Josh Kurtz: The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

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When the pundits and political professionals tally the winners and losers from this year’s General Assembly session, chances are that state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) won’t be on either list.

For Franchot, this is not a bad thing.

After years as a lightning rod for controversy, Franchot, who is finishing up his first term as comptroller, finally has settled into the rudiments and routine of his job. He is realizing that, to be effective, he doesn’t have to be in the headlines all the time — or getting into fights with his fellow officeholders.

In a recent interview, he talked just as much about the things he’s doing to refine the vast bureaucracy he controls, of winning the Snodgrass Award from the Association of Government Accountants — “the Heisman Trophy of state comptrollers,” as he put it — as anything controversial.

Not that Franchot doesn’t have short-term and long-term political agendas. Quite the contrary. Somehow, improbably — as improbable as the idea of him becoming comptroller seemed a few years ago — Franchot is among the three or four Democrats the insiders talk about as leading candidates for governor in 2014.

Franchot seems genuinely uncomfortable discussing the topic. He says he could see himself “happy and productive” in his current role for another dozen years.

“It’s a phenomenon,” he mused. “To the extent that you’re happy doing what you’re doing, people are coming in and telling you to do something else.”

But at age 62, Franchot clearly knows that if he is ever going to run for governor, next time is his time.

Aided by the able strategist and spinmeister Len Foxwell, who helped create the “New Franchot” several years back and serves as his chief of staff and political eyes and ears, Franchot is doing all the things he needs to do in case he decides to run in four years.

He’s reaching out to communities and leaders he might not otherwise be expected to. He’s accomplishing things in his arcane but important office. He’s chalking up experiences and contacts and perspective that will serve him well in the future.

“Louis Goldstein,” he says, referring to one of his revered predecessors, “said you’re never going to get elected sitting behind that desk. So get out there and meet people.”

For Peter Franchot, it has been an amazing political journey. He’s taken some missteps along the way, but he’s also seized upon opportunities that others did not initially detect.

Like so many politicians in Montgomery County who leverage time as a staffer on Capitol Hill into a political career, he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1986 at the age of 38, representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park, the county’s most liberal area. He was a bomb-thrower and spotlight grabber from the get-go, but he didn’t expect to be around Annapolis long and thought he’d be returning to the Hill quickly. Indeed, he ran for Congress in 1988, but was clobbered by Rep. Connie Morella (R).

Several years of obscurity followed. But the highly charged 1996 votes on football stadium funding offered Franchot a way out; he was one of only five members of Montgomery’s Annapolis delegation who voted for the two stadiums and was rewarded with a gavel on the House Appropriations Committee — first as chairman of the public safety subcommittee, then as the head of the transportation panel.

As his influence and visibility grew, Franchot thought he’d have a shot at becoming Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s (D) running mate in 2002. It never happened, but politics is a funny game — Townsend’s loss to Bob Ehrlich (R) was possibly the best thing that ever happened to Franchot politically. Suddenly there was a void on the left in Annapolis, and Franchot, loudly, stepped in to fill it.

Other legislative veterans like Sens. Brian Frosh (D) and Paul Pinsky (D) and Del. Maggie McIntosh (D) might have been more effective and had more consistent records and progressive street cred. But it wasn’t long before Franchot became the No. 1 thorn in Ehrlich’s side, a distinction that brought him plenty of attention — and some gratitude from liberals.

Although he won’t cop to it now, Franchot clearly decided to run for comptroller in 2006 with the expectation that Ehrlich would win a second term as governor, and that he could continue his drumbeat of criticism at an even higher decibel level.

Even now, he talks about how William Donald Schaefer (D), another venerated ex-comptroller whose 50-year political career Franchot ended in the crazy three-way 2006 Democratic primary, didn’t “provide the kind of scrutiny as comptroller that there should have been.”

Instead, Martin O’Malley (D) defeated Ehrlich, but before O’Malley and Franchot ever had a chance to feel each other out — and Franchot did himself no favors with the new governor by surrounding himself with loyalists of former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan (D), O’Malley’s erstwhile Democratic primary opponent — the two were thrust into a battle over slot machines.

Franchot — who as recently as 2002 expressed at least mild support for bringing slots to Maryland — has gotten a lot of political mileage out of his vociferous opposition since then. But while the slots referendum was skating to victory in 2008, Franchot’s position as the point man for the opponents has probably irreparably damaged his relationship with O’Malley.

Franchot likes to think not — he endorsed O’Malley for re-election some months ago, and expresses sympathy for the bad fiscal hand the governor has been dealt. He has been careful not to gloat about the difficulties the state has faced getting its slots program off the ground, and is unlikely to get involved with the referendum in Anne Arundel County to keep slots out of Arundel Mills.

But when prodded, Franchot says, “I don’t have to say ‘I told you so.’ People see that it’s a great debacle.” And he goes on to say of his fellow elected officials, “Let’s stop being mesmerized by gambling and slot machines.”

There’s an implicit criticism, and a calculated one, of O’Malley and fellow Democrats in Franchot’s overall critique of state government. It’s a little discordant to hear this Montgomery County liberal warhorse preaching “a third way” and “a more fiscally moderate view of the world.” But it sounds sincere, a sincerity born of his new statewide perspective. And it is winning him fans — and chits he may be able to collect down the line — in unlikely places.

Upon being elected comptroller, Franchot reached out to business leaders across the state, soliciting ideas on how to make state government more effective and responsive to their needs.

nder Foxwell’s tutelage, he has paid especially close attention to communities he probably never heard of when he was in the legislature, frequently speaking — at a time when O’Malley’s own popularity is dipping in some of these very precincts — to conservative and Reagan Democratic groups in places like Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. His targeted audience has taken notice.

“I found out he wasn’t the anti-Christ,” said Anne Arundel County Councilman Chuck Ferrar (D), a conservative Democrat who owns a large liquor store in Annapolis. “The guy’s done a great job, with a great point of view…He’s looking to cut spending. He knows the numbers. He watches the numbers now. I thought he was strictly a tax-and-spender.”

Of course, Franchot’s life is more than giving speeches and making political contacts. He has tinkered in an appropriate way with the comptroller’s role as the state’s tax collector and fiscal steward and regulator of key industries (just last week he was online offering last-minute advice to taxpayers).

Rather than getting involved in high-profile legislative fights this year, he has attempted to advance legislation that is relevant to his office and his official duties, like his bill — which is fighting for its life in the last days of the legislative session — to mandate a financial literacy course for Maryland high school students.

The idea is gaining traction across the country — and in the state. In Carroll County, where a financial literacy course was added to the high school curriculum this academic year, students are learning valuable life lessons, said Marjorie Lohnes, the county’s supervisor of career and technology education.

“It’s not an economics course and it’s not a technology course,” she said. “It’s really about managing your life.”

Will promoting an idea like financial literacy propel Franchot to the governor’s mansion in four years?

It’s always good to be associated with modern-day mom-and-apple pie issues. But more important for Franchot, that strategy, along with the outreach he’s doing, along with his recent ability to shy away from cheap PR stunts and unnecessary skirmishes, speaks to a newfound level of political maturity.

And for Franchot, political maturity is the first hurdle he’s got to get over to demonstrate his fitness to be governor.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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