By Bruce DePuyt and Josh Kurtz
A long-simmering feud between state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) burst into open view Thursday night.
In a conversation with reporters, Miller blistered his fellow Democrat as a “shameful” publicity hound and political “Chameleon” who has infuriated lawmakers and picked unnecessary and irrelevant policy fights.
Miller also went after Franchot’s chief of staff and longtime political adviser, Len Foxwell – who, in a conversation with Maryland Matters, returned the fire.
Miller’s remarks came as the House considers a bill to study whether to strip the comptroller’s office of its role as the state’s chief alcohol regulator and lawmakers ponder a proposal to limit the ability of the Board of Public Works – which consists of the comptroller, the governor and the state treasurer – to dole out school construction money.
Franchot, who is completing his third term as comptroller after 20 years in the House of Delegates, has evolved from a bomb-throwing liberal lawmaker to a bomb-throwing fiscal conservative who is closer to Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) than he is to any elected Democrat. Franchot’s evolution and penchant for publicity has given Democrats fits through the years – yet he has been untouchable politically and is about to waltz to a fourth term as comptroller.
Whether lawmakers will be successful stripping Franchot of his official duties or whether they are merely trying to extract a measure of political payback is very much an open question. But Miller made the case for doing so Thursday night.
Miller said Franchot has helped turned the process of awarding school construction funds at the Board of Public Works into a political sideshow.
“Where schools are built, and where air conditioning goes and where heating goes, should be [decided] on the merits of the school and not regard to the political party, what person is running for what office, and what political points are trying to be scored,” he said.
Miller called the annual capital construction “beg-athon,” where local government leaders and educators appear before the three-member Board of Public Works, “embarrassing to the state of Maryland. Schools should go where schools are supposed to go…. They should be done on the merits.”
He continued: “All you have to do is look at Baltimore County, and the politics of Baltimore County, to see what a mess the situation is, with the comptroller trying to tell the county executive which schools need to get air conditioning, which schools need heating, which schools need to be rebuilt, regardless of what the Board of Education in Baltimore County says, regardless of what the county executive says, regardless of what the County Council says.”
But Foxwell said “the problems in Baltimore County are attributable to a severe pattern of corruption and mismanagement from the superintendent right on down. Comptroller Franchot is quite proud of the work that he and Gov. Hogan have done to provide 50,000 school children in both Baltimore County and Baltimore City with the climate-controlled classrooms that Sen. Miller and his legislative colleagues take for granted.”
Foxwell also argued that the Board of Public Works “provides an open and transparent platform where families are not only able but welcome to come and express their frustration with unacceptable learning environments. That sort of public engagement would not happen if the oversight were to be taken from the Board of Public Works and given to an unelected body that meets in relative privacy and whose members are primarily accountable to Speaker Busch and Senate President Miller.”
Foxwell added that taking away the BPW’s oversight of school construction funding would be “a terrible idea.”
“In this administration, as in past administrations, the comptroller and the governor have respected the prerogatives of local decision-makers but have used their positions to call attention to instances where the fundamental rights of children and teachers to safe learning conditions are being violated,” he said.
‘A political talking puppet’
Miller blamed Foxwell for the demise of the “Reform on Tap” legislation, which was a top priority of Franchot’s for this General Assembly session. The measure, put together after half a year’s worth of hearings, mostly at brew pubs around the state, would have enabled the craft beer industry to expand dramatically in Maryland.
But the concept ran into opposition from beer distributors and other more established players in the alcohol industry was killed on a resounding 17-4 vote in the House Economic Matters Committee.
Miller said the bill failed because Foxwell and Franchot refused to reach out to other stakeholders and instead turned the push to help craft brewers into a name-calling crusade.
“Len Foxwell was the head of the College Republicans, he worked for Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening (D),” Miller said. “He’s a political talking puppet who says what he thinks will benefit his boss. I mean, he’s the one who got the comptroller in the mess with the craft beer situation.
