Josh Kurtz: Peter Principle

By Josh Kurtz

Statutorily, the comptroller of Maryland is an important job.

Politically, it doesn’t have to be.

When the current occupant of the office, Peter Franchot (D), announced in December that he wouldn’t be running for governor in 2014, he forfeited a large percentage of his political juice. He’s still a player, by virtue of the agency he heads and its multiple responsibilities. And now that he’s out of the gubernatorial sweepstakes, he seems to have a lifetime sinecure.

But his announcement all but guaranteed that he’d fade into the woodwork a bit, that his pronouncements and antics wouldn’t get as much attention as they did when he was a prospective future governor. In the couple of months since, Franchot, well aware of the change, was no doubt feeling antsy and a little neglected.

And then, like manna from heaven, his enemies in the General Assembly decided they’d smack him around a bit.

This brings up two salient points: 1. Sound, strategic thinking seems to be at a minimum right now in the state House and Senate, and 2. Peter Franchot is one lucky dude.

Everyone knows the story by now: House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D) and Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola (D) have dropped companion bills seeking to take away many of the comptroller’s regulatory functions and transfer them to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. At the same time, Sens. Nancy King (D) and David Brinkley (R) wrote Franchot a harsh letter demanding details of his travel schedule and the costs associated with the various awards he routinely doles out to business and community leaders.

No one has any doubt about what’s going on here: This is an attempt at retribution, meted out by trusted lieutenants of the legislature’s presiding officers, for Franchot’s many heresies against Democratic orthodoxy and leadership — particularly his vocal opposition to expanded gambling in the state, most recently during last fall’s elections.

At a hearing on his bill last week — held conveniently around 8:30 p.m., when no one was really paying attention, seven and a half hours after the committee first gaveled in — Davis seemed hard-pressed to offer any justification for it. He did allow that he had worked for DLLR as a younger man and was feeling nostalgic about the experience, and that he thought comptrollers ought to become “big game hunters” who ferret out more malfeasance than the office does currently. But he insisted that there was no political message in his legislation, because after all, expanded gambling had prevailed at the polls.

“How do you retaliate on an issue you’ve won?” the gambling proponent mused. “That’s like saying the Ravens are going to retaliate against the 49ers next year. There’s nothing you retaliate on.”

No one from Franchot’s office appeared at the hearing — on a day, coincidentally, no doubt, when the comptroller‘s investigators had busted cigarette smugglers on the Eastern Shore moving $26,000 worth of product. (This was vaguely reminiscent of a House hearing back in 1996, when John Arnick was trying to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend couldn’t appear, her chief of staff Alan Fleischmann testified, dripping sincerity, because she was too busy doing the job Marylanders elected her to do.) Their absence brought a stern warning from Davis, who said that if the comptroller’s office decides to become engaged in the controversy later in the legislative session, it may be too late.

“This is a real bill and a real hearing and it could well go forward,” Davis said.

Of course, the comptroller’s office has weighed in, with a memo arguing how much the switch could cost taxpayers — a figure significantly higher than the legislature’s own estimate. It contained “some valid points of discussion,” Davis conceded.

Then, in a beautiful legislative kabuki dance, all the industries whose regulatory functions would be shifted under Davis’ bill — the Maryland Petroleum Council, the Maryland Service Station Association, the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, the Licensed Beverage Association, the Licensed Beverage Distributors Association and the Maryland Retailers Association — testified in opposition, all the while bowing and scraping in the chairman’s direction.

“This has really been an outstanding agency for us,” said Roy Littlefield of the service station group.

All right, then. Nice endorsements from regulated industries — which could mean, from a consumer’s point of view, that the comptroller’s office isn’t being vigilant enough.

But what’s the legislature’s decision to target Franchot accomplishing? It’s giving Franchot political relevance again. It’s keeping his name in the news and in opinion columns. It’s reminding voters, without Franchot ever having to say so, what an independent force he has become.

If this is how Maryland Democratic leaders propose to discipline someone who has strayed off the reservation, then bring on the Keystone Kops — because surely they would do a more effective job.

There are two ways for legislators to get back at Peter Franchot: The first is to try to strip significant funding from his office in the final hours of the legislative session. The second, beautiful in its simplicity, is to IGNORE HIM. The guy would go crazy.

What does it say about our House and Senate leaders that their most creative piece of legislation this year is a “get Franchot” bill? Think of what they could accomplish if they spent as much time and creative energy figuring out how to pay for transportation and infrastructure improvements around the state, or how to address a whole host of social ills.

As for Franchot himself, he’s been put on notice. This probably won’t be the last time Democratic insiders target him. At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised if he faces a serious Democratic primary challenge, sponsored by party leaders, in 2014.

Of course, this is Peter Franchot we’re talking about. This is the guy who transformed himself from liberal Takoma Park bomb thrower to fiscal Main Street Maryland conservative. Who was for slots before he was against them. Who was against the ICC before he was for it. Who railed against gun use before he lent support to a Republican bill making our schools armed encampments. Who created an award named for the man whose political career he ended.

All this, done shamelessly and seamlessly and without suffering political consequences. So why should the enmity of Mike Miller, Mike Busch and their Laurel & Hardy loyalists in the legislature worry Peter Franchot one little bit?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Louie, Louie

Inside Out, Outside In?

Alex Mooney, Cas Taylor, the Ehrlichs, Doug Duncan AND MORE

Anne Arundel Agonistes

Numbers Racket

Like Moths to a Flame

New Year’s Appeal