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The Business Monthly: Tax collector more popular than governor

Peter Franchot is carrying on a long tradition on Maryland: A tax collector more popular than the

governor. It was a tradition begun by the late great Louie Goldstein, comptroller for almost 40 years until his death in 1998. Franchot has a corner office in the treasury building named after Goldstein, whose statue stands outside Franchot’s window.

Like Goldstein, Franchot hands out medallions, heavier and more elegant than Goldstein’s, but without his trademark send-off, “God bless you all real good.” Like Goldstein, Franchot crisscrosses Maryland, talking to business or civic groups, as he did to a sold-out

BWI Business Partnership breakfast last month.

“You may roll your eyes at this, but as the state tax collector I

received more votes for state office than any Marylander in history,” Comptroller Peter Franchot gleefully told them. “And if you bump into Governor Hogan, could you tell him I happened to get 300,000 more votes than he did?” (Gov. Larry Hogan likes to remind people than he just got more votes than any Republican in Maryland history.)

Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen “got 20,000 more votes than I did” in 2016 when Franchot

wasn’t on the ballot, he concedes in a brief interview. “Other than that, I am numero uno,” Franchot said.

A potential run for governor

As the most popular Democrat on the ballot for the last three gubernatorial elections, “People are

saying you might run for governor,” I said to him. “Well that’s a long, long time away. I’m very happy with the position I have and I’m not term limited.” “And you will be 75,” I pointed out.

“Exactly.” “But 75 is the new 65,” smiled Franchot. “Seriously, I am flattered that people would say that. And you know, it’s kind of a different landscape after the election. A lot of Republican executives lost. There doesn’t seem to be an heir apparent in either party. So, we’ll see.”

That’s not exactly closing any door or any window of opportunity. Maryland just finished an election that dragged on for months, but political junkies who thrive on campaign tussles always have their eyes on the next election. No wonder that Franchot is happy with the job that he has now. It is a lot easier than being governor, but has some of the same perks. He gets an executive

staff, a state SUV with a state trooper to protect anddrive him, and he gets to serve as an equal vote with the governor on the Board of Public Works, approving over $10 billion a year in state contracts. This board also gives him a bully pulpit on all manner of state issues, and he’s particularly used it to campaign for better maintenance of state schools and air-conditioning for schools in Baltimore City and County. Beating up on bureaucrats appearing before the board also follows in the long tradition of Goldstein and William Donald Schaefer.

Converting to fiscal conservative

Contrary to his record as a fairly conventional Takoma Park liberal during 20 years in the House

of Delegates, Franchot’s conversion to fiscal conservatism appears to be both sincere and permanent. Yet again, at the BWI breakfast, he called for fiscal restraint. The federal tax changes have produced a major windfall, as has a Supreme Court ruling permitting taxing of all Internet sales. These leave the state with perhaps $1.6 billion more to spend in the coming year. Franchot wants the governor and legislators to put it all away in the rainy-day fund, recalling the drastic midyear budget cuts he helped make after the 2008 recession.

“I know the General Assembly will be considering a number of very worthy and critically important programs and proposals in the upcoming year,” Franchot said when announcing the latest revenue estimates. But Franchot freely admitted to the business breakfast, “I’m sure it will be completely spent by the end of the session.”

As the man who collects all the taxes, and signs all the checks, Franchot can take positions on

spending but, unlike a sitting governor, he doesn’t actually have to do anything about it.

A perilous run for governor

This is what makes a run for governor more perilous than his record-setting vote totals would suggest. The Democratic Party State Central Committee – activists elected by Democrats

across Maryland – recently chose a new state party chair, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, wife of Rep. Elijah Cummings, to lead a more progressive party out of its two-term shutout for governor.

These activists have been complaining for years that Franchot is no longer a real Democrat, especially given his coziness with Hogan. If he ran for governor, Franchot would actually

have to take detailed positions on beefing up funding for the school reforms proposed by the Kirwan Commission, on expanding health insurance, on easing Maryland’s increasing traffic crunch, on understaffing at prisons and on a host of other issues where his current views seem out of step with the most progressive elements of his party. He may continue his crusade for loosening Maryland’s antiquated alcohol regulations that hamper the expansion of craft beer or improving air-conditioning and maintenance in public schools but these are peripheral issues without broad impact.

For the moment he is content to play the outsider, prodding and poking the Annapolis Democratic establishment with little consequence and limited effect. That is certainly popular but will take a lot more to jump from tax collector to governor.

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