Kelly Schulz’s political catch-22

The former state cabinet member and Republican lawmaker insists she can win enough Democrats and independents to become Maryland governor. But first she has to win the GOP primary

As a centrist Republican running with the backing of her popular boss and mentor, Gov. Larry Hogan, Kelly Schulz appears to already be on third base, the political equivalent of being one hit from home plate.

In a year that seems set to deliver a “red wave” of election victories for the GOP, Schulz thinks the state could elect a Republican governor for the third time in a decade. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one in the Old Line State, but that didn’t keep them from electing the moderate Hogan twice — even in 2018, when Democrats swept into governors’ mansions and statehouses elsewhere in the country. 

But to make it to the general election, let alone Annapolis, Schulz must first beat Maryland Delegate Dan Cox, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, in next Tuesday’s primary. She’s betting that Maryland Republicans will opt for a dealmaker who is prepared to work with the statehouse’s Democratic majority instead of a culture warrior. 

“It does get a little tricky. But I always like to say that there’s nothing more important to me, especially in my political world, than having integrity,” Schulz, who most recently served as Maryland’s commerce secretary, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “That’s the message that I’m going to deliver to my Republican primary voters. And it’s the same message that I’m going to deliver to independent and Democratic voters in November.”

Schulz raised twice as much money as Cox in June, but a recent poll showed Cox leading her by three points — although 44 percent of Marylanders surveyed were undecided. The Democratic Governors Association is running a TV ad boosting Cox, suggesting that party leaders believe a Democrat has a better chance at beating the far-right lawmaker than the more moderate state cabinet member, part of a nationwide trend that has seen Democrats attempt to influence GOP primaries. 

“The very conservative voters, it’s not going to be enough for them possibly in the primary, but I believe that they understand the state enough to know that to win, we have to be able to get to the finish line to be able to make sure that we do keep Maryland on that right path,” she said. 

(L) Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz shakes hands with record shop manager Jeff Ball as she campaigned in Catonsville, Maryland on June 09, 2022. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Cox did not respond to an interview request.  

In her campaign, Schulz is running as an old-school Republican who wants to lower taxes and improve the state’s business environment. Her campaign has opted to avoid some divisive social issues such as abortion (she is “personally pro-life” but believes “the issue is settled law in Maryland,” according to a spokesperson’s comments after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month), although she has waded into others: After a Supreme Court decision in June striking down gun control legislation in New York, Schulz praised Hogan’s decision to roll back certain gun restrictions in Maryland. 

But for the most part, Schulz has sought to promote her business bona fides from her time working in the Hogan administration and, before that, in the private sector. 

Cox, meanwhile, does not shy away from more radical positions. He traveled to Pennsylvania after the 2020 presidential election in an unsuccessful effort to find evidence of voter fraud, and sponsored buses to take Marylanders to the Jan. 6, 2021, protests that turned into the Capitol riot. Later that day, while people were ransacking the U.S. Capitol, he tweeted that former Vice President Mike Pence was a “traitor.”

“The conventional wisdom seems to be that a Republican statewide candidate is only going to win by appealing to moderate voters, whether that’s moderate independents or even moderate Democrats,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the political and community relations arm of Baltimore’s Jewish federation, known as The Associated.

The three leading Democrats, judging by a recent poll that found them locked in a statistical tie, are Maryland Peter Franchot, former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who chaired the Democratic National Committee from 2017 to 2021, and former nonprofit chief and author Wes Moore. A successful Republican, said Libit, will have to convince enough Democrats and independents that the Democratic nominee is too far to the left for the state’s voters, 65% of whom said in March they approve of the job Hogan is doing as governor.

“I had no money. I had no infrastructure. I had nothing but a pair of flip-flops, and I went out every night after work, and every weekend, and I knocked on doors, and I shook hands,” she said. 

“The coalition of voters put together by both Governor Hogan, and before that Governor [Robert] Ehrlich, involved appealing much more to the middle and painting their opponent as being extreme on the left,” Libit said, referring to the state’s last Republican governor, who served from 2003 to 2007. 

The Washington Post endorsed Perez and Schulz in their respective primaries. “Neither has heeded the siren song of extremism that has come to exert a tight grip on many in the GOP, and plenty in the Democratic Party as well,” The Post editorial board wrote this week

Schulz grew up outside Detroit and later moved to Frederick, Md., with her husband, whom she has since divorced. Her adopted hometown has provided Schulz with more than just a base of political support: In 2006, at age 36, she graduated from Hood College in Frederick, at the time a mother of two boys and the first person in her family to graduate from college. 

“I went to college, Eastern Michigan University, and in my sophomore year, I got pregnant. I dropped out of school, I got married and I spent the next 15 years raising my boys,” she said. “Politics was kind of the furthest thing from my mind.” 

Schulz waited tables for years and was exposed to politics while she was in college as an adult. She assumed she would go to law school, and chose political science as her major with that in mind. Internships with local politicians followed, but law school did not. 

“I was able to see what public service meant, and how it could make a difference in the community,” Schulz recalled. Befriending her much younger classmates, who were just a few years older than her sons, exposed her to young people’s perspectives on political issues: “I think it was good for both me and for them,” she said. 

Her first job after graduating was overseeing scheduling for the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a position she held until a change in presidential administrations forced her out of government and into defense contracting — a well-trodden Washington path, even for someone who lived a few dozen miles outside the Beltway. She also began to get involved in Republican politics in Maryland, and decided to run for an open seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2010. In the primary, she edged out her opponent by six votes. 

“I had no money. I had no infrastructure. I had nothing but a pair of flip-flops, and I went out every night after work, and every weekend, and I knocked on doors, and I shook hands,” she said. 

