Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) often ribs Comptroller Peter Franchot about how the veteran Democrat once called for his resignation.
At the time, Hogan was serving as appointments secretary for then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), and Democrats were asking questions about the administration’s hiring and firing practices. Franchot was a young, progressive delegate representing Takoma Park in Montgomery County.
These days, the animosity between the two is gone. In its place is a bipartisan friendship that stands out in an increasingly polarized Annapolis — a bond they say is largely built on a mutual desire to rein in spending and improve the state’s fiscal climate.
“People are just frustrated today with politics,” Hogan said last week in Frederick, where he and Franchot appeared together, joking and laughing, to promote the state’s tax-free shopping week. “They hate the partisanship, the name-calling and the fighting back and forth. They love the fact that we can put aside party politics and just do what’s right for the people.”
Never mind that Hogan is known to hurl an insult or two here and there — earlier this month, he called leaders of the state teachers union “thugs.”
Franchot, too, can be harsh when grilling officials over spending at public meetings.
But with each other, the two are warm and cordial.
They have formed a majority on the three-member Board of Public Works, which oversees major state expenditures. Until Hogan’s election, Franchot often found himself on the losing end of 2-to-1 votes, outgunned by fellow Democrats: then-Gov. Martin O’Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. Now, it is usually Hogan and Franchot whose votes carry the day.
They have joined forces to withhold money from Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools over a dispute about air conditioning in classrooms, and they have banded together to criticize — and, at times, embarrass — state employees who come to meetings unprepared to answer questions about state contracts.
And they have moved to do away with sole-source bids and revamp the procurement process.
Like Hogan, Franchot was an outspoken critic of O’Malley during the former governor’s two terms in office. His opposition made him an outsider among the Democratic establishment, and his close relationship with Hogan — including his first dinner at Government House in a decade — has only widened that gap.
John T. Willis, a former secretary of state who mounted an unsuccessful bid for comptroller against William Donald Schaefer in 2002, said Franchot, 68, may have to watch out for a Democrat challenging him in the primary.
“There’s grumbling that if he gets too close to the governor, that could give somebody an opening,” said Willis, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore.
But Franchot — who won a third term with 62 percent of the vote in 2014 — does not care.
He points to his work raising money for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and his early support of her presidential bid to prove his party bona fides. He describes himself as a loyal Democrat who is “more interested in Maryland than a 24/7 effort to win back the governor’s mansion.”
With Hogan, “I appreciate the fact that I have an adult beside me who objectively listens,” Franchot said. “Sometimes he is with me, and sometimes he says, ‘No I can’t be with you.’ But we don’t tear each other down.”
Elected officials who have known Franchot for years said the comptroller has long wanted his role to be more than collecting taxes and has pushed for greater influence over spending and policy.
Now that he is working with a governor who shares his fiscal conservatism, that quest has become easier.
Franchot says he remains committed to progressive stances and does not understand why pushing for air conditioning in schools, shoring up the state pension system and making government more transparent are not embraced by the “Annapolis political machine.”
Ironically, he captured the comptroller’s seat in 2006 after winning a primary challenge against Schaefer, a Democrat whom Franchot cast as too close to Ehrlich and out of step with loyal, progressive Democrats.
Franchot, who served in the House of Delegates for 20 years, describes himself as “independently elected.” He says Hogan frequently reminds him that he “represents all Marylanders. There are not Republican or Democratic taxpayers. They are just taxpayers.”
Although he is often mentioned by political observers as a possible gubernatorial candidate, Franchot said he has ruled out a 2018 bid to replace his friend.
“I like being comptroller,” he said. “I think I have brought the office to a new level. I take a lot of satisfaction that it’s not just collecting the money but how it’s spent.”
Franchot said Hogan laid the groundwork for their relationship just days after his surprise victory in November 2014, when the governor-elect unexpectedly showed up at Franchot’s office.
“The point was no one else knocked on my door for the previous eight years,” Franchot said. “Is it important? Yes, it’s important. It is respect.”