Josh Kurtz: The Franchot Follies

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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.

Solid Poll Numbers

But will they? So far, there’s little evidence that they will.

A poll conducted in late September for Franchot’s campaign and obtained by Center Maryland found that the comptroller is benefiting from his association with Hogan. After years of observing the toxicity on Capitol Hill, Marylanders of all ideological stripes approve of their elected leaders seizing on opportunities to work together. Even Democrats in the poll said they would not penalize Franchot for his attempts to befriend Hogan.

Consider some of the following numbers from the poll, which was conducted by Normington, Petts & Associates, a major national Democratic firm: Franchot had a 48 percent positive job approval rating compared to 30 percent who viewed his performance in office negatively. Asked whether Franchot has been a good fiscal watchdog, 54 percent of voters said that description fit him well, while 14 percent said it did not.

Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said calling Franchot “an independent voice for Maryland” fits him well – while 18 percent said it did not. Seventy-one percent of voters – and 69 percent of Democrats – said they would be more likely to vote for Franchot’s reelection because he is working with Hogan. And in a result that would stun longtime Maryland political observers, only 18 percent of voters said the suggestion that Franchot “is just out for headlines and self-promotion” fit Franchot well; 49 percent said it did not.

Those numbers are further borne out by a hypothetical Democratic primary between Franchot and a specific state lawmaker who we will not name here. Franchot trounced the legislator, 63 percent to 8 percent.

Franchot enjoys noting – as he did in a letter to Miller last week – that he got more raw votes than any statewide candidate on the Maryland ballot last year. He also boasts that he got more votes in Prince George’s County in 2014 than Anthony Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, and that he got more votes in Montgomery County than Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), the very model of a mild-mannered Montgomery County liberal.

Franchot takes comfort in all these numbers, which he racks up even as he becomes increasingly estranged from what his team dismissively calls “institutional Democrats” or “professional liberals” – the unions, environmentalists, trial lawyers and civil rights groups that represent the base of the party.

It is possible in Maryland to win an election – even a Democratic primary – without the support of these groups. But why would a Democrat like Franchot go out of his way to make enemies with them – which appears to be happening now?

He has turned his crusade to have the school year start after Labor Day into a battle with the state’s “education establishment” – and principally, the teachers’ union. As Franchot gears up for his latest battle, to privatize the wholesale distribution of liquor in Montgomery County, his chief strategist, Len Foxwell, lobs insults at Ginno Renne, the leader of the county employees’ union.

 

(Incidentally, in Franchot’s poll, 72 percent of those surveyed supported Franchot’s push for post-Labor Day school openings; 69 percent of Montgomery County residents supported the liquor privatization proposal.)

On those rare occasions when Franchot is still vocally in sync with the Democratic base – like endorsing Hillary Clinton for president or voting against a massive development proposal on the Board of Public Works that Hogan supports and greens oppose – he looks expectantly, like a puppy who hasn’t peed on the rug, for praise. But he’s rarely finding it from the party establishment these days.

The Transformation

Franchot was elected comptroller in 2006 promising to be a liberal champion. But his candidacy was predicated on the notion that Ehrlich would be elected to a second term as governor.

So when Democrat Martin O’Malley defeated Ehrlich, Franchot had to recalibrate. When Franchot realized that he would not be fully embraced by O’Malley’s team, he saw he could ease right back into the renegade role even with a fellow Democrat as governor, especially over the issue of gambling in the state. Before long, he was moving steadily to the right on fiscal issues.

To be fair, Franchot has not wavered when it comes to holding liberal Democratic positions on social issues. And he still aids Democrats on occasion.

Just recently Foxwell led a discussion on field organizing for the state Democratic Party. And Franchot himself endorsed several Democrats for various offices last year – like Joe Smith for Harford County Council, Tom Coale for House of Delegates from Howard County, and Chuck Ferrar for House of Delegates from Anne Arundel County – though many of them lost, which suggests that Franchot’s coattails aren’t as long as he likes to think they are.

As comptroller, Franchot has several statutory duties – collecting taxes and doling out refunds; scrutinizing state contracts and other spending as a member of the Board of Public Works; serving on the Board of Revenue Estimates; and regulating several key industries, including the liquor industry and gas stations. By all accounts, he does these official parts of his job very well.

It’s when Franchot freelances and takes on certain causes that he truly infuriates fellow Democrats. And it isn’t just what he says but what he doesn’t that they find so maddening.

Franchot can make the economic case for starting school after Labor Day – and he wins cheers in Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake and other places that rely on tourist dollars. But how to solve the scheduling problems that educators suggest might ensue? That’s somebody else’s worry.

There are plenty of good reasons to privatize the distribution of liquor in Montgomery County, but county leaders warn that doing so will rob $30 million annually from the government’s coffers. And what about the 250 unionized county workers who would lose their jobs?

Franchot will let others figure out how to make up the losses. He’ll be present for press conferences and offer studies that purport to show the economic benefits of the positions he’s espousing, as he did Tuesday in Silver Spring about privatization. But doing the hard work of passing a piece of legislation? That’s somebody else’s job.

Franchot’s longtime signature issue – teaching financial literacy to Maryland students, which actually makes sense – has wide public support, and Franchot has helped put the issue in the public bloodstream. But is it any closer to becoming law?

When Franchot advocates for swifter installation of air conditioning in aging Baltimore County schools, a quest that has brought him many fans there, he seems constitutionally incapable of doing so without picking a fight with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) – who is hardly the most loveable public servant in Maryland but who happens to be a potential strong challenger to Hogan in 2018.

And when the Augustine Commission, put together as an honest effort by the Democratic leaders of the legislature to look at ways of improving Maryland’s business climate, includes in its set of possible proposals an increase in gasoline, tobacco and alcohol taxes, Franchot and his team gleefully point this out to reporters – an incredible gift to Hogan.

Dems Sharpen Their Knives

So Franchot rolls merrily along, buffing his own brand, but increasingly becoming a man without a country. As “institutional Democrats” sharpen their knives, Franchot drifts ever closer to Hogan and his circle.

The Democrats’ best hope for defeating Hogan in 2018 – which seems like a monumental task at this early stage – is to remind voters that Hogan is a Republican. But that message gets muddled when a top elected Democrat like Franchot can see no wrong in Hogan and his trickle-down, anti-regulatory agenda, and would just as soon fight with fellow Democrats and Democratic interest groups than work with them.

Will Franchot face a major Democratic primary challenge in 2018, the way Schaefer did so many years ago? Not if his poll numbers hold up, especially among liberals. And here’s another number to remember – the close to $2 million that Franchot is likely to have in his campaign account by 2018.

“Professional liberals” may long to take Franchot out – and they may look for a self-funder to do it – but come 2018, they’ll be preoccupied with denying Hogan a second term.

One other difference between Franchot and Schaefer is that by the time he was running for reelection in 2006, Schaefer was dyspeptic and more than a little nuts. That made him vulnerable to criticism beyond the fact that he was too close to Ehrlich.

Following Miller’s blistering letter last week, Democrats in the legislature may try to mess with Franchot in the upcoming General Assembly session. They could cut his office budget, as they’ve tried to do in the past, or take key responsibilities away from him – another half-baked move from a few years back.

But Miller is a convenient foil for Franchot. For all his skills, Miller can easily be caricatured as a boss and a bully – a narrative that Franchot, who was seen by many voters in his poll as a reformer, is eager to exploit.  

So what should Democratic leaders disenchanted with Peter Franchot do? The one thing guaranteed to drive him crazy: Ignore him.   

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews.

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.