Josh Kurtz: The Franchot Factor

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) at an Annapolis rally protesting the influence of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D). File photo

Halloween just passed, so it’s fair to ask: Is state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) merely masquerading as a Democrat?

Franchot’s third term as the state’s tax collector has been defined, more than anything, by his buddy-buddy relationship with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his growing estrangement from the state’s Democratic establishment – or “the Annapolis machine,” as he likes to call it.

More than any other Democrat, Franchot has given cover to Hogan’s favored narrative that he operates in a bipartisan fashion. Their mutually beneficial bromance will be on vivid display late Thursday morning, when they travel to West Baltimore to jointly present an award to the Rev. Dr. Alvin Hathaway Sr., pastor of the Union Baptist Church.

Later in the day, Franchot will attain full “Louie Status,” when the Langston Hughes Community Resource Center names its refurbished gymnasium for Franchot, perpetuating Maryland’s odd habit of naming edifices for living politicians. Franchot’s most recent predecessors as comptroller, Louis Goldstein (D) and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D), were the leading beneficiaries.

But there’s an election going on, and despite all the opprobrium from fellow Democrats, Franchot’s main concern is whether he yet again will be the state’s highest vote-getter when all the ballots are counted. Talk about a charmed existence.

Critics may call Franchot – the one-time progressive who has been in office for 32 consecutive years and is now channeling his faux revolutionary rhetoric into attacking establishment Democrats – a shape-shifting turncoat. And yet they ignore this hard-to-digest but incontrovertible fact: Franchot is doing a lot to elect Democrats this election cycle.

“I’m out there more than any other elected Democrat,” Franchot said in an interview Wednesday. He conceded that, with his reelection assured, “I have the freedom” to help others.

Assistance is measured in different ways. If the metrics are money and institutional support, Franchot is lagging behind the Maryland Democratic Party, certain members of the state’s congressional delegation, and the presiding officers of the General Assembly, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

But when it comes to physical stumping, practical advice, a roster of occasionally overlooked candidates and a reputation that’s golden in certain corners of the state, especially where Democrats don’t always prosper, Franchot offers a lot. And he’s put together an eclectic and interesting and – Franchot being Franchot – highly strategic list of about a dozen Democratic candidates that he’s aiding this fall.

“It started in the primaries,” Franchot said, recalling how he largely backed candidates who were running against entrenched incumbents, with mixed success. “And we were looking for people who were not cogs in the machine and shared a certain independence.”

What unites the candidates on Franchot’s general election list, he said, is “an underdog perspective or an independent perspective.”

Some are fairly obvious or even mainstream, like the Democratic nominee for Baltimore County executive, John A. “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. Franchot did not endorse Johnny O in the hard-fought three-way Democratic primary, opting instead for state Sen. James Brochin, another self-styled renegade who also wears his wounds from fellow Democrats as a badge of honor.

But Olszewski, who is something of a hybrid, still serves Franchot’s agenda. He’s the son of a former county councilman with plenty of institutional Democratic support. But he’s also a thoughtful policy wonk from a part of Baltimore County where Franchot’s popularity is astronomical. He’s not a part of the clubhouse that has dominated Towson for so long. And he’s also favored to win.

Franchot’s decision to endorse Olszewski also puts him at odds with Hogan, who’s all in for Johnny O’s Republican opponent, the Hogan administration’s insurance commissioner, Alfred W. Redmer Jr. Those are the kind of optics Franchot likes, to repel suggestions that he’s too cozy with the governor.

Olszewski and Franchot greeted early voters together in Randallstown on Monday, and Olszewski has touted the endorsement on social media.

“I’m so grateful for Comptroller Peter Franchot’s support in our campaign for a better Baltimore County,” Johnny O wrote. “He’s a leader who has put people above politics to get things done for Marylanders. That’s the kind of leadership I’ll bring to the role of County Executive.”

One other formidable candidate among those Franchot is backing is Courtney Watson, the former Howard County councilwoman and erstwhile candidate for county executive who is challenging Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R) in a fair fight between two political heavyweights. (Side note: Franchot and Flanagan had some epic battles when Franchot was chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee and Flanagan was transportation secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. – but Franchot’s decision to endorse Watson is apparently unrelated.)

Franchot’s endorsement list also includes some highly regarded underdog candidates who are punching well above their weight class and have excited an array of Democrats, like Afghanistan War veteran Jesse Colvin, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R), and horse farmer Steuart Pittman, who is taking on Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh (R). Pittman and Colvin also enjoy the backing of many establishment Democrats.

Franchot has also endorsed someone else who is an underdog but clearly in the hunt, former Washington County Democratic chairman Peter Perini, who is challenging appointed Del. Paul Corderman (R).

Franchot’s list features some Democrats that party activists and leaders are excited about – like Katie Fry Hester, who is challenging state Sen. Gail H. Bates (R) – but who are running in conservative territory where it may take an unlikely blue wave to win. And he’s endorsed Robbie Leonard, the underdog Democratic nominee for Brochin’s state Senate seat in Baltimore County.

In fact, Franchot describes many of the candidates he has endorsed as “folks that down the road are going to be successful if they’re not this time.”

They’re mostly younger candidates, energetic, dedicated and likely to be around for a while. They are future allies for Franchot as he continues to chart his unpredictable course in the equally uncertain world of internecine Democratic warfare.

Also on the list: Baltimore County Sheriff R. Jay Fisher, who is seeking reelection; Keasha Haythe, who is running for Talbot County Council; Carl Jackson, running for the House of Delegates in Baltimore County’s District 8; Bill McCain, running for an at-large seat on the Wicomico County Council; Dan O’Hare, running for the House in District 37B on the Lower Shore; Wini Roche, who is running for Harford County Council District 5; Lily Rowe, who is running for Baltimore County Board of Education District 6; Maureen Scott-Taylor, running for the Talbot County Council; Emily Shank, running for a House seat in Carroll County’s District 5; and China Williams, who is running for Howard County Council in District 5.

Conspicuously absent from Franchot’s list, other than Leonard, are any of the Democrats defending state Senate seats that Republicans are targeting in their “Drive for Five.” That’s the GOP’s bid to deny Democrats a veto-proof majority if Hogan wins a second term.

Some seem like no-brainers. Why wouldn’t Franchot put his weight behind Del. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), a small business owner running against a man accused of being a bigot, Anne Arundel County Councilman John J. Grasso (R)? Why wouldn’t he endorse conservative Democrats like embattled Sens. James N. Mathias (D-Lower Shore) or Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), who fit his current ideological iteration? Why not contribute to the potential success of promising young Democrats running for Senate in close races like Del. Clarence K. Lam in District 12 or Sarah Elfreth in District 30?

The answers say a lot about Franchot’s uneasy relationship with legislative leaders. According to Franchot, most of these candidates never asked him for his support – for fear of “irritating” Miller and Busch. That’s easy enough to believe.

Asked whether he believes it’s important for Democrats to retain their veto-proof majority in the Senate, Franchot said he has “no opinion.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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