Political Priorities: Rich Madaleno could be America’s first gay governor

Richard Madaleno — Photo: Todd Franson

In his college days, Rich Madaleno had dreams of working for the CIA or the NSA. But they quickly faded after he was told by other students that a person couldn’t get security clearance if they were gay.

“While I wasn’t out publicly at that time in the mid-’80s, I knew who I was,” he says. “I remember a friend coming back from their interview and you had to have a lie detector test, which actually asked about being gay and having slept with people of the same gender. So I had to recalibrate what I was going to do with my career.”

He dove into domestic politics, spending six years in the Maryland state legislature as a budget analyst, before moving on to Montgomery County’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations.

He wanted more. So, in 2002, Madaleno ran for and won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for four years, before running for the Maryland State Senate in 2006, where he found that being gay didn’t matter.

“I had a slightly different experience than some others in a similar situation in other offices around the country, because I had spent time working in Annapolis,” he says. “People knew me. So I already had a reputation going into the legislature as a thoughtful, serious thinker who knew a tremendous amount about the fiscal policy of the state. I wasn’t going in the door as ‘the gay one from Montgomery County.’”

Madaleno’s private life, meanwhile, followed somewhat of an ideal course. He met his husband, Mark, then a pediatric nurse, in 1999 after they were set up by friends. Their first date, at a coffee shop on a Friday night, turned into a four-hour conversation. Two days later, unbeknownst to each other, both men participated in AIDS Walk in Washington, D.C.

“I came up the escalator at the Smithsonian Metro station to check in and I walked right into him,” says Madaleno. “We wound up spending the whole walk talking and sharing the experience.”

After the walk, they went out to dinner.

“I remember…him asking me that very first night if I was interested in having children.”

Two years later, they married. In 2003, when the couple adopted a daughter. Four years later, they adopted a boy.

“I’ll say we’ve been married for coming up on 16 years and people will say, ‘Oh, where did you get married? Did you get married in Canada?’ And I say, ‘No, we got married in our church in Bethesda,’” says Madaleno. “Did we have a marriage license at the time? No. But that didn’t make it any less of a marriage and a commitment. And that was part of the theme that I used through the whole debate over relationship recognition, and then on to marriage equality: we are married. We are married in the eyes of our friends, of our family, of our church. The government just has to catch up to our reality.”

Madaleno is committed to helping the government in that effort, and potentially from a higher office than ever before. After years of being mentioned as a possible candidate, he’s jumped into the fray for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican governor Larry Hogan in November 2018. Even though he must first fight off five fellow Democrats — including Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, and Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP — Madaleno’s sights are squarely focused on critiquing the popular incumbent. He regularly attempts to dispel the image of Hogan as a “moderate,” linking him to national Republicans like President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all of whom are unpopular political figures in the Democratic-leaning Maryland.

Hogan’s current approval rating, which hovers in the low-60s, is built upon a house of sand, argues Madaleno. When asked if they would re-elect Hogan in a race against a generic Democrat, the governor’s lead shrinks to four points.

“A third of the people who said they thought he was doing a good job thought that there was someone who could do a better job,” notes Madaleno.

“That someone is me.”

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your background. Where did you grow up.

RICH MADALENO: I’m an only child. My parents are from the Jersey Shore, and wound up in the area for work after their college experience. I had the good fortune for them to settle in Silver Spring when I was three and to have lived in the area ever since.

MW: Where did you go to school?

MADALENO: I started in the Montgomery County Public Schools. My parents got married very young, they had me right away in the mid-’60s and realized they were in a boatload of financial trouble as a result. I grew up in a community where, when I had some significant speech problems and my parents were worried I would never talk because I had an impediment, I was able to get services to the Montgomery County Public Schools through third grade. It helped me overcome those challenges and put me on a path to doing what I’m able to do now. Because I think, arguably, with an impediment, with limited language skills, I would not be able to pursue a career in public service.

For high school, instead of public school, I wound up going to Georgetown Prep, in what would now be considered North Bethesda. And then for college, I went to Syracuse University for both undergrad and grad school.

MW: When did you realize you were gay?

MADALENO: I would say high school, but there was also a very confusing experience having gone to an all-male high school. I kind of chalked it up to, “Well, I’m just around boys all day long. Once I get to a co-ed environment, everything will change.”

MW: When did you realize that it was more than environmental?

MADALENO: Well, the first person I told was my freshman year of college.

