Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, was on his own. It was early April and COVID-19 infections were spiking. Hogan needed a dramatic increase in testing capacity if his state had any hope of tracking and slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus before it swamped the hospitals and led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Hogan knew that the federal government could marshal the nation’s manufacturing power to speed up the production of test kits, swabs, reagents, and other diagnostic materials. Instead, the Trump administration had downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, broken one pledge after another about the testing availability, and left it to the states to find tests, personal protective equipment, and ventilators. It was a nightmare scenario.
“We have 50 states — 55 including all the territories — competing with one another, and with the federal government, and with other states around the world over very limited resources in a crazy market on stuff that we’ve never had to buy before and that we never should have been buying,” Hogan tells Rolling Stone. “But we had to do it because there was no alternative.”
Hogan, who is serving his second term as Maryland’s governor, is a rare specimen in American politics today: a high-profile Republican who is not afraid to criticize or rebuke President Trump and his administration. When Trump vowed to reopen the country by Easter, Hogan said that doing so would be “very harmful” and that Maryland “would obviously not do that.” In late March, he called Trump’s claim that testing was widely available “just not true.” He urged the president to defer to the scientists on his coronavirus task force and stop spreading harmful nonsense. “[Americans] listen when the governor holds a press conference, and they certainly pay attention when the president of the United States is standing there giving a press conference about something as serious as this worldwide pandemic,” he said in April. “When misinformation comes out or you just say something that pops in your head, it does send a wrong message.”
In the absence of federal leadership, Hogan scrambled to come up with a creative solution to the testing crisis. With the help of his wife, Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan, who is Korean-American, the Hogan administration found a Korean manufacturer and cut a deal to buy a bulk supply of materials that would allow the state to run half a million COVID-19 tests. On April 18th, the Hogans, wearing surgical masks, greeted a Korean Air flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that had delivered their tests from the other side of the world.
Hogan, who chairs the National Governors Association, has seen his popularity soar during the pandemic. A recent Washington Post poll ranked him as the most popular governor in America right now. His name briefly surfaced as a possible challenger to Trump in 2020, and while he declined to run, he is held up as a possible presidential candidate if the Republican Party ever returns to some semblance of sanity.
Hogan first spoke with Rolling Stone before the killing of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests; he responded by email to a follow-up question about the demonstrations and the pandemic. Here, again, Hogan broke with Trump in his reaction. While the Trump administration tear-gassed and assaulted peaceful protesters outside the White House in early June, Hogan said he was “incredibly proud” of peaceful Baltimore protesters, both for their message and methods.
It feels like the definition of what it means to be a governor has expanded and changed because of this crisis. You’ve become a supply-chain expert. There’s been international diplomacy. How have you re-imagined or come to think of this role as the governor given what this crisis has required of you?
All of the governors, really, out of necessity we’ve stepped up and been on the front lines of this crisis and dealt with things that I don’t think any of us ever imagined having to deal with. For me, not only as the governor of Maryland, but as the chairman of the National Governors Association, and trying to deal with this crisis and work with my colleagues all across the country, we’re dealing with things we never, ever imagined that governors would have to deal with. It’s obviously the most challenging thing that I think any governor in America has ever had to deal with and something that most of us would never have expected to have to deal with.
There’s this tension that every governor, county official, and local official is dealing with right now and it is this tension between keeping your people safe and healthy and trying to get the economy going again. Tell me how you think about striking that balance. Do you think that those two things should not be at odds with each other?
Our most important responsibility as governors is to keep our citizens safe and protect the lives and the safety of the people in our states and that’s what we’ve been really focused on. But at the same time, we have this incredible economic crisis that it’s impacting people all across our states and across the country that we’ve also — these twin crises that we’re dealing with at the same time and we have been getting the best advice we possibly can from the smartest scientists and doctors and public health officials in the world that are here in our state of Maryland.
I’m a lifelong small business owner who ran for governor because I wanted to help grow small businesses and help put people to work and grow our economy. And so they’re not completely at odds with one another. We want to make sure that we’re doing things in a safe manner and that we’re protecting the public health, but we also nobody wants to continue to harm the economy, with so many millions of people suffering economically and we’ve got to figure out a way to safely get back to some normalcy in our lives while still keeping people safe.
There is no right or wrong answer and everybody’s just grappling with “How do you try to do both those things?” Put people back to work, not have our economy like the Great Depression, and how do you keep people from dying? It’s a terrible choice.
Do you think it’s a zero-sum choice in that if you try to say, “We need to keep restrictions in place, social distancing, etc.,” that necessarily the economy is going to suffer. If the economy is opened up in certain ways, that people’s health is endangered as well? Or is there some kind of way to have both?
I think we put together what we call “Maryland’s Roadmap to Recovery,” which took into account the recommendations from Anthony Fauci and the White House plan for recovery. We put together one for the National Governors Association, which was the guidelines for Governors and States to consider. On my task force is a doctor from Johns Hopkins, Tom Inglesby, who wrote the book for Johns Hopkins and Bloomberg School of Public Health on how to handle it safely and re-open safely. We have on there the former FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, who wrote the book for AEI on how to open safely.
