BETHESDA — The distance between Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot Friday was no more than the width of the small table between.
Depending on whom you talk to, the moderate first-term Republican governor and the third-term Democratic comptroller, who in his legislative life proudly wore the moniker of “Takoma Park liberal,” are either in Maryland’s highest-profile political bromance or, as Franchot calls it, a strategic partnership.
“The public really is thirsty for what the governor and I represent,” Franchot told a crowd gathered for a breakfast meeting of the North Bethesda Chamber of Commerce.
The comptroller said that, while the governor should be excited about his poll numbers, Democrats should ask voters why they vote for the Republican “and maybe change some of our policies because we need to have a common-sense, nonpartisan, non-Republican, non-Democratic agenda to go to the people with.”
“They have said: ‘No, we’re not interested in that,'” said the comptroller.
Franchot described the relationship as a strategic partnership, but he also allowed that he and the governor and their wives have become friends.
“We have from time to time had dinner together,” Franchot said. “I promise you, we talk about gardening, we talk about our kids, we talk about art and we do not talk about politics.”
On cue, Hogan chimed in with the punchline.
“I don’t really talk that much about gardening,” Hogan deadpanned, drawing a laugh from the audience.
But the relationship has drawn attention because of its bipartisan nature. Some Democrats complain publicly and privately that Franchot is too close to the Republican. And names have surfaced as potential challengers in the 2018 Democratic primary for the comptroller’s job, including those of Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk and Sen. James C. Rosapepe.
Some Democrats say they are more concerned about what they see as Franchot’s enabling of what they call public relation stunts — executive orders on post-Labor Day school starts and attempts to gloss over a court decision on tax collection with an event touting the state’s efforts to return the money the courts said was illegally collected.
Still, Franchot says the pair don’t march lockstep on every issue.
“We certainly don’t agree on everything, but we agree on one thing: When we do disagree we don’t privately or publicly tear each other down. I’ll just pick up the phone and call the governor, or he’ll pick up the phone and call me, and we’ll talk it out.
But disagreements are few and become worthy of notice because they are nearly as rare as frog’s hairs.
The pair differed once, last year, on a contract for health insurance for employees of the Maryland Transit Administration. Franchot lost the battle to delay the 5-year $634 million deal after Hogan and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp voted to approve it — a Board of Public Works’ split decision that is also rare.
When asked what the biggest disagreement Franchot had with Hogan, the comptroller moved to the subject of tax cuts. Last month, the fiscal board led by Franchot announced a $1 billion reduction in the amount of expected revenues over the current and coming fiscal years — a fact that will likely mean cuts to state spending in the coming months.
“I’d love to have that personally,” Franchot said of what he called Hogan’s desire for significant tax cuts. “It’s not practical. It’s not going to happen. We don’t have the revenues.”
But the comptroller declined to say if he believed Hogan would want to move forward on tax cuts in light of the tighter budget.
“You’ll have to ask him,” Franchot said moments before the governor joined the comptroller and a group of reporters.
“I’m not sure we have a big disagreement on that,” Hogan said. “My entire campaign, I’ve said probably thousands of times, first we have to get rid of the deficit. We have to get spending under control and then we’re going to roll back some of these taxes, as many as we can. When we have a deficit we don’t have spending under control.”