Adam Pagnucco: Governor Franchot?

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) at a Board of Public Works meeting. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Much to the dismay of the state’s Democratic establishment, Comptroller Peter Franchot appears to be planning a run for governor.  (Disclosure: Franchot is a former client of mine, though I am not working on his current campaign.) As Maryland Matters founder Josh Kurtz has written, the 2022 field is wide open and has yet to take shape. But Franchot is a known quantity and it’s not too early to assess his strengths and weaknesses in a possible race for governor.

Assets

  1. Franchot is a statewide elected official.

Unless U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen or Attorney General Brian Frosh decide to run – which many people believe is unlikely – Franchot would be the only current statewide officeholder in the race. Former attorney general Doug Gansler and former lieutenant governor and current Congressman Anthony Brown were once statewide officeholders, but they will be gone for two terms by 2022. If the Democratic primary is Franchot vs. a group of local politicians, that’s an advantage for the comptroller.

  1. Franchot has a large statewide network.

Franchot has not spent the last 13 years sitting in Annapolis. He has methodically built a unique, large statewide network in three ways.

First, his various issue crusades have brought him pockets of supporters who can be stitched together into a grass-roots army. Think about it – liquor monopoly opponents in Montgomery and Worcester counties, school air conditioning supporters in Baltimore County and Baltimore City, Labor Day school start supporters in the Eastern Shore and slots opponents, craft brewery enthusiasts, business types and moderates everywhere are going to be predisposed to back Franchot. No one else will have a coalition as eclectic as this one.

Second, the man shows up. Everywhere. It’s unlikely that any current elected official in the state – including Gov. Larry Hogan – has appeared in more places and shaken more hands in Maryland than Franchot. Literally thousands of Franchot’s awards and medallions have been distributed to state residents and businesses over the last dozen years. He has supporters in places some politicians have never heard of and would never go.  Retail politicking of this kind is most effective in small districts because it’s hard to do at scale. But Franchot has spent more than a decade doing this across the state and the payoff could be immense.

Third, Franchot relishes fighting “the establishment.” This is the man who had no meaningful general election opponent last year and still spent half a million dollars on a TV ad bashing “the Annapolis Machine.” Tactics like this have enraged the General Assembly’s Democratic leadership but some voters – including maybe even a few progressives – will be attracted to this message. And because no other Democratic candidate would dare say such things, Franchot will have the rebels all to himself.

  1. Fundraising.

Franchot reported having $1.02 million in the bank last January. That’s a nice start but not insurmountable for competitors. Franchot’s real advantage is his attitude towards fundraising. Most politicians hate raising money. They view it as a terrible chore. Franchot views it as a competition to be won. Every dollar raised increases the odds of triumph over the “bosses!” He is the only politician I have ever met who will actually become agitated if he runs out of names on his call list during call time. With that attitude, imagine how much money he could raise if he were the principal business-friendly candidate in a primary for governor.

  1. The press can’t get enough of him.

Put aside what the press really thinks about Franchot.  (It’s complicated.) These are folks who are doing their jobs, which is to put out stories. NOBODY gives them better copy than Franchot. Whatever is going on with Franchot – and there is always something going on – no politician throws out better quotes, more drama and provides more follow-up opportunities than Franchot.  Furthermore, his staff (more on them below) works the press all day long. Franchot’s dominance of the press is such that many casual voters will only have heard of him and will know little or nothing about the other candidates by 2022.

  1. He already has a team.

This is a source of much aggravation for the Democratic leaders who have to deal with them, but Franchot has filled his executive office staff with political operatives, PR folks and former press. Expect some of them to move to the campaign side once election season approaches.

Their leader is Franchot’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell, who has been one of the state’s top political strategists for 20 years. Name any county in the state and Foxwell will hold forth on its history, players, economy and politics. He studies these things like math students study geometry.  He meticulously plans out all of Franchot’s initiatives to maximize their impact, get press attention and add to the comptroller’s ever-growing grass-roots base. And he constantly gets the latest intel from all over the state through his carefully cultivated network of contacts.

Most politicians would never hire someone like Foxwell and give him the space and power such a person requires to be effective. That’s because the big majority of politicians are insecure by nature and fear being overshadowed by formidable staff.  But Franchot is perfectly secure in his own skin and he knows that he has benefited mightily from his unique relationship with Foxwell. It could take him to the governor’s office.

  1. So far, the field looks weak.

The last time I wrote about Franchot, he had no apparent ambition to be governor. It never came up while I worked for him; his goal was to thwart a possible primary challenge to his current office by the Democratic establishment. But one of the biggest things that have changed since then is the deterioration in the possible field of gubernatorial candidates. Look at Josh Kurtz’s potential list. Who is Franchot supposed to fear? Three county executives who just got elected and are virtually unknown outside their own jurisdictions? The last two Democratic nominees, now-Congressman Anthony Brown and former NAACP president Ben Jealous, who lost their general elections? Former congressman John Delaney, who is getting wiped out in the presidential election? Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who has not won an election since his 2002 victory for a Montgomery County Council seat? Other also-rans? With a field like this and Hogan subject to term limits, it was natural for Franchot to at least consider his own gubernatorial run. And that’s what he is doing now.

Liabilities

  1. Franchot won’t be the first choice of progressives.

Last year, the Democratic primary saw a race to the left by most of the candidates to recruit progressive institutional and grass-roots support. Jealous won in part because he went further left than anyone else. The progressive left is the source of energy in the Democratic primary just like the Trump right is the core of the GOP.  Franchot is not their natural favorite. Perhaps he is figuring that other candidates will split the left and his eclectic coalition will put him over the top. But what if the field is small and progressives coalesce around one other candidate?

  1. He has not won a competitive election since 2006.

For all of Franchot’s popularity in polls and his whopping general election vote counts, he has not had a genuinely competitive election since his first race for comptroller in the 2006 Democratic primary. Since then, he has munched on Lilliputian rivals. Most people on his team don’t have recent competitive statewide campaign experience either. Few things help you win tough elections quite like winning tough elections. (Somewhere, Yogi Berra is nodding.)  Battle experience matters and Franchot could use more of it in his operation.

  1. Does he really want the job of governor?

This is the biggest reason why there might not be a Governor Franchot: What if he likes his current job and life too much? Think about what it’s like to be Franchot.  He lives in a beautiful house within walking distance of the Takoma Park Co-op and the Carroll Avenue commercial strip. He heads an agency in which the career merit staff does the huge majority of the real work. He gets to travel the state and hand out awards as much as he wants. And as comptroller, he has the almost unique luxury of deciding which issues he will play on and which ones he will avoid.  (The Washington Beltway project was a rare exception because it came before the Board of Public Works, on which he sits.)

Governors and legislators can’t pick and choose – they have to deal with whatever comes their way. Governors in particular get blamed for everything.  Since when has anyone blamed a comptroller for tax hikes, crime, recession, political corruption, opioids or problems in the schools? As long as folks get quick income tax refunds, they’re good. Does Franchot really want to accept responsibility for everything when it’s so much easier to be in his current position?

That’s why it would not be a big surprise to see Franchot stay exactly where he is. Ultimately, the person who may be most able to prevent Peter Franchot from becoming governor might be… Peter Franchot himself.

— ADAM PAGNUCCO

The writer is a researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the Montgomery County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics — including Peter Franchot, though he is not currently on Franchot’s payroll. Pagnucco also writes a regular column on Montgomery County affairs for Bethesda Beat.

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