A tale of two governors: COVID-19 provides sharp leadership contrasts between Virginia's Northam, Maryland's Hogan

A tale of two governors: COVID-19 provides sharp leadership contrasts between Virginia's Northam, Maryland's Hogan
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The arrival and spread of the COVID-19 virus has showcased the significantly differing leadership styles of the governors of Maryland and Virginia. Whereas Maryland’s Larry Hogan acted early, urgently and decisively, Virginia’s Ralph Northam slow-walked his responses, taking far fewer executive actions and with much less actionable specificity.

Republican Hogan’s forceful directives have provided clear guidance to state agencies, local governments and Marylanders even as other elected officials within his party – particularly President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE – downplayed the gathering contagion and ignored medical professionals’ pleas to enact strict social distancing measures. Hogan now commands the national spotlight as one the nation’s model crisis leaders while Northam seems at best to be playing catch-up.

Compare the actions the neighboring states took at the onset of COVID-19 preparedness. In Virginia, Northam’s health commissioner issued a press release on February 27 calling COVID-19 a “communicable disease of public health threat.” In Maryland, Hogan on Jan. 29 raised the State Emergency Operations Center to “enhanced” status, ordered the health department to start coordinating with the BWI, the state’s largest international airport, on incoming flights and issued guidance to the state’s doctors, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and local health departments.


On March 9, Hogan signed emergency legislation that made millions of dollars available that he had submitted to the Maryland legislature just five days earlier.

Before the Virginia General Assembly adjourned in early March, no comparable funding had been passed. Indeed, Northam had cheerfully informed legislative budget committees in mid-February that a bright new revenue forecast indicated they’d have an additional $300 million to play with, notwithstanding reports of the economic wreckage the global outbreak had wrought in the rest of the world.

Now, with a drastically reversed fiscal outlook, Northam is busy making deep cuts to budget bills that await legislators who reconvene on April 22 to consider the governor’s amendments and his single veto.

Fiscal preparedness tells only part of the story. Hogan declared a state of emergency in Maryland on March 5. A week later, Northam followed suit in Virginia.

Through March and the first half of April, Hogan had taken 29 executive actions directly related to the outbreak, including a sweeping stay-at-home order with narrowly delineated definitions of exempted essential businesses. Other significant actions included activating the Maryland National Guard, closing Baltimore’s cruise ship terminals, expanding child care access (particularly for essential personnel), opening 6,000 new hospital beds and activating Maryland’s reserve medical corps, allowing shareholders’ meetings to be held remotely, requiring physical distancing and wearing masks in certain public areas, postponing Maryland’s presidential primaries to June, forbidding utility shutoffs and late fees, suspending evictions and foreclosures, criminalizing price gouging and empowering the state Health Department to close any business or organization deemed an “unsafe establishment.”


Northam, by comparison, issued 13 executive orders or directives during that span, some of which strengthened lax previous measures. For instance, his March 13 order closing schools for two weeks was superseded 10 days later by an order canceling in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year. His almost unenforceable March 20 order allowing restaurants and bars to remain open subject to a 10-person limit was replaced three days later with an order allowing only carry-out and drive-through restaurants and banning dine-in operations outright. Only on March 30 did Northam finally impose a stay-at-home order with exceptions for a handful of essential tasks and services. Northam’s home-seclusion order, unlike Hogan’s, doesn’t specifically restrict use of public transportation or travel outside the state. On April 8, he announced orders allowing bars to sell curbside or drive-through cocktails (what could possibly go wrong?) and postponed the May municipal elections to November and delayed the June 9 congressional primaries by two weeks.

Hogan’s willingness to push ahead aggressively puts him in the company of fellow Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio as straight shooters and decisive leaders, endearing them to many but perhaps alienating Trump loyalists. It will be interesting to see if that accrues to Hogan’s or DeWine’s benefit or detriment over the next four years should they wish to position themselves for a 2024 presidential run.

Though Northam has certainly tended to business better than many governors, he has done little during the crisis to elevate his profile and expand his limited political horizons. Northam resurrected his standing since he was nearly forced from office in February 2019 after he admitted appearing in a photo of a man in blackface and another person regaled as a Klansman on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, and then denied it in a news conference less than a day later.

That scandal likely forecloses his prospects for national office. The most common political next step for former governors, a nice, long stay in the U.S. Senate, is precluded because two popular Democrats – Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSocial media posts, cellphone data aid law enforcement investigations into riots 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Confirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed MORE and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics Robert E. Lee statue removed from US Capitol MORE – have their seats locked down for the foreseeable future. Northam’s next act likely takes him back to his first love: Practicing medicine.

Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of “Federalism: A Very Short lntroduction” (2019, Oxford University Press).