MW: When did you finally come out to your family?

MADALENO: That took a long time. I remember saying to myself early in college that I wasn’t going to come out to my family until I was both financially and emotionally independent, so that if the worst-case scenario happened, I would be okay. I was financially dependent upon them in college and I was afraid of being cut off, and having to drop out of school, and some of the horror stories that I think were more prevalent [at that time].

And then, just as I was at that point of coming out, that’s when the AIDS epidemic hit the public consciousness. And I think for so many people, being gay meant also, by default, being HIV-positive, so that delayed things. I told younger relatives much earlier than I told my parents. That was a big mistake, waiting as long as I did, in hindsight. I shut them out of my life for too long.

MW: Were your parents traditional or conservative?

MADALENO: Through that period, they were both what I would describe as Northeastern Libertarian Republicans. They were very comfortable with Republican politicians like Connie Morella and the first George Bush. My father had spent time in the military. [Being gay] was something that was not talked about, embraced, or common, to the degree that it is now.

MW: What made you decide to run for office?

MADALENO: The ability to do good for a vast number of people. I do believe that we all have a responsibility to work towards improving the world around us. I think part of the human experience is making sure that you leave your community — whether that is the few members of your family, your larger community, the country, the world — a better place than when you came into it. I’ve always viewed public service and elected office as the best avenue for me to do that, to work to make life better for our community and our state and the people who will follow us.

Richard Madaleno — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Why have you now opted to run for governor?

MADALENO: For a variety of reasons. One, I think our state is not moving in the right direction. The way I look at it is, change is inevitable but growth is optional. Maryland simply is not growing in any sort of meaningful way that’s positioning ourselves to be a prosperous community for the 21st century, and without bold leadership from the governor, the state simply isn’t going to make progress.

When I looked around at some of the issues that I cared about, and I looked around for candidates that I thought would be able to carry the mantle and make progress on the things that I care about, I couldn’t find them, and just came to the conclusion of, “All right, if these are the issues that you think are important and these are the issues that you think the people of Maryland should be having a conversation [about], then instead of trying to find someone else to do that, maybe you should just step up and do it.”

When I looked around at the other candidates in the Democratic field, no one has the depth of experience at state issues that I have. Maybe the public’s view of experience amongst political candidates is starting to shift after our Maryland experience with Larry Hogan and our national experience with Donald Trump. Maybe this fascination for the outsider to come in and change everything when they don’t have experience and they don’t have relationships actually isn’t the way to make progress.

The way to make progress is to elect somebody, just like you would elevate somebody in other fields, who has knowledge and experience in the field, has relationships with people. One that can actually start from day one in making progress.

Governor Hogan is always fond of saying as an aside, “I had to submit my first budget my second day in office.” I’ve been working on the state budget for years, so it’s not going to be a problem for me. I think I have unparalleled experience and a record of accomplishment through the legislative process. I have, as a legislator now for fifteen years, fought my way up the ladder, engaged in the process, and managed to succeed in helping moving our state forward, whether it’s been equality for LGBT individuals, or improving educational outcomes for young people in Maryland, improving transportation options, expanding health care, making sure that hungry children get fed at a rate higher in Maryland, or attacking poverty.

All of these things I have led on, and to me, the governor sets the agenda in a state like Maryland. Our constitution reserves a lot of power for our governor. It’s often seen as one of, if not the most, powerful gubernatorial offices in the country because of the amount of powers that are granted to our governor.

MW: What makes Maryland unique in terms of the power that the governor has?

MADALENO: Maryland has a series of state constitutional provisions that govern how we set our fiscal policy, one of which is — and this is unique — the governor proposes a budget and the legislature can only reduce it on a line-item basis. We can’t move money around. We can’t subtract a million from this program and put a million into that program. All we can do is make a reduction. There’s a little give and take where our governor is actually given the authority to amend the budget during the process, and more or less automatically amend the budget without the approval of the legislature, so that not only do you submit the budget as governor, you have power to alter the budget.

If you come back with an untethered Larry Hogan, untethered from public opinion in his second term, he can devastate public education in a way that the legislature would have a hard time countering. He could devastate the safety net in a way that we couldn’t counter. These are enormous consequences. In other states, at least the legislature has more authority to fight back.

MW: What do you say to those critics — and there are many of them out there — who say, “If the state isn’t progressing enough, then why should we elect a Democrat, because Democrats control the legislature”?

