he vetoed legislation that would have allowed former inmates to vote as soon as they left prison — and before they completed parole or probation — he didn’t launch into “rants against the bill’s Democratic sponsors for seeking to bolster their numbers at the polls,” which is what most Republicans in Washington would have done. He just said that a person’s full debt to society should be repaid before his or her voting rights were restored. Then he moved on.

In recent weeks, he joined other Republican governors in telling the Obama administration that he didn’t want Syrian refugees resettled in Maryland without greater assurances about the screening process. That prompted an outcry from many Marylanders.

But he didn’t follow other Republicans in clambering onto soapboxes and talking about Muslims versus Christians.

“It’s about tone,” he said, adding that at the end of the legislative session, after ample wrangling with Democrats, he and his aides tried not to gloat over victories or fume about defeats.

“You work as hard as you can, stand up for what you believe is right, push the issues you feel are important for the state, and you win some and you lose some,” he said. “You don’t demonize the other side.”

“They’re elected by the people of Maryland just like I am,” he continued. “They have things they strongly believe in. I have things I believe in. The various voters of the state have differences of opinion. And it’s the personal name-calling that people hate.”

He’s not above occasional jabs. During our talk, he took a few at his predecessor in the governor’s office, Martin O’Malley, questioning the motives and prudence of O’Malley’s visit to Baltimore after the rioting broke out.

But he mostly projects a combination of directness and affability that’s effective in sanding down the edges of political discourse and disarming adversaries.

“He smiles, he’s charming and he really listens to what you say,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat who just finished a stint as the chairman of the National Governors Association.

I was struck by how unguarded he seems.

“Not to get too personal,” he said to me, “but I lost hair pretty much all over my body — I’m a pretty hairy guy.” That meant a vacation from certain grooming rituals, but the other day, he said, “I had a couple of hairs sticking out of my face. I felt like a 13-year-old boy. I’m excited I’m going to shave for the first time in five months.”

He eagerly anticipates a reunion with his eyebrows and, even more so, his eyelashes.

“Your eyelashes keep things from falling in your eyes,” he said. “That’s why they’re there — not just to bat your eyes and flirt or just to look better. There are all kinds of dust particles and they fall into my eyes. I’m constantly getting stuff in my eyes.”

Maybe so, but his vision seemed plenty clear to me.

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