Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller stood on the rostrum two weeks ago upset at Maryland’s Republican governor.
It would come as no surprise to anyone that Miller and Gov. Larry Hogan might view the world through different political prisms when it came to the issue of a veto override on a bill restoring the right to vote to felons who are still on parole and probation.
What irritated the septuagenarian Senate leader was perhaps more interesting — a post on Facebook made by Hogan naming all 29 legislators who voted to override his veto: “These are the partisan senators who voted to ignore a majority of Marylanders and allow current felons to vote. Contact them here.”
A vote, any vote, has always been fair game. It can be used to define opponents and perhaps unseat them. But to Miller it was a message that went too far. It ginned up anger among residents, including some who called Democratic lawmakers and left hate-filled messages that included wishes for rape and death of some family members.
“It’s the angry tone that spurs them up. Both sides have segments that are off far to the left and far to the right,” Miller said at the time.
“We need to continue to avoid the pin pricks that precede the cannon shots,” Miller said. “This is a pin prick. If you want a cannon shot, it’s going to come later on in the session, and we don’t need that.”
But that ‘pin prick” highlighted the importance of social media in Hogan’s communication tool box.
Building his brand
Welcome to divided state government in the post-social media era. And while Democrats in the General Assembly perhaps are not Hogan’s primary audience, they are listening and responding sometimes in real time from their seats on the floor of the House of Delegates and the Senate.
Social media in politics is nothing new. The Pew Research Center in a 2015 report notes that a growing number of Americans, especially young Americans, are getting their political news via social media. Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has used his Twitter account to get his message out to more than 6 million followers.
Josh Kurtz, a political columnist and longtime observer of Maryland politics, credits Hogan for an adept use of social media and branding that gives him a more direct route to his supporters.
“I think he seems to know the legislature will hear him, but I don’t know that he’s speaking to them,” Kurtz said adding that the medium gives Hogan a much-needed way to offer his unfiltered views on issues “because this is a Democratic state and you know a Republican governor is always going to be politically hunted.”
The availability and Hogan’s use of the tool is something to which some Maryland Democratic elected officials are unaccustomed.
Facebook was only available for about four months when Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Maryland’s last Republican governor, left office. Twitter was only five months older and didn’t reach its 100 millionth user for another six years. Following Ehrlich, there were eight years of Democratic Party control under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“It’s not like you were going to find the governor creating a lot of discussions on social media criticizing the legislature,” said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s University of Maryland. “Everybody got along because they were all from the same party.”
Eberly said there were some partisan posts on the Change Maryland account that Hogan shared to his personal page that “I would have advised them not to if someone has asked me.”
And while Eberly credits Hogan with his use of the medium he said the hand can be overplayed.
“It’s dangerous to be too overtly partisan,” Eberly said. “He can’t be seen as overly partisan by the Democrats and independents who voted for him.”
But Eberly said Democratic legislators “didn’t help themselves” by complaining about Hogan for highlighting their votes.
“That’s the whole point of politics,” Eberly said. “If you vote for something the voters will judge you on it.”
Before there was Governor Hogan there was candidate Hogan and before that there was Change Maryland, which later morphed into the Republican’s successful 2014 campaign.
Hogan frequently touted the success of his efforts to grow the organization on Facebook — an effort on which he spent tens of thousands of dollars to promote as a candidate.
Today, Change Maryland is the Facebook home of Hogan’s political psyche. A page populated by memes — photos with short, sometimes sharply worded messages — aimed at pricking Democrats, frequently referred to as “partisans,” over any number of issues on which he disagrees with the majority party. That page is liked by more than 262,000 people.
Those posts are also shared on Hogan’s personal page, which is liked by more than 111,000 people. But his personal page has a different tone, one where articles are shared that Hogan views as favorable to his positions or that promote his appearances. It was where he most frequently shared updates on his cancer treatment and posts personal photos, including one featuring his young granddaughter playing under his desk that was reminiscent of John F. Kennedy Jr. as a young boy playing under the Resolute desk while his father worked.
Matt Clark, a Hogan spokesman, said the two Hogan accounts, while perhaps using different strategies, are not inconsistent with the governor’s overall message. Only the medium is different.
“I certainly think Change Maryland was that platform and the governor offers that as well,” Clark said.
Douglass Mayer, another Hogan spokesman, added that the governor’s message on social media or in speeches or press releases is simple.
“There’s people who want change and see change in Maryland and there are people who want the status quo,” Mayer said. “There is consistency in what the governor says to anyone — it is only the medium that changes.
The governor’s staff suggested that the entrenched, old-guard Democratic establishment (“the land that social media forgot,” they joke) simply doesn’t understand social media; it’s never had to because it controlled all the levers of power and could count on plenty of allies.
Confronted by technology they’re not comfortable with, Democratic leaders are overreacting to what would be common to those who are social-media savvy, Hogan’s aides say.
“We’re talking about Facebook,” Clark said. “The governor has introduced nine pieces of legislation, and we’re talking about Facebook. The governor has introduced an amendment to the state constitution, and we’re talking about Facebook. This is merely a channel by which the governor communicates with the state.”
Clark said status updates, links, and photos on the personal page are posted by members of the staff but also by Hogan, who does not sign his posts.
Replies to comments made on the posts are always made directly by the governor, Clark said.
The new bully pulpit
Democratic legislators acknowledge that Hogan is making the most of his cyber bully pulpit.
“The benefit of someone who has that large of a social media presence is that they don’t need to filter all their messages through the media,” said Del. David Moon, a progressive Democrat from Montgomery County who parlayed his political blog into a seat in the House of Delegates. “They can go direct to their audience with their take on it and it doesn’t even have to be a link to an article. They can go straight out with their spin and get real-time feedback, virality and sharing, which means you can keep pushing your message further and further.”
Moon said he similarly uses his social media presence to share his ideas on policy and uses the feedback to craft legislation. Still, he acknowledged that the governor has an advantage.
“We’re a little bit handicapped here because the executive is a singular authority, one person,” Moon said. “We have a Senate president, a speaker of the House, the party apparatus. When we don’t have the governor’s mansion we can’t put a message out as easily, that one party message, it’s filtered out through 90 members of the House, the two chamber leaders. He’s using it very effectively.”
Trying to fight back
Lawmakers are finding a way to respond.
Last week when Hogan made comments on a radio program comparing the legislature to rowdy college students on spring break, Democratic lawmakers responded with a slew of Twitter responses about the work they were doing. The hashtag #NotSpringBreak trended on the social media platform in Maryland.
“You’re seeing more coordinated responses now,” Moon said. “It’s messier. It takes more time to work it out but I think you’ll see that increasingly.
Another concern for Democrats is what they call the spin in Hogan’s posts.
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin expressed irritation earlier this month when Hogan pushed for the public to pressure legislators to sustain his veto of a controversial marijuana bill that was described in a Change Maryland meme as allowing “toking while driving” — the smoking of marijuana while behind the wheel.
Zirkin responded by calling the post inaccurate and at the time offered to explain the legislation to Hogan using emojis.
“It really has fundamentally altered debate to some extent because whereas the great part of it is that there’s a lot more transparency, there’s a lot more involvement from the citizenry, which is fabulous,” Zirkin said. “The negative side is there is a lot of misinformation that gets put out and it’s hard to combat it, it’s hard to rein it back in. Someone will say something and it can be fundamentally, completely false and it gets sent out as fact; there’s no way for somebody to say that didn’t actually happen.”