We’ve taken all those things into account, and put together a plan that we believe does accomplish those things. That helps us slowly, safely, cautiously, gradually, and effectively reopen our economies while keeping people safe. You never know if you’ve got it right until — we’re going about this one step at a time. That’s the goal, I think, that we’re shooting to accomplish.
You have been one of the few members of your political party to at times I feel like gently, constructively, try to nudge our president and the administration maybe in a more sort of factual direction. You had an appearance on Face the Nation; you’ve made some comments before. Why did you feel the need to do that?
I’m the chairman of the nation’s governors, and I represent all of the governors across America, the Democrats and the Republicans. I’m also someone who has the ability, the entire time I’ve been governor and the whole entire time that Trump has been president, I’ve never been afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. And maybe I’m one of the few Republican governors who does that, but I have gone out of my way to try to be as constructive and direct as possible. I’ve been out there trying to push to make sure that the states are getting the things that they need, and that we’re getting facts out there.
Do you feel like it’s helped?
I think we have pushed on certain things, and we have had some successes. I’m not completely satisfied that we accomplished everything we set out to do, but look, governors have stepped up in a way that they never have before. I’m proud of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and it was a unique period in time where the federal government left it up to the states in many ways, and said to a certain extent, “You’re on your own, and go out and get it done.” And that’s what we’ve been trying to do.
If there were one thing the federal government could do to help the states that are already at full capacity adapting, dealing, planning, responding, what would that one thing be?
The federal government can do certain things better than the states and should have more of a role. On testing, on PPE, maybe even on contract tracing — all these kind of building blocks that we need to get our economy back on track. Those are things that we have been doing at the state level, but where the federal government could have played and can still play more of a role.
And then lastly, they have done some things which have been very helpful, both the administration and the Congress with respect to stimulating the economy, but we still need more help. And there’s a need for another, fourth stimulus package, particularly that provides some assistance to the state and local governments that are on the front lines and our services are more in demand than ever. And our revenues are going to be down by 25 or 30%, and we’ve got to try to help people that really need the help.
You looked all the way to South Korea to get test kits. Should you have to go that far and fill that kind of role?
The answer to that is no. We should not have had to do that, but in my case we got half a million test kits from South Korea when there was almost none available in the country at that time. But other states, and we’ve also been sourcing PPE and masks and gloves and gowns and all of those things you mentioned all over the world and so has every other governor. We had to buy it, we had to go do it because there was no alternative; people’s lives were at stake.
How have you and your administration thought about the kinds of things that need to be put in place to build up the resilience and safeguards and awareness for the next pandemic that comes along. Have you given any thought to what that might look like?
All of the governors and the federal government need to do an after-action report and think about all the things that went wrong at every level of government. I’ve been governor for five and a half years or so, and our emergency management teams and health teams do these pandemic table-top exercises and we go through these scenarios.
But the hospital systems were not ready, the federal government wasn’t ready, the states weren’t ready, and everybody should have been. I think we have to be prepared next time, and it may be the next wave of this [virus]. It may not even be waiting until the next one. But we’ve got to build resilience, and we’ve got to be able to deal with this at the federal level. It not only requires an investment of an enormous amount of money, but it’s got to have much more planning and actual stockpiles so that we’re not all scraping around at the last minute desperately trying to find [these supplies]. It was just absurd that none of these basic things like personal protective equipment were available anywhere in America. We’re the greatest country on Earth.
Is there something that you think could be put in place, a hole that you’ve identified somewhere in the landscape that could really help us get up to speed and ready for the next wave if not the next pandemic?
The main thing we’ve got to do is just listen to these scientists and the experts that we have in place. Many of the top federal health institutions are here in my state of Maryland. Anthony Fauci and all these folks had been talking about this for a long time and been doing these plans and these exercises and warning about what might happen. It’s just that no one was listening.
The president was talking about disbanding the coronavirus task force at the White House, which I think he changed his mind on. That’ll be the last thing we need. The battle’s not over. This thing is far from over, and I think we’ve got to get all the smartest people in every agency in the federal government and all the governors and all the private-sector knowledge we can to figure out how we stop this current hidden enemy. And how do we stop the next one?
How do you and your administration try to keep people focused on staying safe and taking proper precautions when many also feel the need to join the recent racial justice demonstrations? [Ed. note: This question was sent as a follow-up. Hogan responded via a spokeswoman over email.]
I fully support the right to protest peacefully, but I would encourage anyone who has participated in protests to get tested for COVID-19. In Maryland, we have more than 100 no-cost, no-appointment testing sites available. While the coronavirus may not be leading the news headlines at this moment, it is still a serious concern and we should all continue to social distance, wear a mask in public places, and closely monitor our health.
If you had a chance to give a piece of advice to our commander-in-chief to try to better prepare and grapple with that second wave, what would it be?
My best piece of advice would be to listen to the scientists, look at the science, and make the decisions based on that. Stick with the plan and the best advice. We’ve got really smart people who have given excellent advice, who have the knowledge, and have the information, and we’ve just got to listen to them.