Normally, Kelly Schulz said, she tries not to work when she comes home to Frederick County.
But on a recent afternoon visiting businesses in Frederick County the former Frederick County delegate — who now serves as Maryland’s secretary of commerce — toured a factory floor and listened as the company’s president and CEO explained various products and pieces of equipment.
Later, she was seated at the center of a large table — actually, several smaller tables pushed together — in a fluorescent-lit conference room listening to business executives tell her what they needed and wanted from the state to help their businesses thrive.
The room was nestled in a corner of the Offices at Westview, in a building that had once been part of one of Frederick County’s biggest business losses in decades.
With its large, airy lobby, the building had been part of the campus of offices for Bechtel, the engineering and construction company that moved its operations and about 1,100 jobs from Frederick to Virginia in 2015, a move driven partly by frustration with Maryland’s business climate during the Martin O’Malley administration.
The Frederick stop was Schulz’s fourth in a series that will take her to each of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore city before the start of the next legislative session in January. Along with Frederick, she and her team have done Carroll, Talbot, and Calvert counties so far.
A table with platters of cookies and bottles of water and soda sat off to one side as Schulz, County Executive Jan Gardner, and county Economic Development Director Helen Propheter held a roundtable with tenants in the building, listening as they talked about their successes and their frustrations with various business issues in the county and the state.
She nodded soberly as they talked about concerns that included traffic on U.S. 15 and around the city, the need for more and faster broadband service, and the challenge of finding workers in a labor market with low unemployment.
The last concern is one she hears wherever she goes, Schulz told the group.
While Schulz was secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation in Gov. Larry Hogan’s first term, the state increased its emphasis on registered apprenticeships to help companies connect with potential employees.
“There are job shortages all over the state and all over the country,” she told the group.
A ‘Rising Star’
While Schulz is currently busy promoting business around the state, it’s her own future career options that interest some Maryland political observers.
Schulz’s name has been mentioned in connection with the nomination for the 6th Congressional District seat. The redrawn district will include more Republican voters from western Maryland, as well as a potential governor or lieutenant governor spot to succeed term-limited Larry Hogan (R) in 2022.
Schulz, however, played down any future political desires.
“I really don’t have any plans,” she said. “I wish I could give you some breaking news story. But honestly, for the last five months, I have been so engrossed in the Department of Commerce and wanting to do the best job possible that my 100 percent focus is on the Department of Commerce at this time.”
But others believe her political stock is rising.
“She’s clearly seen as a rising star,” said Mileah Kromer, an associate director of political science, and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
Several likely candidates for the 2022 gubernatorial Republican nomination lost their elections in 2018, and Schulz will likely emerge from the Hogan administration as one of its more respected and high-profile members, Kromer said.
In a heavily Democratic state, Republican candidates tend to be focused on jobs and taxes, she said, and Schulz’s positions at the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the Department of Commerce point her in that direction.
“That is a powerful record for someone to have,” Kromer said.
Carin Robinson, an associate professor at Hood College, agreed that Schulz’s connection with the popular Hogan would give her credibility, name recognition, and a base of donors from which to start a campaign.
“If there’s a place that any future Republican in Maryland wants to be right now, it is attached to Larry Hogan,” Robinson said.
Paul Ellington, a Republican political consultant, said that along with Schulz’s accomplishments in the administration, her connection with Hogan would also give her access to the donors who funded the governor’s campaigns.
“Kelly has access to the finance committee. And the finance committee is a big deal,” Ellington said.
Along with any future political aspirations she might have, she’s also helped nurture the next generation of female leaders and political candidates.
Robinson said Schulz has been a regular participant in a program called Training Miss President, designed to encourage female undergraduates to consider running for political office, and a regular speaker to Robinson’s students at Hood.
She made a stir there in the fall of 2014 by telling students that Hogan was going to win the governor’s race, and Robinson said it was a thrill for students to watch her transition into her role in the Cabinet.
Robinson thinks the state’s Republican Party would be wise to consider someone like Schulz in an effort to expand its voter base.
“What is unique about Kelly Schulz is, she is a woman and she is a Republican,” Robinson said.
‘She was relentless’
Schulz’s electoral career got off to a nail-biting beginning.
