Franchot Seeking a Wider Role for Office

It is customary at the start of Board of Public Works meetings for members to make personal comments, so Comptroller Peter Franchot took advantage last week by introducing his daughter. In case those in the packed State House reception room couldn't locate her, Franchot noted that Abbe, 25, was modestly "hiding behind the television cameras."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, sitting at Franchot's side, grinned broadly and said, "A quality she got from her mother." As laughter filled the room, Franchot - the state's unapologetically outspoken Democratic comptroller - responded with a smile, "It is very unFranchot-like."

In office just four months, Franchot - the former delegate from Takoma Park who ousted William Donald Schaefer - has shown not just affection for the spotlight but an unabashed interest in broadening the policy responsibilities of his office.

He has issued statements about divesting state pension money from Darfur. He has railed against the possible implementation of slot machine gambling to mitigate a looming budget crisis. He supported a doomed House of Delegates health care plan. He led the successful charge against a Kent Island development that environmentalists argued would harm the Chesapeake Bay. And he has cast himself as a chief advocate for expanding Maryland's biotechnology industry.

Hardly matters of usual concern to Maryland's chief tax collector.

Some in Annapolis say Franchot lacks the appropriate deference, not just to the party's new governor but to senior lawmakers. They say Franchot, 59, should stick to managing the state's fiscal affairs, the overarching constitutional mandate of his office.

"No one should tread on the other's defined duties or areas of expertise," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. "We only need one governor in the state of Maryland."

But Franchot, who is tall and trim and bears a striking resemblance to the actor Richard Chamberlain, is not about to clip his own wings - or let others do it for him. Not in the interest of politics - or personal relationships.

Franchot said he ran on a progressive platform last fall and defeated Schaefer, the "Babe Ruth of Maryland politics," the former governor, Baltimore mayor and comptroller - with that agenda.

"I'd like to supercharge the agency. I'd like to take it to the next level," said Franchot, who announced Friday that he would investigate rising gas prices. "I'm a liberal Democrat who is battle-tested. I got over a million votes in an election. I want to be involved in the economic future of Maryland."

Franchot is Maryland's 33rd comptroller, and his victory was far from guaranteed.

After 20 years in the House and a failed 1988 bid for Congress, Franchot decided to run for an office he had never coveted. He said he did not appreciate that Schaefer, a Democrat, seemingly provided a rubber stamp for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on the Board of Public Works, a powerful panel that approves all state contracts. He also disapproved of their shared pro-slots view. Schaefer and Ehrlich, unusually cozy from the start, were "taking the state in the wrong direction," Franchot said.

"I'm very issue-oriented," Franchot said over crab soup and half a tuna sandwich at Harry Browne's restaurant in Annapolis. "Unlike other people who might say, 'Oh, that's part of politics, give a little here, give a little there. Everything is compromise.' That's not me. So I objected to that."

Franchot said he suspected early that the anti-Schaefer sentiment among voters was deeper than anyone thought. And when Schaefer and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, another Democratic contender for comptroller, began to feud last fall, Franchot bit his tongue and bided his time.

"It turns out William Donald Schaefer disliked her a lot more than he disliked me," Franchot joked.

The margin was slim, but Franchot had accomplished what was once unthinkable. The Montgomery County attorney, educated at elite New England schools such as Amherst College, had defeated a Maryland legend, the product of blue-collar Baltimore. Franchot went on to win the general election handily.

Schaefer could not be reached for comment for this article.

Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who served with Franchot in the House of Delegates, said Franchot probably was emboldened by the victory.

"Although Peter was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from myself, he was always very articulate and well-respected and very informed from his point of view," said O'Donnell, a Republican from Southern Maryland. "I think he gained additional respect by winning what many perceived to be a long-shot electoral victory for comptroller. And although he may raise some eyebrows with some discussion of far-ranging policy, when he took the reins of the office, he seemed to settle in fairly nicely as comptroller."

