A decade ago, two members of the state Senate grew so weary of Comptroller Peter Franchot’s penchant for traveling the state, handing out awards — to community volunteers, shop-owners and others — the duo fired off an angry letter, calling him to account.
The lawmakers, Sens. Nancy King (D-Montgomery) and David Brinkley (R-Frederick), questioned the legitimacy of the awards and his use of taxpayer funds to bestow them, according to the Washington Post. The awards, the pair fumed, were “completely unrelated to your role as our chief tax collector” and a waste of staff time.
“We see no reason why any of your state duties or responsibilities justifies the taxpayer expense of paying for a driver, security, gas, car mileage, or the manufacture and purchase of questionably invented awards,” the lawmakers wrote. “This does not even mention the time spent away from your office in which you should be working to carry out the actual job and responsibilities you are charged with doing.”
King, who continues to serve in the Senate, and Brinkley, now Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s budget secretary, asked the comptroller to lay out the costs associated with his awards.
Franchot (D) was so intimidated by the lawmakers’ letter he added some new awards.
In addition to the awards they objected to in their 2013 letter — the Schaefer Award, the Silver Hammer Award, the Doing Better With Less Award, and the Golden Apple Award — he added a few more over the years, including the Maryland Masters Award and the Clay Mitchell Award.
Franchot is now a candidate for governor, running in the July 19 primary. One of nine candidates, the Montgomery County Democrat has been the frontrunner since the outset of the campaign. His standing in the polls is no surprise given his 15 years of service as comptroller (which followed a 20-year run in the House of Delegates).
While his politics have shifted — he’s been both a Takoma Park liberal and close ally of Hogan — Franchot has long had a nose for how to make news and a keen sense of where the electorate is.
He responded to the King/Brinkley letter in the no-holds-barred style that is his trademark.
“With all sincere respect, the insinuation that I can only ‘carry out the actual job and responsibilities’ of this statewide office by sequestering myself in Annapolis — which, experience has shown, means soliciting the perspective of other elected officials in hallways and back rooms, or joining lawmakers for the usual round of evening receptions that are commonplace on State Circle — personifies the sense of disconnected arrogance that has alienated far too many people from government,” Franchot wrote.
He said the cost of his awards amounted to about $5,000. “For easy reference,” he wrote, that is “a fraction of what it costs the taxpayers of Maryland to house a lawmaker in Annapolis for the 90-day [legislative] session.”
Franchot’s award-giving is only a small part of the energetic way he has built his brand. Like one of his predecessors, the legendary 10-term Comptroller Louis Goldstein (D), Franchot gives out commemorative coins on a regular basis. The coins are funded by his campaign, not his office account.
His official schedule is cram-packed with “proclamations” to various businesses and non-profit groups.
And, Franchot and Hogan routinely use the twice-monthly meetings of the contract-approving Board of Public Works to opine on issues that generate headlines. [Former Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D), with whom the two men served for many years, found the practice distasteful.]
To supporters, Franchot deserves credit for using his perch to ensure that citizens and taxpayers feel seen — and appreciated by — government leaders. To critics, it feels like one grab for attention after another.
Analysts say name-recognition factors heavily in Franchot’s status as frontrunner. “Your name is on everything” when you’re the comptroller, said former Secretary of State John Willis, who ran unsuccessfully for the job in 2002. “It’s on millions of pieces of paper.”
A top strategist for former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), Willis said the challenge is keeping official activities from seeming gimmicky. “The question is whether or not it gets trivialized,” he said.
Willis said Franchot’s official schedules “are like mini-campaign schedules. And so then the question becomes: are state resources being used to promote a political activity, which is a potential ethics violation?”
Willis appeared alongside Glendening in December when the former governor endorsed Wes Moore for governor; Willis said he has not personally made a formal endorsement in the race.
On Thursday, Franchot traveled to a gas station in Baltimore, and in front of a bank of TV cameras, reiterated his call for Hogan and the legislature to impose a freeze on the state gas tax, as they did for 30 days earlier this year. Franchot clearly thought it was such a success that he repeated the drill Monday at a gas station in Hyattsville — in the Washington, D.C., media market.
While both events were on his official office calendar, there is little doubt that Franchot’s high level of visibility on this issue when inflation is such a pressing concern to voters is a clear asset to his campaign. But does it amount to an abuse of his office?
“It can be too much,” said former state Senator Jim Mathias (D). “What’s the barometer? Your ethics and your morals.”
In an interview, Franchot brushed aside any suggestion that he’s going overboard with awards and proclamations. “I would call it doing my job as comptroller,” he said. “I’m not just the tax administrator. I also vote on the Board of Public Works.” (The comptroller also serves as chair of the State Retirement and Pension System Board of Trustees and as an ex officio member of the Board of Revenue Estimates.)
“It’s really like a mobile town hall,” Franchot said of his frequent visits to churches, small businesses and schools.
Some of Franchot’s primary rivals thought he went too far when his Office of Unclaimed Property ran a campaign in June with the caption, “Like a Good Neighbor, Franchot is There.” The insert, a legally required annual notice, featured a large photo of Franchot seated alone, phone to his ear, invoking Jake from State Farm insurance commercials.
Franchot’s PR team defended the ads, calling them a continuation of a decade-long series of pop culture spoofs to highlight the state’s annual unclaimed property notices. The mailing was “completely legal,” Jared DeMarinis, campaign finance director for the Maryland State Board of Elections, told The Washington Post.
Although the comptroller has been at the top of nearly every poll, he has failed to pull away from his rivals in the nine-candidate Democratic primary. His support has consistently been around 20%, meaning other Democrats retain a path to victory.
In addition, the most-prized endorsements — from the state’s leading environmental and teachers organizations, newspapers and big-name Democratic officials — have gone to other candidates. Mathias and Willis see a potential link between Franchot’s seeming propensity to seek the spotlight and his failure to establish a more commanding lead.
“How do you know (you’re going overboard)?” asked Mathias, rhetorically. “It’s how you’re received by your colleagues and your peers.”
Said Willis: “I would think a person that’s been in office that long and has been that active, [his] numbers would have been at least 50% bigger. And you kind of can get a feel for that from how the other candidates have attracted endorsements.”
Franchot’s website lists more than 100 endorsements from current and former state lawmakers, county and municipal leaders, and labor unions.
Former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) sees nothing wrong with Franchot’s hands-on approach to the electorate. “People appreciate the acknowledgement,” he said. “It’s why the state legislature, the speaker of the House, the Senate president, the governor hand out proclamations.”
“There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work,” he added, “citizens that would otherwise have largely been unnoticed for the work that they do or who take the risk of starting a new business.”
And Sen. Nancy King, the lawmaker who fired off that angry letter in 2013? She’s endorsed Franchot for governor in 2022.
“People all over the state know him so well,” she said. “I’ve talked with people in so many different areas, and they feel like he has been there as a watchdog with the purse strings. There’s been a lot of confidence in him because of that.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include detail about John Willis attending a Moore campaign event.