She beat incumbent Paul Stull in the 2010 Republican primary by six votes, but went on to win a much more comfortable general election race and a seat in the House of Delegates from what was then known as District 4A.
But the narrow primary margin didn’t stop her once she got to Annapolis.
“Kelly immediately hit the ground running as a freshman,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford), the House minority whip who was sworn in with Schulz in the freshman class of 2011.
She landed a spot on the Economic Matters Committee, and quickly earned a reputation as someone who worked hard and learned the details of business regulation, banking, insurance regulation, and other issues that came before the committee, Szeliga said.
Schulz’s colleagues on the committee quickly found that she asked good questions about legislation, and was willing to take a fair look at issues, said Delegate Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s), the committee’s chairman.
“She was willing to work with anyone who shared her interest and passion for the subject matter,” Davis said.
There was also an old-school sense of collegiality and an ability to remain above the heat of debate on topics before the committee.
“It never got personal, at least in my experience,” Davis said. “I never saw it, not only with myself, but with others. She fought passionately for the things she believed in. But then when it was over, you could go have lunch or a beverage or whatever with her, and it was just over. So people liked that way about her, that she kept it professional.”
Schulz had worked as a real estate agent and a program manager for a defense contractor before running for office, and she used what she had learned to help inform her own decisions and those of other people on the committee, said Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, the state’s secretary of natural resources who served on Economic Matters with Schulz.
“She had a lot of expertise, having experience in the private sector, which was really beneficial, I think, to not only her constituents but also to her fellow committee members,” Haddaway-Riccio said.
The General Assembly is a collection of citizen lawmakers, she said, and while each member brings a valuable perspective, not all of them have a business background.
“She had that experience, and when we were making decisions that affect businesses in their everyday lives here in Maryland, it was really important to have that perspective,” Haddaway-Riccio said.
One of the first bills that Schulz got passed was a measure that would allow farms to operate so-called farm breweries as an additional way to make money.
Tom Barse, owner of Milkhouse Brewery in Mount Airy, said he and some others wanted to be able to grow hops, grain, and other ingredients on their farms in order to be able to make beer and serve it.
They presented the idea to Schulz, who took a framework from a previous bill on wineries and met with Barse and others many times to craft the bill.
“I mean, she was relentless,” Barse said. “And if you’ve met her, you know that that’s who she is and how she operates.”
That tenacity and her work in the General Assembly made her a pretty clear choice when Hogan picked her to head the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in 2015. In 2019, the governor named her secretary of commerce.
“It was just not surprising to me or anyone that she was one of his early and first picks as part of his administration,” Szeliga said.
But while she raves about the job that Schulz has done at DLLR and Commerce, Szeliga would like to see her return to the political arena at some point.
“I would hope that Kelly would look at that next opportunity, and know that there’s so many people like me behind her, that would support her. We need more Republicans, we need more women.”
‘The whole package’
At her last stop of the day, Schulz dropped into an event at Tenth Ward Distilling on East Patrick Street, where she mingled with Barse, Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor, the city’s economic development director, Richard Griffin, John Fieseler, the head of Visit Frederick, and others.
Sitting at a table, with a few staff members nearby, she repeated that she didn’t have any political future in mind.
But she seemed like she may have at least thought about thinking about it.
“I can honestly say, I do not have a plan of action at this point in time. It’s one of those things that, it will take a lot of conversations in order to be able to look at those types of options.”
Meanwhile, she was left with the feeling of “just being completely honored and humbled that there are individuals that would ever consider to think of me in that type of a realm. I know there’s wonderfully talented people all throughout Frederick County and the state. So even to be thought of in that way is completely humbling. But I don’t have, I’m not making those types of decisions or looking at that in a way that’s a concrete way at this point.”
Davis believes Schulz would be a challenging opponent in any race, bringing focus, an attention to detail, a willingness to work hard, and an experience in government and business.
“I’m just glad I won’t have to run against Kelly, because she’s going to be a handful whatever race she gets in,” he said.
Szeliga focused on the reputation as a quick study and hard worker that Schulz has earned in the General Assembly, and in her various cabinet posts as qualities that could help her on the campaign trail, along with one other quality.
“On top of all that, she’s a really nice person. So she’s easy to get along with. And that’s important. You can have someone that takes office who’s a real policy wonk, yet they lack the interpersonal skills. So Kelly really is the whole package.”