Frank DeFilippo: In Rarity, Top Offices in Maryland Political Pyramid Open Simultaneously

For the first time in many decades, top offices in Maryland government — governor, comptroller, attorney general and treasurer — are open simultaneously. File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Politicians and athletes often have a tough time letting go of yesterday.

In a rare convergence of forced departures and voluntary resignations, the entire top tier of Maryland’s elected officials will be replaced with new faces, little experience in their new roles and total reliance on a continuum of bureaucrats and friendly functionaries who keep the state humming no matter who at the top comes or goes.

That coincidence — though the Godfather (and Sigmund Freud) say there’s no such thing — is a worthy entry into the state’s record books as a stand-alone item, no asterisk required.

Frank A. DeFilippo

It is a truly memorable occasion rarely seen in a one-party state with a government that is tightly organized and highly structured and one that is generally well-managed and recognized for the efficient delivery of services to its citizens.

Such a total realignment at the top of Maryland’s government will likely also motivate a corresponding overhaul of the sprawling lobbying corps in Annapolis to trade on old relationships and cultivate new friendships. Many lobbyists ride the revolving doors of government service and connected law firms.

A total simultaneous turnover at the top hasn’t happened since at least as far back as 1958 when Millard J. Tawes (D) was elected governor and Louis L. Goldstein (D) was elected comptroller to succeed Tawes in that post. In that year, the constants were Ferdinand Sybert (D) as attorney general (1954-61) and Hooper Miles as treasurer (1935-1963).

That’s where this counting stopped. So If you really must unlock the mystery, resume searching for the Rosetta Stone from there, backwards.

Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) is the latest official to announce his departure after 35 years in public office, the last eight as the state’s top legal officer.

Frosh followed the exit sign shortly after Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D), elected by the General Assembly and not the voters, said that she will wave goodbye at the year’s end.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is term-limited, and with him out of the door will go his understudy, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chose not to seek an upgrade to the top job (none has ever succeeded). Hogan’s headed for where even he doesn’t yet know.

And Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) will abandon the tax collector’s office for a field of nine Democrats attempting to succeed Hogan in the governor’s office. Franchot could be the only familiar face returning for further service. But if he loses, there could be three new faces on the all-important Board of Public Works, which awards an average of $4 billion in contracts every year.

It’s a rare occasion when all the offices at the top of the power pyramid in Maryland politics open at same time, especially the offices of comptroller and attorney general. Both have been remarkable for little change and long-term continuity.

The comptroller’s office, for example, is identified by only three officials since 1959 when the popular Goldstein (D) began the first of his 10 terms in the job that took him to his unexpected death in 1998 (a fatal heart attack while doing his daily morning laps in his Calvert County home swimming pool).

After interim service by Goldstein’s deputy, Robert Swann, William Donald Schaefer (D), former mayor of Baltimore and governor, ran and was elected comptroller for two terms, beginning in 1999 until 2006, when he was defeated by Franchot. Franchot will have served four terms, or 16 years, when this term is finished.

Ditto the attorney general’s office. Frosh, at 75, has served two terms as the state’s top legal officer. Before that, Joseph J. Curran Jr. (D) became the state’s longest serving attorney general, logging five terms and in the job from 1987-2007. Prior to that, Curran served one term as lieutenant governor and had been a long-time member of the General Assembly.

Another lawyer who racked up longevity as attorney general was Francis B. Burch (D), who served in the office for three terms, from 1966-78.

Kopp, too, is synonymous with the office of State Treasurer. Kopp has been Maryland’s treasurer, and with that title a member of the BPW, since 2002 — a total of 19 years by the time she makes her announced departure by the end of the year, in time to clear the way for her successor.

The treasurer is elected by the General Assembly as its representative on the BPW. The House of Delegates, with its 3-1 vote predominance over the Senate, usually prevails numerically in the selection, so Kopp’s successor is very much a done deal — Del. Dereck E. Davis, of Prince George’s County, currently chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. Davis’ bid will likely be supported by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, of Baltimore County. Others, of course, can seek the job as well.

The choice of a new treasurer is expected at a special session in December when the General Assembly meets to take up redistricting. The new treasurer, Davis, or whoever, will be in the office for a year when the changeover is complete.

In the unpredictable world of elective politics, elected officials come and go but the bureaucracy remains long after the politicians are gone.

The comptroller’s office and that of the state treasurer are backed up by deputies, usually career officials who oversee the day-to-day operations of those key financial agencies of state government.

The comptroller’s office under Goldstein, in addition, was cited decades ago by The Wall Street Journal as having one of the most sophisticated computer systems in the nation, passing off the functioning of the office to machines where human encounters leave off.

The attorney general’s office brackets roughly 500 lawyers that are assigned to every agency and department of state government. And not long ago, the General Assembly enabled the attorney general to initiate legal action without the direction or approval of the governor.

The attorney general appoints their own deputy(s) and other top associates from within or outside the office talent pool. They do not necessarily come with the job as other departmental or agency deputies often do.

Whoever succeeds Kopp as treasurer, be it Davis or someone else, will need a crash course on exactly what the treasurer does — a seat on the three-member BPW, presiding over the state retirement system, conducting bond sales and investment, among other assignments that come with the job.

To take the treasurer by the hand and lead the way are a chief deputy treasurer and several deputies responsible for specific areas, the most visible of which are the BPW meetings every other week. These are the single most public events for both the treasurer and the comptroller whereas the governor has the media and the public to his advantage at will.

Finally, when the governorship changes, normally every four or eight years, the entire top layer of the executive department changes as well with the exception of, perhaps, a holdover or two — the entire executive staff, the cabinet, many agency and department heads and most committee and commission members.

Transitions can be bumpy. Most newly elected officials bring with them campaign workers and other accomplices and try to fashion a staff, even a government, from among those they trust and are comfortable with. Some of the boxes on the flow-chart are filled in with leftovers from previous administrations. This is especially true of Republicans; their bench isn’t very deep in Maryland.

In the cases of Schaefer and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), both former Baltimore mayors, the transplanted State House staffs and many agency heads were familiar names and faces from City Hall.

When the new Maryland government leaders finally assemble early in 2023, the most important job before them will be not only to find the comfort zone in their new roles but to feel at ease with each other.

Often that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Editor’s Note: This column was updated to clarify that House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones has not publicly endorsed Del. Dereck E. Davis for the state treasurer position.