Schulz was elected again in 2014, but soon after, the newly elected Gov. Hogan — the state’s second Republican governor in 45 years — approached her about joining his administration. 

“The governor called me into his office during the transition, and he said, ‘Kelly, if you were to do anything in this administration, what would you want to do?’” she recalled. “I’m working in defense contracting. I have my House of Delegates [position], and I love both of them. But the only thing that I would leave those two positions for would be to be the secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. And he’s like, ‘Wow, Kelly, probably that’s like the worst job in the state. Why would you do that?’” She said the department needed to change: Democrats had worked against business owners, she claimed, and the Hogan administration would work to support them. 

In that role, she worked with small businesses across the state. “Those were some of my greatest times, I think, just being able to work with individuals, being able to make sure that they had workforce development training and skills and ways in which to really be able to create your own personal prosperity,” said Schulz, who counts “prosperity” as one of her key campaign values. 

“I talk a lot about ‘safe, steady and prosperous,’” she said. “Safety is the number one concern, because without the feeling of safety, nothing else matters.” Next on her list — steady — means making “sure that every child, regardless of the zip code or the place they grew up in, have that opportunity to get the best schools.” And lastly, prosperity: “You want to be able to make sure that Maryland stays on the right path,” added Schulz, who pledged not to raise taxes. 

Louis Dubin, a real estate developer who lives in Montgomery County near Washington, D.C., got to know Schulz through his position as chair of the Governor’s Workforce Development Board.

“You can imagine how intimate one gets when it comes to secretaries of labor and commerce. You really have to try and figure out what are the right ways to get Marylanders back to work,” Dubin said. “The challenges that Kelly has stepped up to, I’ve seen firsthand.”

As secretary of commerce, a position Schulz assumed in early 2019, she and her boss drew praise for their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. “In one day, my job kind of switched on a dime from being able to grow and expand and track business to just being able to make sure that businesses were able to survive,” she said. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (L) and Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz depart a news conference about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in front of the Maryland State House on April 17, 2020, in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Hogan, who never joined his fellow Republicans in supporting Trump, with whom he began to publicly and frequently clash during the pandemic. He called on Trump to stop spreading misinformation about the pandemic, and in July 2020, authored a Washington Post op-ed sharply criticizing the former president for his approach to fighting the virus. Cox sought to challenge Hogan’s COVID-19 restrictions, but a federal judge struck down his lawsuit.

It was in Schulz’s role at the Department of Commerce that she first got to know members of Maryland’s Jewish community. 

“We have a long relationship with Kelly Schulz because our Maryland/Israel Development Center, which is a joint effort with the state Department of Commerce, that fell within her agency. She has always been very supportive of it,” the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Libit said. He added that he does not have much of a relationship with Cox, whose district in Western Maryland does not include any part of Baltimore’s Jewish community. (He did speak to Cox’s staff last year after Cox made comments invoking the Holocaust when he criticized a mental health bill.) 

Speaking to Jewish community activists at the 2020 Maryland Jewish Advocacy Day in Annapolis, Schulz highlighted the international aspect of her work: “Israel is a wonderful exporter and partner,” she told attendees.

“I’ve spent a good deal of time with the Jewish community here in Maryland, both in the Baltimore area and the Montgomery County area. So of course, I want to be able to make sure that hate crimes are treated with the utmost importance, and to be able to make sure that people feel safe,” Schulz told JI. 

She also highlighted her support for a state program that offers private-school vouchers to low-income students.

“I am a very strong supporter of a program called BOOST, which allows those Jewish children to get the funding through the state to go to those private Jewish schools, because we know that that’s really important to the Orthodox community,” said Schulz. Cox said in a questionnaire from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington that expanding the program is “a primary focus of my campaign.”

Schulz and Cox have both sought to highlight their support for parents, especially when it comes to their role in the children’s education, taking a page from the playbook of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The longtime business executive defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe last year after seizing on a comment McAuliffe made at a debate questioning the involvement of parents in determining school curriculums. 

“We talk frequently about my parental bill of rights that I put out a couple of months ago, talking about empowering parents. If your children are in a school system or in a specific school that’s not working, that’s not living up to the standard, then the parents should have the opportunity to take that child to something like a public charter school [or a private school],” Schulz told JI. Cox took the rhetoric further, calling for “increased parental rights” and vowing to “end CRT [critical race theory] and gender politics in schools.”

Schulz’s backers point out that Trump is extremely unpopular in Maryland — the former president earned just 32% of the vote in 2020 — but in a Republican primary, a Trump-backed candidate could emerge victorious. “Dan Cox is not a unifier,” said Dubin, the real estate developer.

Libit added that in Baltimore, many politically conservative Jews who might prefer Schulz are registered as Democrats, so they can’t vote in the Republican primary.

“Honestly, most of the local politics in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, is — if you want to have a say in your candidates, you have to be registered as a Democrat to vote in the primaries,” he said. 

Abba Poliakoff, a Baltimore resident who is supporting Schulz, said he thinks the contrast between Schulz and Cox might work in her favor.

“He’s got a reputation, and he says things that are a little unnerving,” Poliakoff told JI. “I told Kelly, I thought that, you know, to some extent, he really helps Kelly, in the sense that people can see — particularly people [who] would not otherwise normally vote Republican — that she is a strong, middle-of-the-road, logical, careful, understanding candidate.”

This is Schulz’s pitch, too: “I’m a common-sense bipartisan leader,” she explained. “That’s what I will continue to bring to the governor’s office when I’m there.”

But in an increasingly polarized country, do primary voters still care about common-sense, bipartisan leadership any longer? Voters in the Old Line State will decide on Tuesday.

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