MADALENO: That’s funny, because in a majority of the states where there is one-party control by the Republicans, they’re doing everything in their power to use every trick in the playbook to disenfranchise Democratic voters. It is humorous that they talk the bipartisan game, and then try to undermine it as quickly as possible.

To me, we were making progress in Maryland. Look at the way we have changed the reputation of our public schools, top to bottom. We pushed ourselves all the way to the top of the rankings for our public schools, the national rankings with other states. We have dramatically increased the affordability for public higher education in the state. We were amongst the most expensive public systems, and we’ve fallen all the way down into the upper half of the states for affordability.

We were making progress as Democrats when we controlled everything. We did a very poor job of explaining that progress, and demonstrating to the public what we were doing and why. I think in the 2014 election, we ran against our record. I don’t know why. When you look at the turnout numbers, Anthony Brown got more than 200,000 fewer votes than Martin O’Malley did in 2010. Those voters didn’t switch sides and vote for Larry Hogan, because Hogan only upped his vote total over Bob Ehrlich from four years earlier by 70,000. There are just a whole bunch of Democrats, especially in the Washington area, that did not show up to vote.

MW: Why do you think that is?

MADALENO: We did not do a good enough job to go out and give people a reason to show up to vote. We thought that our record was strong enough that people would just be appreciative and show up and vote for us. We failed to motivate our voters. You’ve got to ask people to vote. I think there was a lot of a sense of the polls were so strong, there wasn’t much we had to do in order to win the general election. I think we took a lot for granted.

MW: Larry Hogan is very popular, and most Marylanders think he’s doing a good job, according to recent polls. How do you run against the guy everybody likes?

MADALENO: I think that the political ground that he is on is shifting tremendously. Trump’s election and the Republican initiatives coming out of Congress, Hogan’s silence on those issues, his desire to hide from anything controversial in the state or in Congress, no matter how critical it might be to the people of Maryland, I think all of those things are starting to diminish the advantages that you laid out.

There is a case to be made that with the changes that are happening in Capitol Hill, with the responsibilities that could be turned over to the state government, do you want Larry Hogan to be the one making these decisions?

If the Republicans manage to pass the Un-American Health Care Act and devolve a bunch of rules and regulations to the states, do you want Larry Hogan to be making a decision about whether or not simply being a woman is a pre-existing condition? When Larry Hogan, on his third day in office, proposed eliminating the in-state program we have to provide low-income women the opportunity to get access through the state Medicaid program to prenatal care?

He wanted to end the program and said, “Well, you know, those women are eligible for the health benefit exchanges through the Affordable Care Act. They should be able to get insurance through the private market,” which sounded like a credible Republican position to have, except he didn’t recognize that under federal law, pregnancy is not considered a “life-changing event,” unlike getting a new job or getting married. So unless you were smart enough to get pregnant during open enrollment, so you could then sign up for insurance, you were out of luck.

Those are the issues that we have to put before the voters in the primary and the general election and say, “There are some very difficult issues that are coming down the pike. What sort of leader do you want making those decisions?”

MW: Do you see yourself serving as a sort of firewall to the Trump administration, and to what extent?

MADALENO: I do think we need a governor in the state of Maryland, who is going to be a forceful advocate for the people of Maryland, the needs of the residents of Maryland. [That includes] fighting aggressively against the shortsighted Trump budget proposals that would do enormous economic damage to the state of Maryland, because of the unusually high percentage of our workforce that is tied to the federal government, whether directly as employers or as consultants. This is a huge economic concern for the state, because the federal government is by far our single biggest employer in the state. There are enormous stakes in Washington, in Congress, with whatever budget moves forward.

We need a governor who is going to be aggressive at fighting for the interests of the state of Maryland, and that’s going to be me. We need a governor who is going to stand up and protect the enormous progress that we have made in the state of Maryland on expanding access to health care. That has primarily been through the expansion of Medicaid that the Obama administration and Congress passed with the Affordable Care Act.

To potentially have all of that reversed is immoral for those people who would lose coverage, and costly for the rest of us. We would wind up having to pay significantly more for insurance, at a minimum, because the cost of hospital stays will go up due to large uncompensated care costs for hospitals. People will stay sick. When you take health insurance away from people, they don’t magically become better and healthy. They wind up often becoming less healthy and then going to the most expensive providers — emergency room — for all of their care when they are sicker and require more expensive treatment.

