Larry Hogan has got another of his ideas, and this one cracks him up. “I’m gonna call Pence!” says Hogan, startling his chief of staff, Matthew Clark, who sits across a large, round faux-wood table. Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, is meeting with his coronavirus command team, a skeleton crew of state officials still reporting to the capitol in Annapolis. The conference rooms are all too narrow, so they are gathered in a cavernous event room, seated in alternate chairs to maintain social distancing. Hogan, a ruddy 63-year-old with jug-handle ears, has in front of him a dispenser of hand sanitizer, a can of Diet Coke and a starfish-shaped conference-call speaker.
The President, Hogan reminds the group, recently chided him for going around Vice President Mike Pence’s coronavirus task force to procure supplies. “Remember, Trump said, ‘He’s wasting his time. He should’ve just called Mike!'” He laughs a wheezy laugh. “So I’m gonna joke with him and say, ‘Hey, Mike, where’s my tests? The President said I should just call you!’ But then seriously say, ‘You both said we can use federal labs. When can we start?'”
“Right. Got it,” Clark says.
“I got a feeling they’re gonna backpedal on all that,” Hogan says.
Like every other governor in America, Hogan is dealing with a crisis for which there is no playbook. The team assembled here began its April 22 briefing on a somber note, as the state’s health secretary, Bobby Neall, read off the numbers: 14,775 total confirmed cases of COVID-19, up 582 from the day before; 631 deaths in the past five weeks, up 47 from the previous day’s count. Hogan was briefed about a possible outbreak at a chicken plant on the Delaware border and about a convention center being converted into a field hospital; he got word that his latest shipment of testing supplies from South Korea had arrived, greeted at Baltimore-Washington International Airport by his Korean-American wife Yumi with platters of crab cakes and kimchi.
Hogan has worked around the clock since declaring a state of emergency 48 days earlier, issuing 38 executive orders and calling up the state’s National Guard. The closest thing he can imagine is a natural disaster, he says, but even that doesn’t capture it. “This is like a hurricane that hits all 50 states every single day,” he tells me later, crammed into a navy blue armchair in his spacious office decorated with memorabilia. “And it continues in intensity. It doesn’t go away. It just keeps hitting, hitting, hitting.”
From Tallahassee to Olympia, in big states and small, every governor in America has improvised something like this, scrambling to keep up with the outbreak. The governors are constantly comparing notes–in the past 24 hours, Hogan tells me, he’s texted with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. As chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA), Hogan has tried to coordinate their efforts, convening a series of calls in which they trade ideas and information.
The cooperation has been crucial. Governors will tell you they’re always the officials whose leadership most directly affects people’s lives. But that’s been truer than ever in the current crisis, as Trump has been more occupied with defending his performance and casting blame than with mounting the kind of coordinated national effort that other countries’ leaders have orchestrated. While the White House has funneled some supplies to the states, Trump has disavowed responsibility for testing and equipment shortfalls and passed the buck to the governors. The result has been a kind of federalist free-for-all, with state leaders pitted against one another in bidding wars for scarce equipment, and against the President, whose very office was created to avoid such anarchy.
Now the governors face perhaps their hardest decision: how and when to ease COVID-19 restrictions and start to reopen their states. The question of how to balance public health and economic activity has transcended partisanship: Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington and Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio are among those who have drawn praise for their efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Hogan, a popular moderate who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and doesn’t plan to in November, has drawn acclaim for his similarly aggressive tack. One recent poll found 84% of Marylanders approved of his handling of the crisis. The GOP veteran, who was re-elected by a healthy margin in 2018, has emerged as a unifying figure in his role as head of the NGA.
It’s not what Hogan envisioned for his chairmanship, a largely ceremonial position that he’d planned to use to push for national infrastructure when he took it last July. In early February, when the governors converged on Washington for their semiannual meeting, Trump was still casting the virus as a nonissue that would go away on its own. Hogan arranged for the group to be briefed by experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The stark warning the experts delivered was so at odds with the public discussion that it made many of the governors sit up in their seats and return home with a sense of urgency. If the U.S. muddles through the current crisis, it will be because America’s governors stepped up to the plate–at least in part because of Hogan. Perhaps not coincidentally, several of the governors who’ve come in for the most criticism for their lackadaisical handling of the pandemic–including Georgia’s Brian Kemp and Florida’s Ron DeSantis–are not dues-paying NGA members and weren’t at the meeting.
