The Prison Reformer Who Champions Ted Cruz
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because conservatives such as Michael Hough are leading the fight against recidivism and mass incarceration.
Michael Hough’s statehouse digs are filled with awards — from the American Conservative Union here, the Leadership Institute there. You can’t miss the gold-framed Declaration of Independence, the old George W. Bush campaign sign or the NRA logo carpet outside the state senator’s office. The photo of him and Ted Cruz glad-handing isn’t shocking, either, since Hough’s leading the presidential candidate’s primary efforts here in Maryland. What’s more surprising: the picture next to it — of Hough and his wife, posing with another White House hopeful. “My wife likes Donald,” the father of three says, painfully.
What’s a state campaign chairman to do? Hough’s received high praise as “a respected conservative leader” from Cruz himself, though the 36-year-old lawmaker faces not just a divided home, but a divided state — one that could go the way of his wife if polls hold true during Maryland’s primary on Tuesday. It’s just one of many apparent contradictions. Bespectacled with a slick, Cruz-ian comb-over, Hough today looks nothing like the long-haired rock star of his garage-band days. He’s an Air Force vet who never served outside Wyoming. And while he plays the part of a bona fide guns-and-faith conservative well, Hough’s most significant work is in … compassionate prison reform?
The Justice Reinvestment Act — which eases sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders and pushes offenders to treatment rather than prison — passed into law this month, in no small part thanks to Hough, who led the Republican efforts to craft it. He’s also helped push through bills limiting civil asset forfeiture (“You had the ACLU and the prosecutors support it, which never happens,” he brags) and reforming police conduct and accountability — without being “antipolice,” Hough claims. Popping open a Diet Coke, at just past 8 a.m., Hough calls the justice act the largest reform “in a generation” — and some experts agree it’s a doozy.
Yet, not everyone’s happy: “The Senate amended the life out of it,” the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform’s Pat Schenck tells OZY. It’s something to build off of and “a once-in-a-lifetime bill,” says Keith Wallington of the Justice Policy Institute, if only because “Maryland has (historically) set the bar pretty low for justice reform.” And while an early proposal included a reduction in prisons and budget savings nearing $250 million over 10 years, the Senate version went down to “a paltry” $34 million, Wallington says. “That’s a little overblown,” Hough counters, though he agrees the budget savings in the final bill will be less than originally projected.
At first blush, this stalwart Republican seems like an unlikely advocate for addicts and rampant recidivists. But while GOPers such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan birthed and expanded the war on drugs decades ago, red state leaders from Texas to Utah and Georgia have recently championed justice reform due to both compassionate conservatism and a response to “draconian laws” that proved costly yet rarely improved public safety, says Lauren Krisai with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. As a teen growing up with an alcoholic father, Hough knew the tug and pull of crime and addiction — the Nirvana fan got through those years fixing cars, dying his hair blond and red, and ignoring school to the tune of a 2.0 GPA — but as an adult he became an expert in addressing those problems. “We over-criminalize everything,” says Hough, whose non-legislature job is as a senior policy adviser on criminal justice for the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “This is where my Christianity and libertarianism come together.”
Even if Cruz loses Maryland, Hough could be crucial in the near future: He’ll play a role in selecting the state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention in July.
It’s also where his past and present collide. After high school, Hough enlisted and was sent to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to work on Minuteman III missiles — aka nukes. After returning to Maryland newly married, he took his younger brother away from his father, who took his own life in 2005. Hough graduated cum laude in political science from Towson University. He then served as an aide and, later, as campaign manager to Maryland State Sen. Alex X. Mooney before entering politics himself. Now he’s evoking figures such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee — faith-filled conservatives who think less drug policing is better for society.
In any other year, Hough’s late-voting state with nearly 40 delegates up for grabs would likely be a footnote on the Republican electoral calendar. But every delegate is now crucial for Trump, who’s in the lead and trying to sew up the nomination without a contested convention. For his part, Hough still believes his home state could stop the real estate mogul in his tracks next week, and he’s busy rallying volunteers and evangelizing other lawmakers to lend support. Even if Cruz loses Maryland, Hough could be crucial in the near future — by helping select the state’s delegates for the GOP’s convention in July, where they could swing their support behind Cruz if there’s a contested ballot.
Certainly, a Republican makes his mark in a Democrat-dominated state by getting on board with meaningful bipartisan legislation and attaching his or her name to national party leaders whenever possible. Being in the minority party limits Hough’s lawmaking potential, sure, though he sees the political landscape shifting thanks to a historic 2014 election that made Larry Hogan the state’s third Republican governor and added nine conservative seats in the statehouse. A few more would let them sustain vetoes, Hough notes, and when Hough closes his eyes, he imagines a Maryland that looks more like Massachusetts: solidly liberal legislatures paired with Republican execs such as Mitt Romney or Charlie Baker.
Which begs the question: Could he see himself following Hogan on a path to the governor’s mansion? “I don’t know that I necessarily fit the mold,” he says with a dose of Catholic self-deprecation. A reason not to believe him: In the two political races of his young career — a state delegate run in 2010 and state Senate in 2014 — he beat incumbents by 30 percentage points each time. And if not vying for statewide office, Hough could always parlay his criminal justice expertise into an administrative post … perhaps as part of a Cruz White House? Hough wouldn’t comment, though such moves — from think tank policy wonk to administration adviser — are hardly uncommon. Says Qorvis Communications managing director Michael Petruzzello, whose Washington, D.C., firm tracks the key influencers of presidential candidates: “You see that all the time.”