Laslo Boyd: Peter Franchot 3.0

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By: Laslo Boyd

Once upon a time, a delegate named Peter Franchot represented Montgomery County in the Maryland General Assembly.  Franchot was elected five times, served on various sub-committees of the House Appropriations Committee, and was widely seen as one of the most progressive members of the Democratic Party.  He might even have accepted the label of “tax and spend liberal.”

In 2006, Franchot sought higher office, running what many at the time saw as a long-shot campaign to displace William Donald Schaefer as Maryland’s Comptroller.  In a three way primary, Franchot prevailed, easily won the General Election over a weak Republican opponent, and has coasted to re-election twice since then.

In his early years as Comptroller, Franchot spoke out on a wide variety of public issues and managed in the process to annoy both Governor Martin O’Malley and the leadership of the General Assembly.  To his detractors, the Comptroller was acting more like a governor than a state tax collector.  He was a leading public critic of the referendum campaign to get voter approval of gaming in Maryland.  When that measure passed, Franchot seemed a politician on the outside looking in.

Not long after that, Franchot began a process of re-inventing himself politically.   He focused his efforts on being a fiscal watchdog for Maryland.  He traveled all over the state connecting with local officials.  And, most dramatically, Franchot announced in December 2012 that he would not be a candidate for governor in 2014. 

It might be tempting to downplay how successful Franchot has been in his latest version, but that would be a mistake.  To put his current position in clear perspective, Franchot, of all Maryland Democrats, may have had the best grasp on the mood of voters in the 2014 election cycle.

Franchot not only won re-election easily, but also ran ahead of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown in every single jurisdiction in the state.   His criticism of the budget and tax policies of Governor Martin O’Malley over the past four years was echoed pretty directly in Larry Hogan’s successful campaign in the fall election.

No one is calling Franchot a “tax and spend liberal” these days.  He has sharply redefined himself as a fiscal conservative while remaining a social progressive.  His language when describing himself is instructive.   He emphasizes that he believes in “fiscal responsibility with a purpose.”

That phrase, as he explained it to me, is intended to signal his intention to scrutinize the budget actions of Larry Hogan in the same way that he was often a thorn in Martin O’Malley’s side.  When pushed for a further definition of his position, Franchot said he would oppose cuts that are motivated purely by political calculations as contrasted to fiscal considerations.

That may be a hard distinction to maintain, but it’s certainly interesting that Franchot continues to describe himself as a “proud Democrat.”  He may have gone shopping with Larry Hogan, but he doesn’t want anyone to think that he will roll over for the new governor.

As the Comptroller has said on many occasions during the past four years, he believes that the State has enough money but is not managing it well.   He has railed against single-bid contracts at the Board of Public Works and argues that the State’s procurement process can be reformed through administrative action without requiring legislation.

Franchot also contends that the state’s business climate can be improved relatively easily.  A stable and predictable tax and regulatory environment over the next four years would, in his view, do wonders.  Additionally, better customer service and a more welcoming attitude toward business would help remedy Maryland’s current economic woes.

Many of Franchot’s comments could be music to the ears of Larry Hogan.  Will Franchot be a regular second vote for the new governor on the Board of Public Works?  Once the 90 day General Assembly session is over, Hogan may turn to that board for approval of actions that he couldn’t get through the General Assembly.   If so, Franchot could be in a pivotal role quite unlike his situation in the prior eight years.

I have described Larry Hogan’s challenge with the budget as a difficult juggling act.  The same metaphor might also be applied to Peter Franchot.

By repositioning himself as a fiscal conservative he has gained a real political following in the state.  The job of comptroller gives him significant independence and the results of the last election reinforce that.  But, unless Franchot wants to take the next step and redefine himself as a Republican, he has to find a way to draw distinctions between his brand of fiscal conservatism and that of Larry Hogan.

Franchot also has to decide what role he wants to play in state Democratic politics.  How close does he want to get to the new Republican governor?  What relationship will he have with the leaders of the General Assembly?  Those links have not always been cordial, but does he want to risk making them worse?

The comptroller is a skilled politician and he has in his chief of staff, Len Foxwell, one of the most talented political minds in the state.  Figuring out how to calibrate his role on the Board of Public Works will take all of their considerable abilities.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.