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Government & Politics

Peter Franchot: Honored to serve as state comptroller, but a ‘little burnt out’

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot at his office in Annapolis on Dec. 13. Photo by William J. Ford

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has been in the limelight for nearly four decades.

Some voters said the charismatic Democrat would’ve easily maintained his position as the state’s tax collector for another four years if he had chosen to seek reelection.

Instead, Franchot, 75, decided to run for governor more than two years ago and became the first person to officially announce his campaign. However, he finished third in this summer’s primary election.

Belinda Queen of Prince George’s County, who voted for Franchot and was a major supporter of his running mate, former Prince George’s County Councilmember Monique Anderson-Walker, said Franchot wouldn’t have been challenged if he had sought a fifth term as comptroller.

“You didn’t hear anything bad about him,” Queen said. “Any extra money available in the state should go to the little people. Eggs are now $7. Any extra money available, the District of Columbia does it all the time. The state of Maryland should do the same thing. I’m hoping that happens in the near future.”

Franchot still has a few weeks left in office before Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman (D) gets sworn in Jan. 16 — a national holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

Franchot will leave behind 16 years as comptroller that includes his service on one of the state’s most influential bodies, the Board of Public Works. He sat alongside two governors and two state treasurers approving billions of dollars in school construction projects, government contracts and other spending measures.

The Montgomery County resident said he plans to take a two-month vacation, relaxing with his wife of 42 years, Anne Maher, and their three grandchildren. The couple anxiously awaits the birth of a fourth grandchild next year. They have two children.

After his time off, Franchot said he’ll announce a venture to teach children about financial literacy.

He pushed to incorporate the subject in public school curricula statewide during his time as a state delegate between January 1987 and January 2007, and continued to promote the idea as comptroller.

For the past several years, former Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) picked up the mantle and continued the push for statewide financial literacy, even up to this year. Walker’s legislation was approved in the House of Delegates, but didn’t make it beyond the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Walker is the husband of Anderson-Walker.

“I hope that I’ll be able to work with kids and help connect them more to the real world of the modern economy,” Franchot said during an interview with Maryland Matters earlier this month at his Annapolis office. “It’s not just a financial literacy hurdle that I, Jay Walker and others were talking about. It’s whether something can be done systemwide that would maximize the good things that are out there already.”

During the interview, Franchot talked about his time in public service, shying away from partisan politics and offering some advice for those running for an elected office. Here are a few of his thoughts in his own words:

‘Independent universe’

I think it comes from my background, which never came out of the Democratic clubs where a lot of elected officials rise up and ultimately get into elected office. I always have come out of the public interest movement, the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement back in the late 60s and early 70s. My focus has always been to try to deal with policy issues. So when I was active in the public interest movement, I was often as upset with the Democrats as I was with the Republicans, because Democrats were pro-nuclear, like the Republicans. The Democrats generally were pro-Vietnam War.

I love my party. I think the principles and values are great, but check and balance. That’s my middle name: check and balance. I hope that’s something that legislators and other politicians want because it’s very popular with the public. It’s not necessarily reflected in primary votes because primary votes are very distilled and very crystallized as to who shows up. But I think the independent universe, both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, is wide open to any elected official that wants to appeal to state interest being put in front of party interests. That’s my legacy.

Elected office

It’s a stressful job. I’m honored and privileged to have been an elected official, but it’s not easy. And particularly as the politics have developed over the last few years. The job of being comptroller was an honor and a privilege. But for 16 years, I’ve made many, many appearances over and over again. I’m not saying that I was unhappy with that. I was happy to connect with the voters.

But frankly, after 16 years, I became a little burnt out as far as the required meetings of the comptroller all over the state. [Board of Public Works] meets every two weeks as the treasurer, the governor, myself. It is a unique panel. No other state has one quite like it. Because in other states, the similar boards are all selected by the legislature or the governor. And in this instance, the treasurer is elected by the legislature. I’m elected statewide, the governor is elected statewide. We’re independent of each other.

Every two weeks we meet and the average, I think, is $440 million on state contracts. It’s action central for what is going on in the state fiscally. I think my legacy from 16 years of being there every other week is that I was very tough on Republicans, but I was equally tough on Democrats. I think the people in the state recognize that kind of independence and appreciated it. And that will be my one of the legacies that I leave behind. Obviously, I’ll stay informed, but from an observation standpoint rather than an implementation.

‘Toxic environment’

First of all, it’s a toxic environment. I don’t have any complaints. I just want to give everybody a yellow warning signal that these campaigns have become very partisan and superficial and misleading. It’s not quite the path of the promised land that people think it is. I’m not quite sure what the solution to that is because the entire country seems to be divided.

But I do know that 900,000 Marylanders, who are registered [independent] voters that are very interested in what’s going on in Maryland, they’re not allowed to vote in the primaries, either Republican or Democratic. The problem with both parties, the Republican Party more so than the Democratic Party…both parties have become taken over by their extreme margins. Without a group of voters who are more moderate in particularly fiscal matters, but also, policy matters, you’re going to end up with a lot of conflict between two parties.

But the fact that we keep talking about voting rights, what about the 900,000 Marylanders who are registered as  unenrolled? Why shouldn’t they be allowed as they are in 36 states to vote in one primary or the other? I don’t want to sound like I’m sour grapes, but closed primaries are a major contributor in national and state politics to people being elected who are far more partisan than the voters. I think then you’ll see a moderating of both parties and a lowering of the temperature.

Some advice

I think it’s something that all the elected officials should just look in the mirror and say, ‘Look, am I really in this just for the power? Just because someone’s holding the door for me, just because I can beat the other party?’ No, that’s not why you’re there. You’re there to do things that are supportive of the state, particularly the state’s economy, which is so dependent upon small businesses. COVID has caused a tremendous amount of suffering for small businesses, and folks that do not have a lot of financial reserves.

I work with Gov. [Larry] Hogan (R) and we accumulated over the period of COVID over $10 billion in one-time-only money. There’s a good reserve in the state. I feel comfortable saying to the new leaders you have some room to make mistakes or make commitments. What do you think is important, but you’ve got to at some point realize that the economy the state is always first, second and third to take a look at as far as taking care of jobs for our people.

I’m a big supporter of Brooke Lierman. I think she’s very, very talented. I think it’s important that she’s doing the kind of smooth transition that we have created for her. I think she’ll do a great job. She’s not going to be mistake-free. I mean, everybody makes mistakes. But I think she understands that this is an award-winning agency. Customer service is beyond reproach. It’s respect the taxpayer, respond to the taxpayer and get results for the taxpayer. We call it the three R’s. I’m sure she’ll continue that and she’ll be very successful.


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Peter Franchot: Honored to serve as state comptroller, but a ‘little burnt out’