Don Mohler: An Unsettling Wake-up Call for Team Franchot

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) speaks with attendees of the 2021 Maryland Association of Counties summer conference. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

By Don Mohler

The writer is the former Baltimore County executive and president and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He can be reached at [email protected].

The race to represent the Democrats in the gubernatorial election next June should pretty much be a done deal. But as so often happens in politics, the voters seem to have other ideas.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot was first elected to the House of Delegates back in 1986, meaning that he has been in the public arena for nearly 36 years. As a result, a recent poll by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, a highly regarded national polling firm reported, 63% of Democratic voters recognize Mr. Franchot’s name. No other candidate crossed the 50% threshold. In an election with no incumbent, it should pretty much be game, set, match. Bring on the Republican opponent and call it a day.

But not so fast.

Once again, it appears that conventional wisdom may not be so conventional after all. It has long been assumed that knowledge and disappointment with the comptroller’s spotty record as a Democrat was merely “inside” baseball and that the voters were not aware of, or could care less, about his past transgressions. Hmmm. Recent polling results indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Answering the question, “Exactly who is this Peter Franchot?” may be more problematic for the comptroller’s campaign than anticipated.

Former Baltimore County executive Don Mohler (D).

Evidently voters do remember that while in the House of Delegates, Franchot was one of its most liberal members, only to change course while becoming one of Governor Hogan’s closest allies in Annapolis. Democratic voters seem to recall that Mr. Franchot refused to support his party’s candidate for governor in 2018 saying, “I think I’m probably going to remain neutral in that race — simply because it’s important for me to get along with whoever is elected.”

They remember that The Sun wrote in 2018, “To the chagrin of Democratic Party leaders, Franchot and Hogan became fast friends when Hogan was elected in 2014, bonding over a shared enthusiasm for fiscal conservativism, publicly grilling state employees over contracts and doing battle with Baltimore City and County schools officials over a lack of adequate or functional heating and air conditioning in schools.” My recollection is that the comptroller actually referred to Governor Hogan as his long-lost brother.

This was around the same time that the comptroller declared war on Senate president Mike Miller and House speaker Mike Busch, declaring that they were the ring leaders of a “cesspool of corruption and backroom deals” in Annapolis. And Democratic voters seem to recall that Mr. Franchot actively campaigned against both leaders while bonding with those wearing “Take a Hike Mike” tee shirts who were gathered outside the State House. He famously urged the crowd to “get out into the primaries and saddle up” in his effort to take down two of most respected leaders in the history of Maryland politics.

And the national political debate currently taking place in Washington is also not helping the comptroller. Perhaps Democratic voters do remember that in 2011 a Sun editorial accused Mr. Franchot of joining the tea party: “Did we miss the press release announcing that Peter Franchot had joined the tea party? The comptroller certainly sounded like he’d gone over to the side of anti-government activism Monday when he cast the lone vote against a proposal at the Maryland Capital Debt Affordability Committee to accelerate some of the state’s planned borrowing in hopes of spurring the economy through infrastructure spending.”

You see a long career in public service can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse. Voters in Baltimore know that the comptroller stood by silently when Governor Hogan abruptly canceled the Red Line with not one study or one alternative in place. Democratic voters who care about climate change are baffled that Mr. Franchot would call windmills off the Ocean City shoreline an environmental boondoggle that is cost prohibitive. And then there’s the fact that the comptroller repeatedly called the recommendations of the state’s Kirwan Commission, The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, as “out of date.”

The list goes on and on, but you get the drift. And it appears that Maryland voters may as well.

In the aforementioned September poll, Mr. Franchot garnered 17% of the support. In fact, after nearly four decades in public service and having had the gubernatorial field to himself for over a year, he is unable to garner even one fifth of the Democratic vote. In fact, the leading candidate for Democrats right now is the one known as “undecided,” coming in at 52% of the vote.

So as President Biden would say, “Here’s the deal”: With eight months remaining until the primary election in June, the Democratic primary is wide open. The most well-known candidate in the field has failed to connect with voters. Does this mean that Peter Franchot cannot win the Democratic nomination for governor?  Absolutely not. But it does explain the smile on the faces of four or five other candidates who suddenly see a clear path to victory. Grab the popcorn and buckle up. It’s going to be a wild ride.