Josh Kurtz: Franchot Finds His Footing

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Peter Franchot wants you to know: He’s still a Democrat.

Estranged from the party establishment for what seems like forever, the state comptroller convened a meeting of 20 or so Democratic elected officials, party activists and thought leaders from across Maryland at his stately Takoma Park home on Sunday afternoon.

On a day when most politicians and party stalwarts were engaged in frenetic, last-minute pre-primary campaign activities, Franchot brought this group together to discuss the future of the Democratic Party in Maryland – and by implication, his own.

It’s hardly news that Franchot has infuriated many Democratic leaders – and some party allies and activists – by cozying up to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan since Hogan’s surprise election. Franchot’s every move seems calculated to poke a finger, often gratuitously, in the eye of top Annapolis Democrats and potential Hogan challengers – conveniently failing to mention that he himself has been a creature of Annapolis for the past 30 years.

Yet Franchot has a legitimate diagnosis of what ails Maryland Democrats. And now, it seems, he’s trying to do something about it.

Say what you want about Franchot’s changing ideologies, priorities and identities through the decades. None of that is in dispute here.

But when Franchot says the most important development of the 2014 election wasn’t Hogan’s victory but the Democrats’ utter wipeout in rural, exurban and certain suburban areas, he’s absolutely right. There will be another Democratic governor before too long. But it’s becoming dangerously difficult for Democrats to win elections in places like the Eastern Shore and eastern Baltimore County and far Western Maryland.

And when Franchot says legislative leaders have become too insular, too removed from the general electorate, that they don’t emphasize issues that resonate with average voters often enough, he also has a point. He repeatedly mentioned the issue of “combined reporting” at Sunday’s meeting – a tax reform proposal designed to get corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.

It’s an exaggeration to suggest that combined reporting, something almost no one understands, is a top priority of legislative leaders. In fact, it’s the leaders in Annapolis who have managed to bottle up the legislation for the last several years.

But it is fair to say that the Democrats in the legislature don’t always emphasize issues that are relatable to average voters. And even when they’re on the correct side in their ideological battles with Hogan, they are losing the PR wars with a governor who is fluent in social media, skilled at masking his conservative priorities in bromides, and relentless in driving his messaging.

Franchot believes that Democrats need a commonsense agenda – one that emphasizes jobs and economic development and the basics of competent constituent service. As he laid out these points, plenty of heads were nodding in agreement, even with the philosophical, geographical, racial and gender diversity in the room.

And with that, Franchot introduced Jake Day, the stunningly impressive new mayor of Salisbury, who in just half a year has outlined an aggressive road map for revitalizing the city’s downtown and residential neighborhoods, for encouraging development without ignoring environmental stewardship, and for reaching the city’s youth with a summer jobs program and a proposed new community center – all without raising taxes. As impressive as Day’s agenda – and his ability to articulate it – was, equally impressive is this simple fact: He is 33 years old.

Yes, Day wasn’t even a gleam in his father’s eye when the Steny Hoyers, Mike Millers and Ben Cardins of the world were already well into their political careers. The audience in Franchot’s living room sat spellbound as Day laid out his credentials and governing philosophy. And no one had to say anything: This, everyone surely agreed, is the kind of public servant Maryland Democrats ought to be spotlighting in the years ahead.

Franchot plans to do just that. Among those present at his meeting Sunday were Del. Cory McCray of East Baltimore, one of the stars of the House freshman class, and Kate Stewart, the energetic new mayor of Takoma Park. Franchot says he will host more meetings about the future of the party, with more intriguing young local leaders, in the months ahead.

And how does all this accrue to Franchot’s benefit? For starters, it buys him protection.

Some peeved Democrats would like to take him out in 2018. State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D), who expressed a desire to run for comptroller last election cycle when it looked like Franchot might run for governor, took a none-too-subtle swipe at the incumbent with an ad in the program of the Frederick County Jefferson-Jackson dinner earlier this month. Without making reference to any future run for statewide office, the ad said, “Senator Jim Rosapepe. He knows finance. He knows Maryland. And he knows why he’s a Democrat.”

Franchot will no doubt continue to exasperate many of his fellow Democrats and offer bipartisan cover to a Republican governor who frequently doesn’t deserve it. But if he can make the subtle shift from sniping to constructive criticism, and ultimately, to constructive solutions, then he will be helping his party – and himself.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. 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.