2018: Comptroller Holy War?

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This is a long post, but the history of this once-obscure office is critical to understanding what the near future might hold.

For 40 years, from 1958-1998, the legendary Louis Goldstein held the job of Comptroller of Maryland. The job’s actual duties are to serve as tax collector and chief financial officer for the state and to manage certain state funds. One of the other primary jobs of the Comptroller is to serve, along with the governor and the treasurer, as a member of the powerful Board of Public Works.

Goldstein was a consummate pol, and one of the most successful figures in modern state political history. During his tenure, there was little political friction between his office and other leading figures, primarily because there was little to fight over when there was unified Democratic control of the legislature, the governor’s mansion, and the General Assembly, as there was for all but four of Goldstein’s 40 years in the Comptroller’s office. The last Republican comptroller left office in 1900.

All of this began to change when Goldstein died in 1998. Former Governor William Donald Schaefer, who left Annapolis in 1995 after 40 years in public office (16 years on the Baltimore City Council, 16 years as mayor, and eight years as governor), had long yearned for a chance to get back into public life. He ran for Comptroller in 1998 and won. During his eight years as comptroller, Schaefer made a ton of news, whether it was feuding with Governor Parris Glendening or making incredibly offensive remarks.

His greatest sin, however, was not playing ball with fellow Democrats. Schaefer had shown this tendency as governor, endorsing George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton in 1992. He got along much better with Republican Robert Ehrlich than he ever did with Glendening, and he drove legislative leaders like Mike Miller crazy with his behavior.

So when the 2006 primary rolled around, Democrats were keen to find challengers to run against Schaefer. Two candidates ran – Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens and District 20 Delegate Peter Franchot, a 20 year assembly veteran from Takoma Park. Owens ran explicitly on a promise to be more like Louis Goldstein. Franchot’s complaint about Schaefer, on the other hand, wasn’t about his activism, but his politics, cozying up to Ehrlich. The thinking initially was that Owens and Franchot would split the anti-Schaefer vote, allowing Schaefer to squeak through to reelection. For much of the campaign, Franchot was an afterthought as Owens and Schaefer bludgeoned each other with a series of negative attacks. Schaefer called Owens fat and criticized the way she dressed. Owens said running against Schaefer was like a granddaughter having to take the “car keys away from grandpa.” While Owens and Schaefer hammered at each other, Franchot made up a 20 point deficit in the closing weeks of the campaign and won a very close three way contest, carrying only four counties (Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and Frederick) but coming away with 36.5% of the vote to Owens’ 34.0% and Schaefer’s 29.5%.

Although Franchot campaigned on a more activist vision for the comptroller, it was expected that he’d seek to broaden his role slowly so as not to immediately antagonize his former colleagues in the General Assembly. That expectation did not pan out.

In office just four months, Franchot – the former delegate from Takoma Park who ousted William Donald Schaefer – has shown not just affection for the spotlight but an unabashed interest in broadening the policy responsibilities of his office.

He has issued statements about divesting state pension money from Darfur. He has railed against the possible implementation of slot machine gambling to mitigate a looming budget crisis. He supported a doomed House of Delegates health care plan. He led the successful charge against a Kent Island development that environmentalists argued would harm the Chesapeake Bay. And he has cast himself as a chief advocate for expanding Maryland’s biotechnology industry.

Hardly matters of usual concern to Maryland’s chief tax collector.

Some in Annapolis say Franchot lacks the appropriate deference, not just to the party’s new governor but to senior lawmakers. They say Franchot, 59, should stick to managing the state’s fiscal affairs, the overarching constitutional mandate of his office.

“No one should tread on the other’s defined duties or areas of expertise,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. “We only need one governor in the state of Maryland.”

But Franchot, who is tall and trim and bears a striking resemblance to the actor Richard Chamberlain, is not about to clip his own wings – or let others do it for him. Not in the interest of politics – or personal relationships.

Franchot said he ran on a progressive platform last fall and defeated Schaefer, the “Babe Ruth of Maryland politics,” the former governor, Baltimore mayor and comptroller – with that agenda.

“I’d like to supercharge the agency. I’d like to take it to the next level,” said Franchot, who announced Friday that he would investigate rising gas prices. “I’m a liberal Democrat who is battle-tested. I got over a million votes in an election. I want to be involved in the economic future of Maryland.”

That was 2007. Little has changed in nine years, other than Franchot’s fiscal politics. In 2008, Franchot and Mike Miller went to war over slots and Franchot’s allegation that Miller was trying to cut his office’s budget in retaliation.

Miller is targeting the positions of Chief of Staff David S. Weaver and Deputy Comptroller Len N. Foxwell and is seeking to cut the number of new auditors from 22 to 11 as retribution for the comptroller’s stance against slot machine gambling, Franchot (D) claims.

‘‘The quote repeated to me was ‘We’re gonna pistol-whip your office,’” he told reporters following Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting.

Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach quickly denied the allegations during a media gaggle minutes after Franchot levied the accusations, but used the opportunity to volley criticism of the comptroller’s performance.

