Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) is having a grand opening for his gubernatorial campaign headquarters in Bowie on Saturday afternoon. In an invitation to the event, which will feature free food, live music, and speeches from dignitaries, the Franchot campaign says the comptroller will outline his “Black agenda.”
Franchot and his campaign manager, Ben Smith, say there are strategic and logistical reasons to locate the headquarters in Bowie (which is on a street with the aspirational name Tesla Drive). It’s centrally located, just off U.S. 50 and U.S. 301, someplace that volunteers can reach without too much difficulty from different corners of the state. It’s a quick drive from the comptroller’s office in Annapolis, and not too far from his home in Takoma Park.
And while they didn’t directly say so, it also sends a signal of Franchot’s commitment to compete in Prince George’s County, the majority-Black jurisdiction with more Democratic voters than anyplace else in Maryland.
But for some Prince George’s leaders and Bowie State University alumni, Franchot’s headquarters opening is a reminder of when, in his role as a member of the Board of Public Works, he opposed a proposal to spend $552,000 so the historically Black university could purchase 32 Steinway pianos.
“It was an unfortunate incident that he opposed it at that time,” said Darren M. Swain, a former state legislator from Prince George’s who is now president of the Bowie State Alumni Association.
The university wanted the pianos for its new $79 million performing arts center. According to a Maryland Reporter account of the November 2011 Board of Public Works meeting, Marymal Holmes, coordinator of Bowie State’s music program at the time, said the facilities at the university “have been substandard” and that the purchase of the Steinways “will help us at Bowie State to elevate our program.” She added that only two other HBCUs in the country at the time had Steinways — while prestige music programs, like those at the University of Maryland College Park and Yale University had several.
But Franchot was having none of it.
He called the proposal to spend that much money on pianos “out of touch,” and wondered whether the university couldn’t be persuaded to settle for cheaper instruments.
“Given the challenges that these universities face, I think it’s a luxury at this point that the taxpayer shouldn’t be paying for,” said Franchot, asking whether the university couldn’t buy “some Chevrolets rather than all Rolls Royces?”
Franchot also asserted that a blindfolded audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in sound. But Holmes replied that for some listeners, “I think they would know the difference. It’s unmistakable.”
Franchot was outvoted, 2-1, with then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) voting in favor of the contract. But he won plaudits that week in Western Maryland, from the editorial board of the Cumberland News-Times, which concluded: “Franchot was right to put his foot down.” And three months later, in another rural community, as the keynote speaker at a Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce dinner on the Eastern Shore, he continued to raise his objections to the piano purchase, citing it as part of the “odd environment” in Annapolis that had led to runaway government spending.
Now, Franchot’s campaign headquarters opening is dredging up the memory for some Prince George’s County leaders — though few are willing to say so publicly given the real possibility that the comptroller could become Maryland’s next governor.
“This is something about Peter that really sticks in my craw,” said one veteran elected official in Prince George’s.
Janna Parker, an education and community activist in the county, said, “It’s always disappointing to me when any elected official in Maryland doesn’t support the HBCUs.” She said that Franchot, as the state’s leading fiscal officer, should have had the knowledge and ability to figure out a way for Bowie State to afford the pianos, rather than opposing the proposal.
“If you’re always managing money like that, you’re aware that we could afford that kind of expenditure.”
Parker said she was curious to learn what Franchot was going to say at his headquarters opening.
“I look forward to seeing the comptroller’s Black agenda, explain his decision [to oppose the Steinway contract] and to see how he plans to support the community,” she said.
Swain said Franchot now has “an opportunity” to redeem himself with skeptical Prince George’s voters and university alumni by advocating for extra funding for Maryland’s four HBCUs. He said all the candidates for governor should do the same, and should regard the state’s recent settlement to provide an extra $577 million for the campuses over 10 years as “a down-payment on a historic investment in these institutions,” rather than an end to HBCU funding debates.
Franchot has released an “equity plan” in his campaign for governor, in which he vows to create a cabinet-level secretary of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position and promises to direct funds from any legalized cannabis program to communities of color whose residents have disproportionately been arrested for drug offenses.
The equity plan includes relevant proposals on housing, education, health care, transportation, public safety and government reform.
On HBCUs, “I am committed to proactively implementing funding streams for Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities that ensure we do not recreate the resource inequities that the recent lawsuit sought to address,” Franchot says on his website.
Asked in an interview if he regretted his stance on the Bowie State Steinway contract, or whether he anticipated any political blowback now as he intensifies his wooing of Black voters and Prince George’s County residents, Franchot replied, “That’s long gone.”
“I’m not perfect,” he added. “Everybody makes mistakes from time to time.”