Franchot, raised in Providence, R.I., the son of a corporate lawyer and homemaker, promised at his swearing-in that he would speak his mind. He pledged to protect state parkland, encouraged broader investment in scientific industries and vowed to fight slot machine gambling.

Miller told those gathered for the ceremony that he had once said it would be a cold day in hell when Franchot was elected comptroller. Indeed, Miller noted, it was awfully brisk outside that January morning.

And though it might be a glorious May, that chill remains.

"He should be balancing the budget," Miller said last week about Franchot's activism during the 90-day General Assembly session that ended in April. "He should be focusing on collecting taxes and making certain the state's finances are in order. He perturbed me to no end when he supported the House's health care plan without knowing that it added a $500 million deficit to the already $1.5 billion hole we are facing."

It is gambling, however, that has established a likely intra-party brawl among the comptroller, the governor and Miller. And as the Democrats work to project an image of unity and cohesiveness in Annapolis, having swept the 2006 elections, some leaders say the last thing they need is for Franchot to stray off message. But stray he has.

O'Malley declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article.

Democratic leaders are gearing up for a potentially trying debate over how best to deal with a $1.5 billion budget shortfall next year. They will discuss raising sales and income taxes, among other measures. Slot machine gambling is on the table; Miller is in favor, O'Malley appears to be leaning the same way.

"The San Andreas fault of Maryland politics," Franchot called slots. Despite having introduced a pro-gambling proposal when he was a delegate, Franchot said he has come to believe that slots are, simply put, a "regressive tax on poor people."

Last week, Franchot led the charge to reinvigorate Stop Slots Maryland, a citizens group that has worked to block past gambling initiatives. When he entered the all-purpose room of an Annapolis church basement where two dozen slots opponents had gathered, he was greeted with vigorous applause. Despite the small crowd and many empty chairs, Franchot did his best to pump up the mostly over-60 crowd.

He noted that he and the governor do not "see eye to eye" on slots. Based on turnout at the Preakness, he said, Maryland's horse racing industry is doing just fine on its own.

"We all like to say we have power," he told the group. "We don't have the power; we're here temporarily. You have the power. Go and use it."

There is another point of friction between Franchot and other Democratic leaders elected to statewide office. The officials won't say it, and they won't speculate about it even privately, but voters elected four new statewide officials in November who undoubtedly have their political futures in mind.

"I think there's no question that Peter's an ambitious guy," said former Comptroller Robert L. Swann, who also served as deputy to Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. "As I look at the present makeup of statewide elected officials, you've got four ambitious guys."

In addition to O'Malley and Franchot, voters elected Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney Gen. Douglas F. Gansler. While State House watchers say Brown and Gansler have sublimated their agendas and egos to allow the governor to lead, some say that Franchot has not. Others are more reflective.

"The most important question is whether or not he is performing the duties that are prescribed in law," Brown said. "As long as he is collecting taxes and performing his duties on the Board of Public Works, I commend him for his willingness to serve Maryland as our comptroller."

The job of comptroller, much like that of lieutenant governor, is rarely a springboard for a higher office such as governor or U.S. senator. The last comptroller to be elected governor was J. Millard Tawes, who won the job in 1958.

Franchot insists that he could happily be comptroller for the rest of his career.

"I'm one of those lucky people," said Franchot, who has been married for 27 years and has two children. "I'm completely satisfied where I am. I never thought I'd win statewide office. ... My own mother didn't think I was going to win."

But the comptroller's Web site shows photos of a grinning Franchot at bill signings for several of "his" legislative initiatives: self-extinguishing cigarettes, the Clean Indoor Air Act and more. It features a link to information about Franchot's work "leading" a delegation to a recent international life sciences convention in Massachusetts.

Over lunch, Franchot said he is "an independent constitutional officer" and that he would keep the governor's office apprised of his activities but isn't looking for approval.

"I'm very civil," he said, "but once again, independent."

By Authority: Friends of Peter Franchot, Tom Gentile, Treasurer
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