‘‘I think the bottom line is Comptroller Franchot is no Louis Goldstein,” Miller said, referring to the namesake of the state’s Treasury building, who was comptroller for 38 years.

Franchot was reelected in both 2010 and 2014 by wide margins, garnering the highest number of votes of any statewide candidate in 2014. Since Larry Hogan became governor, Franchot has enraged Annapolis leaders by cozying up to Hogan both personally and politically.

Josh Kurtz recited some of this history in a column late last year, noting the irony of Franchot’s transformation over time, from activist progressive to conservative fiscal hawk and friend of Hogan.

Listen to a liberal critic talk about the Democratic state comptroller and his relationship with the Republican governor:

“I’m all for bipartisan compromise. I’m just not in favor of bipartisan capitulation, and active support for a Republican…who’s taken the state in the wrong direction.”

The critic went on to suggest that the comptroller’s name ought to be attached to the governor’s administration, “because the governor has used [the comptroller] and his vote on the Board of Public Works to implement a lot of his agenda.”

Separately, the critic said, “Don’t be fooled by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our Democratic comptroller is a Democrat in name only, a Republican masquerading as a Democrat.” And, for good measure, the critic complained that the comptroller and the governor are “joined at the hip.”

Harsh words about Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and his bromance with Gov. Larry Hogan (R), but if you’re a progressive Democrat, they have to be said, right? Franchot has become Hogan’s No. 1 cheerleader – not just working collegially with Hogan on the Board of Public Works and going Christmas shopping with him, but giving the Reagan Republican governor bipartisan cover at every turn, and blithely casting aside many precepts that liberal Democrats hold dear.

But wait a minute. Those pointed and partisan words were not uttered about Peter Franchot; they were uttered by Franchot himself almost a decade ago, when, as a state delegate from Montgomery County looking to rile up the liberal base, he launched an audacious campaign to oust then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who in Franchot’s view – and the view of many liberal Democrats at the time – was too cozy with Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

We have written before about Franchot’s political transformation from liberal bombthrower to fiscal conservative who has moved to align himself with centrists and conservatives in parts of the state that are about as far culturally from his original political base as you can travel (see http://centermaryland.org/index.php?option=com_easyblog&view=entry&id=139 for one example).

But his latest incarnation, as Robin to Hogan’s Batman, cheering on tax cuts and offering worshipful praise for other aspects of Hogan’s agenda, represents, in the views of many Democratic insiders, a startling new level of betrayal to the party. It helps explain the angry exchange of letters between state Senate President Mike Miller (D) and Franchot that many media outlets picked up last week – ostensibly a spat about air conditioning in public schools but clearly a display of mutual contempt with a much deeper meaning.

No less an icon than U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski – the most popular politician in Maryland for a generation – has taken notice. At least twice this year – at a private meeting of state party leaders and at a gathering of young Democratic women – Mikulski has suggested that Franchot’s actions ought to have consequences.

And lest anyone forget, the single most read blog post of this disreputable establishment – ever – was this super fun piece about Mike Miller’s literary masterpiece of a nasty letter to Peter Franchot back in December. And when I say “most read,” it got 4,365 hits, almost FOUR TIMES the hits the next most popular post got (1,127 page views for Martin O’Malley in a bathing suit). We’re a serious bunch here at Maryland Scramble.

The point is, Peter Franchot is a hot button issue in Maryland. He gets lots of votes, he has over $1 million in the bank, and he shows no sign of going anywhere any time soon.

But there are those who pine for someone, anyone, to take him on in a primary in 2018. Can he be beaten? If so, by whom? This is one of the most discussed issues at the statewide level.

As an initial matter, it’s a tall order. It’s going to take money, and charisma, and organization, and a strong candidate with the necessary experience. And let’s face it, saying “I want you to donate to my campaign to be the chief tax collector for the State of Maryland” isn’t exactly a wallet opener. It’s not a sexy race at all.

The name I’ve heard most frequently mentioned is LD21 senator Jim Rosapepe from Prince George’s County, who is interested in the job and allegedly is willing to put some of his own money into a run. Other names I’ve heard mentioned include Delegates Kumar Barve and Maggie McIntosh and Senators Brian Feldman and Rich Madaleno.

Within the past several days, a new rumor has surfaced that has Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk being urged to consider a run for Comptroller. Under the scenario of Rosapepe running statewide, Joseline would likely run for the LD21 Senate seat. I haven’t been able to get any further details on this latest scenario but it certainly is intriguing.

In the end, I have to question first whether anyone will actually run, and second, whether anyone can compete with Franchot in any meaningful way. Whatever you think of his politics or his cozying up to Hogan, at this point Franchot is a popular, seasoned statewide campaigner with a large bankroll. I like Peter personally, I’ve known him for years, but he’s a real contrarian who relishes having a bullseye on his back. I think he’d relish a challenge from the party establishment, seeking to “re-Goldsteinize” the job of comptroller even more. And as a blogger, an intra-party Holy War featuring a strong challenge from a well funded, credible candidate promising to bring the job back to its roots, would be a dream to write about. Stay tuned.

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