It’s bad for all of our pocketbooks. It’s bad for the health of the community. It’s bad for the economy, because of the important role that the medical field plays, the healthcare field plays, in Maryland, and yet [Hogan] remains silent on the sidelines, unlike many of his other Republican colleagues, who are out there very aggressively speaking up for protecting Medicaid expansion.

MW: We’ve recently seen other states, including New Jersey and Delaware, shut down over budget clashes. Why do you think we’re seeing this trend?

MADALENO: You’re seeing it at the state level because the national Republican leadership has been able to restrict so much money, cut out so much money that was helping states survive, that states are now left more on their own to deal with each one of their fiscal situations. You’ve got so many different interests that are competing for limited resources, and as a result, it can be hard to come to consensus, especially when you’ve got one party that has decided that they benefit from an angry, pessimistic electorate more so than one that feels and appreciates the direction that the government is going in. It is a consequence of decades of Republican leadership purposefully undermining people’s confidence in government.

MW: What’s your reaction Chris Christie’s comments after he went on the beach during the New Jersey shutdown? Essentially he said that “If you want to be on the beach or be in the residence, then run for governor.”

MADALENO: The whole situation was really inconceivable from a successful politician. I was shocked, because it was such bad judgment from someone who managed to get into his second term as a Republican in a traditional heavily Democratic state. It just seemed amazingly, at a minimum, tone deaf, and just so disrespectful of the working people of New Jersey who were being deprived of their own opportunity to enjoy the beach. It just reeked of elitism.

When you look back at Christie’s election and reelection, many people were saying he was the most vibrant governor in America. Look what transpired in New Jersey, because the pivot became, “What’s next?” It’s going to be, “How do I set myself up for being a Republican on the national stage?” God knows, you’re going to see the same thing with Larry Hogan. You’re going to see the real, conservative Larry Hogan come out as he tries to position himself for whatever’s next.

That’s going to be incredibly disappointing to the people of Maryland, just like it’s been incredibly disappointing and damaging for the people of New Jersey. If there is a cautionary tale for the voters of Maryland, it is, “Look at the second term of Chris Christie, because that is our future if Larry Hogan is given a second term.”

MW: If you win, you’ll become the first openly gay man to be elected governor of a state, and likely asked to prioritize the issues of the LGBTQ community. How do you balance the needs of the LGBTQ community with the needs of the broader electorate?

MADALENO: I think it would be in much the same manner that I’ve accomplished it over the last 15 years as a legislator. It is recognizing that I, just like any other elected official from a minority group, say a Latino, an African-American, a woman, whatever you want to say across the board where it’s a non-straight white male. You have that additional responsibility to fight for those issues. You bring a level of understanding and depth to the table that other people don’t necessarily have.

MW: Some people might accuse you of funnelling money to LGBTQ causes over others. How do you balance competing budgetary concerns?

MADALENO: You make the right decisions. There are always going to be large segments of the population that believe you’re favoring X over Y, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. That is part and parcel of the partisan environment that we live in and our politics. I don’t think it’s anything different than it was 200 years ago in our state or our country, except that it’s magnified because of modern communications and the digital world we live in. Other than that, there have always been those misperceptions.

I will continue as I have been, to be a responsible steward of the public purse, demand efficiency and effectiveness out of our state government, but also be aggressive trying to improve the lives of the people that live in Maryland. Whether that is being aggressive at making sure we are treating people dealing with substance abuse issues like heroin, we need to be doing that. Whether it’s being aggressive at dealing with the root causes of substance abuse, we should be doing that. Whether it’s being aggressive about making sure young trans kids have the opportunity to have a successful educational career so that they can grow up to be happy and successful adults, we all have an interest in that, and we would all benefit from that.

That is fiscally responsible and morally right thing to do.

Part of it is standing up and defending our positions. It’s one of the reasons I want to run. I have felt like, as a Democrat, we have been unwilling to embrace the fight for the values that we believe in. We want to help, for example, trans Marylanders, but we are fearful of having the debate, so we hide when it comes to those issues. We need leaders who are going to stand up and embrace their record and explain to the public why we’re doing the things that we’re doing and why it’s the right thing to do.

The Maryland Democratic primary for all state offices, including governor, will be held on June 26, 2018. The general election is on Nov. 6, 2018. For more information on Rich Madaleno’s campaign, visit facebook.com/richardmadaleno.

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