“Reasonable people should have sat down and resolved the matter without talking above the fray and saying unseemly things. Everybody can get along, the wholesalers, the brewers, the craft beer people, the distributors. Everybody can get along, and they always have in the past, and there is no reason for animosity.
“Government is about teamwork. It’s about people working together, listening to each person’s point of view. When you’re not talking, you should be listening to somebody else and come up with a compromise position. And that hasn’t been happening on the Board of Public Works. It’s the political grandstanding in the Board of Public Works that embarrasses all of us.”
Foxwell blamed the bill’s demise on the “unseemly influence” of liquor industry lobbyists in Annapolis.
“With all due respect to the Senate president, the failure of the Reform on Tap bill had nothing to do with the comptroller and his staff,” he said. “It had everything to do with the unseemly influence that the corporate beer lobby wields over House Economic Matters Committee. That’s pretty common knowledge around the state, and ordinary people are increasingly fed up with it, and it has to change.”
As for the bill in the House to study whether to strip the comptroller’s office of its oversight of the alcohol industry, Foxwell said, “That’s just politics. Del. [Maggie L.] McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) herself said yesterday that that bill exists because they don’t like Peter Franchot, and it doesn’t get any more political than that. It’s intended as a swipe at Franchot. [House Appropriations] Chairwoman McIntosh said it on the record. It’s no mystery to anybody.”
Foxwell continued: “We have a fundamental difference with the Senate president [on alcohol laws]. Respectfully, he is inclined to support the corporate beer monopoly and their politically well-connected distributors, at the expense of local community-based brewers. We want to do everything possible to help the craft brewers who are creating thousands of jobs and putting hundreds of millions of dollars back into the Maryland economy, by creating a system that more closely resembles 21st century capitalism.
“So we have a nettlesome difference of opinion, it’s a strong difference of opinion, but it’s not irreconcilable. Maryland’s beer laws are fundamentally broken. It’s why we’re losing breweries and losing opportunities to our neighboring states. It’s our laws. And we have to get it figured out, because the economic stakes in Maryland are just too great.”
‘Do you have core values at all’
Miller suggested that Franchot’s estrangement from his former colleagues in the legislature because he has become “shameful in terms of his political playing upon the feelings of the voters, rather than what needs to be done.”
Asked if this is why the legislature is considering taking away some of Franchot’s powers, Miller replied, “Nobody wants to turn on him. What we want to do is say ‘Just be true to your own self. Just have a core value about something. Have a core value about something. And stick to what you believe in.”
Miller said that in Annapolis, Franchot’s “nickname is Chameleon, because he changes his colors. If they laid him on a plaid carpet, he wouldn’t know where to go.”
Miller gestured left and right, like a lizard.
“Red, blue, green, yellow. Because he changes his colors to each day to meet the tone of the day, to assist himself in the eyes of the voters. It’s too bad, because it shouldn’t be like that. People need to look up to their elected officials and they need to respect them, and when you see somebody that says one thing one day, then something opposite the next day, [people wonder] do you have core values at all?
“You don’t have to be a Democratic or a Republican, but just follow your beliefs and stick to the, and hone a straight line. And if he does that, then things can be all well again. But until he gets away from the playing to the crowds on every single issue, rather than moving and voting on the substance of the bills…[it’s going to impact his ability to serve] on the Board of Public Works.”
Foxwell countered that Franchot’s effectiveness and popularity speak for themselves.
“If any of that was true, then we suspect the Senate president’s efforts to recruit a candidate to challenge him in the Democratic primary would have borne more fruit. The fact that Senator Miller tried for months, if not years, to recruit a candidate, yet came up empty, suggests that the comptroller is held in pretty regard by the taxpayers who pay his salary. …. It’s not Comptroller Franchot who is being primaried from his left in this year’s elections. Senate President Miller is.”
As for Miller’s criticisms of him, Foxwell replied, “This is kind of like having one’s caricature affixed to the wall at The Palm. It’s kind of a badge of honor in Annapolis, to be singled out by the Senate president this way.”