In the decade since being elected comptroller, Peter Franchot has built a reputation as a former delegate and Takoma Park liberal turned fiscal conservative, an independent voice on the Board of Public Works and a more-than-occasional thorn in the side of governors, legislative leaders, county executives and school officials.
In the last two years, Democrat Franchot has used the Board of Public Works as a bully pulpit, developed a “strategic partnership” with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and become ostracized by many in his own party. He’s become a populist favorite in many parts of the state and also a target of fellow Democrats Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
The two dismiss him as a grandstander; he calls them the “political machine in Annapolis.”
In a recent interview with The Daily Record, Franchot discussed his role on the board, his evolving relationship with Hogan, his efforts to expand the powers of his agency to fight tax fraud and what he sees as political retribution from Miller and Busch.
What follows is a condensed version of that interview.
You pushed the legislature this year for some additional (tax fraud) enforcement tools, why does your agency need that?
Franchot: We have both hands tied behind our backs because there’s a glitch in the state law where I’m given enforcement authority over petroleum, tobacco, liquor. Those areas I regulate … we don’t have any authorization to enforce the income tax law.
So I asked the legislature for the Taxpayer Protection Act…. I was assured that it would pass. There was nobody opposed to it. All the members of the committees were for it but in the Annapolis way it did not pass in the final week despite assurances from the Speaker (of the House) and the Senate president that it would.
So I am facing what I think is an existential threat of this wave of fraud and what do I get from the legislature but “Gee, can’t do it.”
Why do you believe it failed then?
Franchot: I was told that there was some concern about my relationship with Governor Hogan at the Board of Public Works. Which, look, I served in the legislature where this kind of kabuki theater happens all the time. It’s just unfortunate that they picked something that is central to helping us determine fraud for the citizens in Maryland.
You gave an interview back in 2007 and talked about wanting to, your words, supercharge the agency. Looking back on that after nine years in office, have you supercharged the agency?
Franchot: I’ve definitely taken it to a new level.
In what way?
Franchot: Customer service primarily. I emphasize the three Rs. All my 1,200 employees have to respect the taxpayers, respond to the taxpayers, get results for the taxpayers. It’s a fireable offense if you don’t follow the three Rs.
Is it fair to say that one of the other ways you’ve supercharged the agency is expanding the bully pulpit of the comptroller’s office?
Franchot: I have enjoyed the fact that I am not only collecting money, I’m also in the middle of … approving the contracts with the governor and the treasurer on the Board of Public Works. That’s a unique perch. I’m independently elected.
But you’ve used the office and Board of Public Works as a bully pulpit to talk about things — development, air conditioning in schools, later school starts, issues with the (Interagency Committee on School Construction).
Franchot: I’m a recovering legislator. How’s that? But three of those subjects you mentioned control schools and school construction and that’s a constitutional responsibility that the board is specifically given. The Four Seasons … that really was the Keystone Pipeline vote for environmentalists in Maryland … that was a very clear disagreement (with the governor) over whether or not the wetlands permit should be granted for the Four Seasons project on the Eastern Shore.
You also differed with the Court of Appeals which drew some pretty clear lines on the role of the board in matters such as the Four Seasons permit.
Franchot: Correct. I try to emphasize what’s the best thing on the merits rather than on the politics. Now on air conditioning and school maintenance issues, I’m in a partnership, a strategic partnership with Governor Hogan and that’s good for the citizens because there’s no reason why kids in Baltimore City and Baltimore County should not have air-conditioned classrooms. And there’s no reason for the Democratic Party in Maryland to come out in opposition to, of all things, taking care of what we have in our school facilities, i.e. school maintenance.
Why do you think the party is coming out against this?
Franchot: Well, the faces of the party. The speaker and the Senate president, the reason I said ‘the party’ is because I’m a proud member of the Democratic Party. I consider myself a proud progressive member and I consider taking care of schools buildings so our kids have a health and safe environment to be progressive values. I just try to view things on the merits rather than through a party lens.
