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Government & Politics

Meet the One Person in Maryland With the Temerity to Take on Peter Franchot

Anjali Reed Phukan, the Republican nominee for state comptroller, in Ocean City, where she lives. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) is Public Enemy No. 1 to many establishment Democrats who tally his various apostasies — chief among them cozying up to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). But after furiously trying to recruit a candidate to run against him in the Democratic primary, party leaders came up empty handed — not even a token Democrat jumped into the race.

Republicans believe Hogan has very strong coattails – witness political newcomer Craig Wolf’s relative strength in public polling against Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D). But GOP leaders declined to recruit someone to run against Franchot, content to give a free pass to the Democrat who most helps provide Hogan his patina of bipartisanship.

Anjali Reed Phukan was not afraid to toss her hat in the ring – and more than many politicians, she’s inclined to wear one. A one-time member of the Green Party and a former Occupy Wall Street protester, the 40-year-old accountant entered the race as a Republican, and she’s now the only thing separating the formidable Franchot from a fourth term. Phukan is nothing if not an unconventional politician. When she meets voters, she hands out individually wrapped red Twizzlers.

“I’m red with a twist, a Republican with a twist,” she explained during a recent interview in Ocean City, where she lives.

Phukan has also had an unconventional upbringing and professional path for a politician. She describes herself as a former drug addict now in recovery, who was kicked out of Montgomery County public schools. She says she hasn’t used drugs since she was 17 and hasn’t had a sip of alcohol in about eight years. One evening a week, she leads recovery sessions on the beach.

Phukan isn’t exactly a political novice. She ran as a write-in candidate for comptroller in 2014, earning 595 votes. She also ran unsuccessfully for a position on the Montgomery County Board of Education in 2016, finishing second in a district race while, she says, racking up “100,000 votes with a budget of zero.”

Phukan recognizes the challenges of waging an uphill campaign against Franchot – who earned more raw votes than any candidate in 2014 and could do so again this year. He had $1.5 million in his campaign account in mid-August, compared to $285 for his challenger.

But Phukan is unshakable in her belief that she has one vital credential that Franchot and other recent comptrollers have not: a CPA degree.

“We have a tendency to elect politicians and not accountants to this position, and it’s resulted in supremely bad budgets,” she said.

After working as a federal auditor for several years, Phukan now works for the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, auditing the books at the Ocean Downs casino and race track outside of Ocean City. She also takes private tax clients when she can.

Her campaign website — where she refers to herself, aspirationally, as Ms. Comptroller — lays out a list of proposals for lowering taxes and making government more efficient and accountable to taxpayers.

Phukan is highly critical of Franchot’s advocacy for craft brewers and other segments of the alcohol industry, which he regulates as comptroller. She sees potential for massive conflicts of interest and questions the propriety of Franchot and other state officials consuming alcohol at semi-official and campaign events.

Asked why she thinks Franchot is so popular, Phukan attempts a metaphor about voters being like women who drink alcohol while out on a date.

“It’s political beer goggles – literally,” she said. “Peter Franchot has literally succeeded in using political beer goggles with people.”

Phukan is quick to offer two mitigating statements: One, she has nothing against the state’s growing craft brewing industry. “I’m not against the brewers – look, there’s my mom drinking a local beer,” she said, showing a reporter a picture on her phone.

Also, Phukan wants voters to know that she has nothing against her opponent.

“I am not against Peter Franchot,” she said. “I wish him the best in life and serenity and that he achieves his Nirvana.”

Because Franchot and Hogan are so tight — Phukan, like others in Maryland politics, refers to the “bromance” — the Republican nominee for comptroller has, at best, an uneasy relationship with her party. She is ambivalent about President Trump.

“I don’t hate Trump, but I don’t worship the ground he walks on,” she said.

Some GOP critics complain that Phukan is too liberal socially and want her to denounce the National Organization for Women, which she has liked on social media. Most party leaders keep their distance.

But Phukan cherishes the small contributions she’s received from Diane Waterman, the former state Republican chairwoman, and from William Campbell, who was the GOP nominee against Franchot in 2006 and 2014.

“I have people who are helping,” she said. “I have a political mommy, as I call her. She’s amazing.”

Phukan will not identify the “political mommy.” But the candidate who hands out Twizzlers allows that she enjoys going to Republican women’s gatherings because there are so many sweets.

“Oh my God,” she said. “The Republican women can bake. If you’re diabetic, bring your insulin.”

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Meet the One Person in Maryland With the Temerity to Take on Peter Franchot