By Josh Kurtz
Peter Franchot (D), whose evolution from liberal bomb thrower in the legislature to fiscal watchdog as state comptroller remains one of the most unlikely success stories in recent Maryland political history, is announcing today that he will seek re-election in 2014 rather than run for governor.
In a letter to supporters that’s being emailed this morning, Franchot, 65, calls being comptroller his “dream job.”
Franchot’s move transforms a still developing election to replace term-limited Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and also solidifies his position as an Annapolis power broker for the long term.
While Franchot will inevitably lose some sizzle now that he’s no longer a potential candidate for governor, he will be almost impossible to dislodge in 2014 and will continue to accumulate power as a counter-balance to whoever is elected to replace O’Malley. He’ll also be liberated politically inasmuch as his moves will no longer be seen as those of an ambitious candidate for higher office.
In his letter to supporters, Franchot acknowledges that he considered running for governor. In fact, a poll conducted at the beginning of this month for Franchot’s campaign by the Democratic firm Normington, Petts & Associates showed the comptroller running a clear second in a hypothetical gubernatorial primary — behind Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown but ahead of state Attorney General Doug Gansler. In that poll, Franchot’s name recognition and favorables were comparable to Brown’s.
“It is no secret that in recent months I have given thought to running for governor,” Franchot says in his message. “I am humbled by the extraordinary support that my prospective campaign received in every corner of our state and I am now more convinced than ever that there is a shared desire among Marylanders — irrespective of ideology or party affiliation — for an honest conversation on the fiscal and economic challenges that lie ahead. I look forward to engaging in that conversation from my office in the Goldstein Treasury Building.”
Franchot’s decision to stay put rather than run for governor leaves Brown, Gansler, state Del. Heather Mizeur and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman at the starting gate in the Democratic gubernatorial contest.
Who benefits most from Franchot’s departure? In a certain sense, they all do.
Once a fairly conventional Montgomery County liberal, Franchot as comptroller has morphed into a fiscal hawk and cheerleader for business who has tried to appeal to forgotten areas of the state, like Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, and has attempted to forge ties to Reagan Democrats in the Baltimore suburbs and exurbs. To the extent that there is a “Franchot vote” in the Democratic primary, it is now very much up for grabs.
Ulman is the candidate who is going to most aggressively court the Baltimore suburban vote and with Franchot out of the picture he has significant room to grow. As a county executive who is bound by law to balance budgets year after year, he is also best poised to become the fiscal conservative in the race.
Gansler and Brown have considerable appeal in the Washington, D.C., suburbs (while Mizeur would like to find a way to break through), and Franchot had some support there, too. Gansler will now be the clear Montgomery County candidate. That’s a notion the others might dispute — but with Franchot gone Gansler will certainly have an even greater financial advantage than he already does when it comes to fundraising from the monied classes inside the Washington Beltway.
Mizeur and Franchot live in the same town, Takoma Park. She shares some of his reformer credentials — even if they are now polar opposites ideologically. And, though it seems counterintuitive, she has also worked hard to make political connections in rural parts of the state.
Whether or not Franchot endorses a candidate in the Democratic primary, he should still be able to influence the campaign debate, just as he’ll remain an influential player with his perch on the Board of Public Works, regardless of who is elected to replace O’Malley.
With Democrats now almost certain to nominate a liberal for governor in 2014, some Reagan Democrats may stray, as they did in 2002, and aid the eventual Republican nominee — and Franchot could become an integral part of the party’s efforts to win them back. Harford County Executive David Craig and Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young are preparing to seek the GOP nomination, while former Ehrlich Cabinet Secretary Larry Hogan is also taking a look at the race.
Franchot’s decision to stay put also blocks state Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D), who was preparing to run for comptroller in 2014 but promised to stand down if Franchot sought re-election. Other Democrats were talking of running for comptroller but none had mobilized to the extent Rosapepe had. The Normington, Petts poll showed Franchot with a huge advantage in the comptroller’s race — and while his January fundraising report is likely to show him lagging behind Gansler, Ulman and Brown, he’ll still report a substantial amount of cash on hand, a sum that’s nearly impossible for any challenger to come close to matching.
As for the fact that some detractors may now see Franchot as yesterday’s news, many people forget that Louis Goldstein, the beloved former comptroller who served from 1959 until his death in 1998, did not initially expect to be in that job for long. He lost the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat in 1964 before settling into the comptroller’s job for the long haul.
Becoming an Annapolis institution was certainly not part of Franchot’s original plan.
He was first elected to the state House of Delegates, representing Takoma Park and portions of Silver Spring, in 1986 — and he expected to be a short timer. A former aide to Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey (D), he ran for Congress in 1988, losing badly to popular Republican Rep. Connie Morella. It took another eight years for Franchot to emerge from the political wilderness — and it was 18 years before he was elected comptroller.
Franchot finally became a power in Annapolis in 1996, parlaying his votes to fund football stadiums in Baltimore and Prince George’s County into two subcommittee chairmanships on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, first overseeing public safety spending, then transportation funding.
With Republican Bob Ehrlich’s upset victory in the 2002 gubernatorial election, Franchot became an even more prominent player, seizing on the vacuum in liberal leadership in the State House to criticize an array of the new governor’s positions — especially his support for casino gambling.
As former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) — a one-time Franchot ally then serving as comptroller — became an increasingly divisive figure in Annapolis and a vocal supporter of Ehrlich’s, Franchot risked his 20-year legislative career to challenge Schaefer in the 2006 Democratic primary, hoping his liberal bonafides would carry him through. With Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens also in the race, absorbing most of Schaefer’s barbs, Franchot prevailed, taking 36.5 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Owens and 29.5 percent for Schaefer. He won the general election easily.
Serving as comptroller, Franchot surprised friends and foes alike by becoming more of a fiscal hawk than a doctrinaire liberal. He has at times criticized O’Malley with the same gusto he showed whenever he embarrassed Ehrlich, playing the conflict-hungry media like a virtuoso.
With his letter today, Franchot says “it is still a profound honor” to serve as comptroller, invoking the names of his storied predecessors like Goldstein, Schaefer and J. Millard Tawes.
“By their words and actions, those Maryland giants set a timeless standard for honorable public service that’s still reflected in the comptroller’s office today,” Franchot writes. “My goal is to do my job and leave the comptroller’s office in a manner that honors their shared legacy.”
Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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