The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peter Franchot, Maryland’s tax collector, considers a run for governor

OCEAN CITY — Comptroller Peter Franchot fished in his pocket for a medallion. Not the flimsy, plastic kind that one of his predecessors used to hand out, but a weighty, embossed thing with a gold rim, the state flag and a campaign authority line.

The 71-year-old Democrat carries at least two medallions with him at all times. They used to be reserved for veterans and first responders he encountered while crisscrossing Maryland as the state’s chief tax collector. Now, with Franchot’s whisper campaign to be the state’s next governor blossoming into chatter, he hands them out liberally.

“It makes people feel good,” he said on the beachfront boardwalk here recently, where he made the rounds of tourists and business owners and local officials in town for a convention.

A self-styled “independent Democrat,” Franchot is an amalgam of populist, fiscal conservative and social liberal. He likes standing up for “the little guy” just as much as he relishes making the establishment wince — a combination he thinks will help the state’s majority party win back the governor’s mansion in 2022, despite a growing push among Democratic activists for a younger, more left-leaning generation of leaders.

“The debate between, ‘Are you liberal or moderate or conservative,’ misses what’s going on in politics right now,” Franchot said in an interview. “I think it’s much more of, ‘Who is willing to give a voice to the little guy who sees themselves as on the outside, looking in on the powers that be?’ I think that will resonate.”

Franchot said he is “seriously considering” a run to succeed two-term Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, himself a political nonconformist who shocked Democrats with his upset victory in 2014.

Like Hogan, Franchot has cultivated high name recognition and a statewide network of rank-and-file admirers. He has $1 million in campaign funds in the bank and job approval ratings above 70 percent from fellow Democrats, according to a Gonzales Research poll that his campaign commissioned in May and publicly distributed.

His ambition for the state’s top job comes as Maryland Democrats are trying to recover from the blame games and divisions spawned partly by Hogan’s victories, in a state where they outnumber GOP voters 2 to 1. The party has split into liberal and establishment wings, and party insiders say there is no heir apparent in either camp to lead the 2022 ticket.

Franchot is not a party insider, even though he has been in public office in the state capital since 1987. His campaign swag says, “Disrupt the Annapolis Machine.”

“Most Democratic officeholders find him abrasive,” said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. “I once heard that the only thing silent about him is the ‘t’ in his name.”

From the beginning, Franchot was an outsider.

His door-to-door campaign for delegate in 1986 knocked off a member of an establishment-endorsed slate. During legislative sessions, he never stayed in Annapolis overnight, when the parties and dealmaking often take place, preferring to drive home to the liberal Montgomery County enclave of Takoma Park.

His antics over the years include bringing a cache of assault weapons to a 1989 news conference about banning them. Once, as lawmakers debated legalizing slot machines, Franchot rounded up not one but five gospel choirs for an Annapolis singalong (and a less-than-understated message about what he views as the impropriety of state-sponsored gambling).

Last year, he publicly said he would not support Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, the former NAACP chief and the most liberal candidate ever nominated for Maryland governor.

Franchot teamed with Hogan to require schools to start after Labor Day and force a suburban Baltimore school district to quickly install air conditioning at all schools. As the state’s alcohol regulator, he championed reforms for craft beer makers, who he said “had a boot on their neck unfairly.” All three initiatives rankled Democratic power brokers as unnecessarily acrimonious and underscored Franchot’s brand as a man apart.

“Those three items bring a lot of joy to the Marylanders I talk to,” Franchot said.

According to his pollster, he added later, the craft beer advocacy made him — a septuagenarian — “a rock star with young voters.”

When Franchot ran for comptroller in 2006, he attacked the incumbent, former governor and Maryland Democratic legend William Donald Schaefer, for forming an alliance with then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R). Franchot said the state needed a “true Democrat” in the job.

He’d spent 20 years in the legislature as one of the House’s most liberal members, once convening lawmakers at his home to launch a “unity” mission to help make sure the state didn’t elect another GOP governor.

But in the past five years, Franchot developed what has been dubbed a bromance with Hogan. They stroll the boardwalk in Ocean City together every August.

Franchot says that relationship is different because unlike Ehrlich, for whom Hogan worked, the current governor is not a partisan firebrand.

In 2012, the comptroller sparred with then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) over a gas tax increase Franchot had once supported but later rebuffed. Last spring, he campaigned door to door urging constituents of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) to throw him out of office, citing Miller’s longevity and power-wielding ways.

The legislature, in turn, has twice curtailed the authority of Franchot’s office, moves his chief of staff publicly characterized as “prepubescent cat slaps.”

For the most part, Franchot no longer participates in meetings of senior party leadership. When the Democrats pushed a big legislative initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Franchot who as comptroller speaks up for business owners — stayed out of the debate.

In the interview, Franchot said he has racked up 800,000 miles traveling to “every nook and cranny” of Maryland in the past 13 years. He has invented more than a half-dozen types of awards, which he hands out to businesses, community leaders, nonprofits and student artists. The thousands of ensuing conversations, he said, persuaded him that most people want, more than anything, for their government to work well and not waste money.

At an Ocean City fundraiser, he told supporters he has “laid down the partisan sword” and delivered what sounded like a stump speech on marrying liberal ideas with fiscal conservatism.

“It doesn’t mean that we can’t do big, bold things. We can,” he said. “We just have to be able to pay for them. We have to stop, most of all, defining our success by how much money we spend on something that sounds good.”

The message resonated with some Republicans and liberal Democrats in the crowd.

“Americans today are thirsty for a candidate like that, and are fed up with the candidates who won’t support an idea unless their own party thought it up,” said Republican Jennifer Williams, a former Talbot County Council president.

Sharon Blugis, who helps lead an Anne Arundel County group of about 700 liberal women, said she was impressed that Franchot called for a partial boycott of Alabama businesses over that state’s strict new abortion law. “If people do their homework, I think they’ll probably see he’s progressive,” she said.

Franchot said he hopes people will see competency more than anything else in his record — quick tax refunds, for example, or phone calls answered in 40 seconds or less.

“I think I developed trust with the public,” he said. “Once I show that I can do that as governor, I think that they’ll be more inclined to support major reforms.”

Franchot said he’ll decide whether to run next year. For now, he’s chatting up residents, occupying a gray area between doing his day job and running for the next one.

After he handed a medallion to veteran Sarge Garlitz on the boardwalk, Franchot explained how in 2012 the legislature made it his job to regulate slot machines in American Legion halls, even though he had long opposed gambling and the state’s lottery regulated slot machines in casinos.

“They gave it to me, and they thought I would mess it up,” he said. “But I didn’t.”

A bipartisan friendship: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot

Hogan may have trounced Md. Democrats, but they say they have the upper hand

Craft beer wars: Maryland officials fight over who should enforce alcohol regulations

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