Democratic and GOP contests for Maryland governor tight as primary nears

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When Peter VR Franchot unsuccessfully ran for Congress more than three decades ago, many members of the Maryland Democratic Party viewed him as a brash underdog. All these years later, even as he runs for governor, that character remains.

Franchot, 74, has bided his time, his ambition to take on higher positions below the surface during his 16 years as comptroller, frequently poking party leaders in the eye while cultivating his brand as a independent, albeit progressive, tax watchdog – and never missing an opportunity to boost his political prominence.

He rushed into political fights to side with everyone, advocating to restore working air conditioning to Baltimore City schools, for school-free summers through Labor Day, and for small brewers. of craft beer in competition with the large distributors. An avowed populist, Franchot says he likes to defend “the little guy”, especially when the opponent is a big shot.

He’s not afraid to make enemies within his own party, like he did with Thomas V. Mike Miller (D) when Miller was president of the Senate. Or friends in the opposing party, as he did with current Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R).

Franchot’s evolving political stances — which include shifting from a progressive voice among state Democrats to his alliance with Hogan — have drawn criticism. He replies that inflexibility when situations change is not a virtue.

What has remained constant for decades in public service is its penchant for showmanship. Franchot built his name recognition through gimmicks – criss-crossing the state handing out awards he invented to businesses and community leaders and splashing his image through legally mandated newspaper ads listing owners’ names. of unclaimed property.

He prefers generating media coverage to capture public attention and move an issue (or promote himself, if you ask his detractors) from the outside rather than working levers of power as an insider.

True to his populist bent, Franchot said he represented “the little guys, not the Rockefellers”, although his own upbringing was rich. He grew up in New England, the son of a corporate lawyer, and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the most elite prep schools in the country.

As a young man, Franchot left Amherst College to join Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, lost his student deferment, and was drafted into the Vietnam War. After two years of service and after graduating from college, he worked for environmental and other causes, including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, affiliated with Ralph Nader.

Franchot then went to law school at Northeastern University in Boston, where he met his wife Anne Maher, now a partner at a DC law firm. They have two children and three grandchildren. During the 1980s, Franchot spent six years working as an assistant to Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

Franchot first stood for election in 1986 at the age of 38. In this race to become a state delegate, he recognized an obstacle that he has since worked hard to overcome. “When you’re in an 11-person race, name recognition is an issue,” he told the Washington Post at the time. He won.

The following year, he ran to become his district’s Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, and he won that as well.

“He won it because the guy works, hustle, talks and raises funds for just about anyone,” David Weaver, his publicist at the time, said in a recent interview. “He has an extraordinary reservoir of energy. If he wants something, he works on it.

Franchot then waged a spirited, but unsuccessful, general election campaign against incumbent Republican Representative Constance A. Morella. He held frequent press conferences to attack her, at one point brandishing a gas mask to criticize a vote she cast involving US nerve gas weapons.

He then spent two decades in the General Assembly, advocating for gun control, abortion rights, raising the minimum wage, and other liberal causes. It was in 2002 that he began to seriously consider running for governor, according to Len Foxwell, a longtime former senior official. That year, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, won the gubernatorial race, and Foxwell said he encouraged Franchot to consider running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Ehrlich next time around. .

Foxwell said Franchot was driven more by political expediency than any set of principles. He cited Franchot’s pivot to oppose slot machines as an example – having co-sponsored efforts to legalize them in 1998 and 2001 – when Foxwell advised that this stance would help him distance himself from Ehrlich and attract black voters and white progressives.

In 2003, Foxwell and Franchot put a line opposing slits in a speech Franchot was to deliver in Easton, a town on the east coast of Maryland. One of Franchot’s first political excursions outside of his Montgomery County district, the trip resembled that of a small-state governor with presidential ambitions visiting Iowa, Foxwell said.

“We had written a speech, and it had a number of progressive themes, and people were giving it lukewarm applause at the appropriate times,” Foxwell said. But when Franchot arrived at the game on the opposite slots, “the room rose and applauded”.

That evening, as they discussed the day in a pub, Franchot was lively, Foxwell said. “He said, ‘I’m going to go to all 24 counties in the state and fight with everything I’ve got. ”

Franchot presents his opposition to slot machines differently, as an outgrowth of his affinity for taking on bullies and taking on the little guy, but acknowledges having changed his stance. “A lot of these issues aren’t necessarily popular issues that I speak to,” he said in a recent interview. “Slots – everyone wanted slots.”

He declined to comment on Foxwell’s account and his campaign called it a “personal attack.” The two fell out in 2020 after nearly two decades of working together closely, and Foxwell served as a consultant for Democratic Governor Rushern L. Baker III’s rival campaign before stepping down.

Franchot went on to argue against slot machines with a kind of religious zeal, saying that “the devil is at the door” and that opponents of slot machines would “stake the stake in the heart of the vampire”. At one point he gathered five gospel choirs for a song in Annapolis.

He eventually decided to run for Comptroller and won an underdog bid for the Democratic nomination, promising to be “an independent voice and a strong tax watchdog” and “a true Democrat” who would thwart Ehrlich .

Upon taking office, Franchot took a broad approach to the role, which helps oversee state spending but is essentially the state’s tax collector, broadening its reach and carving out a more public profile than which was traditional for the position. On the day of his swearing in, Franchot made it clear that he would oppose slot machines loud and clear.

Miller, the President of the Senate, grumbled to reporters that day that Franchot would learn he had been elected to serve as “a tax collector, not a policy maker”, and Miller would later say that Franchot spent over time “running for governor” than acting as comptroller.

Franchot ultimately lost the slot fight but may have helped himself in the process. Frequent publicity increased its visibility, especially among African Americans.

Heading into 2014, with O’Malley on a limited term to be governor again, Franchot was among several high-profile state Democrats considering running. But he wasn’t considered a favorite and he ultimately decided against it. Instead, he was re-elected as controller.

After Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan pulled off a surprise victory that year, he quickly befriended Franchot, with whom he shared many voters. They bonded over walks along the Ocean City boardwalk and a mutual desire to cut state spending. Franchot dined at the Governor’s mansion, which he had never done with O’Malley.

When 2018 rolled around, with Hogan enjoying a 70% approval rating and seeking re-election, Franchot once again shelved his ambition to occupy the governor’s mansion. He also declined to endorse Democratic nominee Ben Jealous and said he would not vote in the race.

This year, finally, could be Franchot’s chance. He boasts that in his four successful runs for comptroller, he received the most votes of any statewide candidate in Maryland history. His name is recognized across the state, which analysts say gives him a huge advantage. He and his running mate, Monique Anderson-Walker (D-District 8), a member of the Prince George’s County council, started this year with more than $3 million in the bank and had $1.2 million as of June, according to their campaign finance reports.

Said Franchot: “We are quietly confident that we are on the way to victory.”

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