Does the 21st Century Schools Commission play into this given the fact that they are looking at changing the role of the (Interagency Committee on School Construction) and perhaps who they answer to?
Franchot: Yes. It all does. It just strikes me as highly unusual and highly irregular for this to be, for these lines to be drawn where the governor and I are in favor of air conditioning and in favor of school maintenance and the other side seems to be, ‘No, no no.’ And who is the other side? The other side tends to be identified closely with the political machine that controls Annapolis. And for better or for worse, that’s made up of Democrats. I don’t think it particularly represents the Democratic Party because we’re a party with proud ideals. But, it certainly represents Annapolis machine politics.
What’s been your reaction to David Lever’s announcement that he is leaving in October as executive director of the IAC?
Franchot: He couldn’t get the job done. Period. It’s not as if the resources were not given to him because that was done with three new employees and extra support and encouragement and everything else. Apparently it didn’t work and so he chose to resign in a huff. Obviously he alienated the governor, and I was pretty much at the end of my rope.
Did he alienate you?
Franchot: Yes, he did.
How would you grade the governor in his first two years in office?
Franchot: I have a very good strategic partnership with him on the Board of Public Works, where we are reining in spending, reigning in unsustainable debt. Paying attention to customer service in state agencies.
You described (your relationship with Hogan on the board) once as dying and going to heaven.
Franchot: Well, I was looking at it from a taxpayer perspective, which is we’re two adults sitting from different parties, different philosophies, and we’re able to look at large contracts and state issues and roll up our sleeves and put the partisanship aside, advocate fiscal moderation get the job done and, oh by the way, we’re always there. I think it’s a breath of fresh air.
Miller also describes you as (Hogan’s) best friend. That’s kind of the rub on you, you have to be aware of the fact that the “machine” as you describe it has not so quietly been talking about wanting to primary you. Sen. Jim Rosapepe’s name comes up as does Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk.
Franchot: I think what happens is every election cycle somebody says, ‘Hey, maybe we can create some static for Franchot.’ I’m the top vote-getter as far as the Democrats. I have $1.5 million in the bank. I’ll have $2 million by the end of this fiscal year. I am an absolute happy warrior and am very comfortable with what I’ve done as comptroller because I think it is exactly what the people of the state want. They want our different Republicans and Democrats to roll up their sleeves and work together in a true bipartisan way. They could care less about the political machine in Annapolis. And the political machine has, well let’s put it this way, it’s very reduced in size and the Democratic base that elected me 10 years ago is still solidly with me.
Are you absolutely going to run for comptroller (in 2018)?
Franchot: I love being comptroller and I’m not making any announcements. I’m just saying I’m very comfortable in my job…. A year from now we can get cranked up as far as the 2018 election and I can make an announcement then.
With almost $2 million in the bank, you’re the top Democratic vote-getter and all this statewide presence, why shouldn’t you be the Democratic Party standard bearer for governor in 2018?
Franchot: Because I’m a very happy comptroller. Someone once said the sign of a mature person is turning down a promotion. I’m happy with what I’m doing. Being governor is obviously an honor and a privilege. But it also is something that is pretty draining as far as the demands. I’m a new grandparent, my first grandchild. I’m leaving to go up to New York to see Baby Viv, who is a few weeks old and, you know, you don’t have that flexibility if you’re governor and have to be consumed with all things about being governor.
Do you think that Democratic Party leaders should be concerned that Hogan could be the first two-term Republican governor since McKeldin?
Franchot: Absolutely. His favorables — if you ask him, he’s very vocal about his high poll numbers — he has high favorables. I disagree with some people who say it’s just because he had an illness. I think it’s because he’s showed a sense of fiscal moderation and fiscal responsibility can be done by a progressive state and it’s good for that state. The Democratic Party is not taking that seriously.