The crisis has provided a lesson not just in the governors’ varying levels of executive competence but also in the nature of political leadership itself. The virus doesn’t care about the policy debates and penny-ante scandals that dominate political campaigns. In an all-consuming crisis, what people want is empathy and urgency: the steady hand, the decisive manager, the clear communicator. The kind of leader creative enough to negotiate with a foreign government 13 time zones away to procure the testing kits the federal government has failed to provide. Hogan was one of the first governors in America to declare a state of emergency and the first in the region to order public schools to close. He’s overseen the addition of 6,000 new hospital beds to the state’s capacity. “I want them to know that we’re making decisions based on the science and the facts,” Hogan says of his constituents, “but also that we care, that I empathize with what they’re going through.”
At 1 P.M., Hogan settles back at the table for today’s governors-only teleconference. Forty-four governors have dialed in to the call, the 16th Hogan has convened since the start of the pandemic. “My question is, for those who received the Abbott machines, we received 15, but we only received 120 cartridges and/or kits we could actually test with,” says Andy Beshear, the governor of Kentucky. “Is anybody getting any more of these kits from the federal government?”
The rapid-testing device made by Abbott Laboratories, a sleek white gizmo the size of a bread box, was touted by Trump in a March 29 Rose Garden press conference. The President called the machine, which can produce a result in as little as five minutes, “a whole new ballgame.” The truth fell far short of that boast.
“Andy, this is Andrew,” New York’s Governor Cuomo replies. “My experience is, these companies will sell the machines, which are several million dollars each, but then they don’t deliver the test kits and the reagents. And then they say the federal government is doing the allocation of the test kits.” (In a statement, Abbott said the allotment to states was “only a fraction” of its tests and that its ID NOW machines cost less than $5,000 each.)
Two more governors say they’ve faced some of the same difficulties, while another says she can’t even figure out whom in Washington to call about tests. (Hogan gives her a name.) Several of the governors complain that the Administration seems less interested in helping than in finding ways to shift blame to the states.
These calls have been a lifeline for the governors, their principal source of unfiltered information and advice from their colleagues in the trenches of the battle against the virus. “The NGA’s never been as important as it is now, probably in decades, if not ever,” Cuomo says. The governors have been thrust into a no-win situation by the federal government, he says, making it all the more important that they stick together.
As the governors speak, Congress and the White House have just struck a deal to spend $484 billion to replenish a small-business aid fund. But money for state and local governments got negotiated away, shelved for the next bill. It’s a major problem for the governors, whose tax revenues have taken a massive hit from the crisis. Just 90 days of state-ordered sheltering in place is projected to blow an estimated $3 billion hole in Maryland’s $50 billion annual budget. The very governments that are providing vital services to keep their locked-down states afloat have been thanked for their efforts with a pile of bills they can’t pay. And while Trump has repeatedly expressed support for sending aid to the states, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water on the idea, saying states should explore bankruptcy instead.
That’s not the only burden the states face. The recent congressional aid package that expanded unemployment benefits mandated that they be extended to independent contractors and the self-employed. But the package gave the states, which administer unemployment insurance, no mechanism to distribute these benefits. The phone lines of Maryland’s unemployment office were jammed with tens of thousands of calls, Hogan says. The governors on the call exchange tips on creating websites to deal with the problem.
Hogan crouches impatiently over the conference-call starfish, rifling through his stack of papers. He’s short and round, with a pronounced Maryland accent. Once blessed with a big white swoosh of Republican-real-estate-developer hair, he’s worn it close-shaved since recovering from lymphoma in 2015. As with most authentic-seeming politicians, there’s more than a little ambition behind Hogan’s regular-guy persona. His father was a Republican Congressman–the first Republican member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment–and a young Hogan hoped to follow him into politics. But after two failed runs for Congress, he went into business instead, pausing to serve a stint as appointments secretary to Governor Robert Ehrlich from 2003 to 2007.
When Hogan sought the governorship in 2014, he cast himself as a fiscally focused uniter who would cut taxes and forswear social issues. But Maryland was trending so blue that the forecaster Nate Silver gave Hogan a less than 10% chance of victory. “This is a guy nobody thought had a chance to win, but I could just tell he had real skills,” says Hogan’s friend Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor.
Hogan was tested early. Three months after he was sworn in, riots broke out in Baltimore over the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Hogan went to Baltimore and set up a command post, working from the city and walking the streets every day. Keiffer Mitchell, a Democratic former Baltimore city councilman who now serves in Hogan’s cabinet, recalls advising Hogan against approaching a group of gang members with neck tattoos. But the governor ignored him and won them over, Mitchell says, promising to attend to priorities like rec centers if they’d help him keep the city safe.
Just two months after the protests, Hogan was diagnosed with Stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Rather than seclude himself during his treatment, he chronicled the illness on Facebook, posting pictures of himself hooked up to chemotherapy tubes or working from the hospital. Letters and comments poured in from Marylanders who’d been through or watched a loved one go through a similar ordeal.
The current crisis has showcased Hogan’s resourcefulness. Faced with the shortage of testing kits that has bedeviled many states, Hogan noticed that his wife Yumi’s native South Korea had a surplus. The country had a policy of not selling to states. But over three weeks of intensive negotiations in her native language, Yumi Hogan–an abstract painter who is thought to be America’s first Korean-American first lady–helped broker a deal to purchase 500,000 tests and fly them to Maryland on idled Korean Air passenger planes. The talks were conducted in secrecy to prevent the federal government from intercepting and commandeering the shipment, as it has done with other supplies acquired by states. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the tests while the plane was in the air.
Hogan’s testing coup angered Trump. “He didn’t understand too much about what was going on,” Trump said of Hogan on April 20. Hogan says Washington followed up by sending him a list of laboratories in his state, none of which had coronavirus tests on hand. Most were federal government labs the state couldn’t even access. Hence the appeal to Pence.
Hogan’s reputation for pragmatism and moderation has won him approval scores in the 70s from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike and from both white and African-American residents. “I can’t even find Democrats in my own family who disapprove of the job he’s doing,” says Donna Edwards, a former Democratic Congresswoman from Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. In 2016, Hogan boycotted the Republican National Convention and wrote in his father’s name on his presidential ballot. “That was the kind of Republican that I wanted to vote for,” Hogan tells me. Last year, a group of anti-Trump Republicans tried to persuade Hogan to run for President. Hogan, as he puts it, “didn’t throw them out of my office,” but eventually decided Trump’s popularity with the Republican base made him unbeatable in a primary.
Hogan’s father died in 2017. The governor hasn’t decided whom to vote for this November. He doesn’t rule out voting Democratic. As for Trump, Hogan says, “he hasn’t done anything to make me change my mind.”
When i ask Hogan what he misses most about life before the pandemic, he gets wistful. “I’m a people person,” he says. “Usually I’d be at events all day and all night.” One of the highlights of Hogan’s year is opening day of the baseball season in the spring, when he spends hours walking around Oriole Park at Camden Yards, greeting people, shaking thousands of hands and taking hundreds of selfies. This year, of course, there was no opening day. “That’s what I miss about normal life,” he says. “I miss people.”
On April 24, Hogan announced a phased reopening plan based on a series of testing and tracing benchmarks. The point is to keep people safe, he tells me, but also to give them hope: they have to know there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. That the leaders they’ve elected have a plan, even if it’s far from clear when they’ll be able to put it into effect.
The credibility Hogan’s built with his constituents will be critical to the reopening effort. It’s a quality that’s been in short supply in the White House, where a few hours after Hogan speaks, Trump will force Redfield to “correct” an article that quoted him accurately, and where the next day the President will muse about injecting disinfectant into people’s bodies. After receiving hundreds of calls to its hotline, Maryland’s emergency-management agency is forced to issue a warning that “under no circumstances should any disinfectant product be administered into the body through injection, ingestion or any other route.”
For the most part, Maryland’s residents have followed Hogan’s lead. A small protest erupted in Annapolis on April 18, demanding an end to the governor’s stay-at-home order. Hogan wasn’t there to see it because he was at the airport receiving the South Korean test kits. “I didn’t think it was helpful for the President to be encouraging people to go out and protest,” he says. Trump’s tweets urging people to “liberate” certain states, he notes, came the day after the President’s own Administration issued guidelines calling for the stay-at-home orders to be kept in place for now.
To the protesters, however, Hogan offers not a rebuke but sympathy. “I get the frustration,” he says. “I want it to be over, you know? I’m tired of it also.” As the pandemic response moves into its next phase, it will be up to Hogan and the other governors to lead the way.
Update, April 30: This story was updated on April 30 to note the price of the Abbott Laboratories ID NOW coronavirus testing instrument.
This appears in the May 11, 2020 issue of TIME.
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