Len Foxwell was Peter Franchot's indispensable aide, until his personal life spilled into his professional world
Bryan P. Sears//October 29, 2020
Len Foxwell was Peter Franchot's indispensable aide, until his personal life spilled into his professional world
//October 29, 2020
Natasha Guynes arrived at the state treasury building Sept. 29 on an unseasonably warm fall day in Annapolis for a visit that, on the surface, seemed like so many others that transpire in the state’s capital.
Guynes had just launched a career in politics and despite her loss as a Baltimore City Council candidate a few months earlier, nursed hopes of building on her maiden experience seeking elective office. The man she wanted to see that day, Len Foxwell, the powerful top aide to Comptroller Peter Franchot, had become her political mentor and an important entrée into the state’s inner Democratic Party circles.
But Foxwell did not want to see her, asking building security not to allow her to reach the comptroller’s spacious suite of offices. When Guynes pressed her case, more than a half-dozen Capitol Police officers were called to escort her out of the building.
The next day, Foxwell was put on administrative leave. The following week, Franchot demanded – and received – his longtime aide’s resignation.
Foxwell’s departure wasn’t just a case of a veteran staffer moving on. It sent seismic waves through Annapolis, a close-knit town where politics is everybody’s business.
During his 20-year relationship with Franchot, Foxwell had built a reputation as a take-no-prisoners political mastermind who steered Franchot from a Takoma Park liberal in the House of Delegates to a full-throated populist on the short list of top Democratic candidates for governor in 2022.
In turn, Foxwell enjoyed Franchot’s total confidence, which insulated him from trouble when his aggressive and polarizing style infuriated the party’s entrenched power brokers.
But now he was out.
The story of Foxwell’s demise is rooted in the collision of his personal and political personas, the culmination of a relationship that had spiraled out of control and made the once-indispensable man a political liability.
The story starts before Sept. 29.
Foxwell, soon to be 50, could have been ordered from central casting if the call was for a sharp-eyed, nimble political operative.
The Eastern Shore native could easily converse about politics from the national level all the way to a county commissioner race in a far-flung corner of the state, all the while interspersing references to craft beers, a top 10 list of the greatest major league pitchers of all time and any number of pop culture references.
He could talk enemies into becoming friends.
The relationship between Foxwell and Franchot dates back to 2000 when Franchot was a lawmaker from Montgomery County who chaired a House subcommittee on transportation spending. Foxwell was in charge of transit services in the Washington area for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Later, when Foxwell joined Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Franchot leveraged that relationship to lobby for a spot on the ticket as her running mate.
Foxwell joined the comptroller’s staff first as deputy comptroller in 2007 and chief of staff nearly a year later. Almost immediately, his role seemed to transcend the basic gatekeeping functions that normally define that job.
Foxwell became Franchot’s most trusted ally and adviser, pushing the boundaries of his role to help set his boss’ priorities, building a network of candidates and activists who could go forth and preach the good word of the populist tax collector.
The chief of staff relentlessly worked the media on Franchot’s behalf, directing the rest of the staff to join him on social media in pushing the comptroller’s agenda.
“Like the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, everything was built around that player,” said one long-time political observer in Annapolis. “(Foxwell) is not the piece of the organization, but he is a fundamental piece around which everything was built.”
Foxwell also became the chief architect of Franchot’s political ambitions, his minister of propaganda, chief defender of the faith and responsible for a network of causes, operatives, bloggers, podcasters, successful candidates and aspirants that could lead to the governor’s mansion.
“There’s no chance, that without (Foxwell), that Franchot would have that kind of base,” the observer said.
And it was building that network that led to a little-known Democrat running for a seat on the Baltimore City Council, a candidate with a background that made her stand out from the typical political novice.
Guynes, 40, was born in Louisiana when her mother was 17. She bounced back and forth, living with her father, who was an addict and abusive, and her mother, according to interviews with Roll Call and other publications in 2015. She considered suicide at the age of 11.
By 20, she left Oklahoma for Washington where she lived on the street and later became a prostitute working for Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the DC Madam.
But Guynes left that life, joining a 12-step program to work on her substance abuse problems and earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Trinity University. She later became a staffer on Capitol Hill and an aide to Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and onetime Senate majority leader.
Her story of overcoming addiction, homelessness and prostitution had made her a compelling, even inspiring story. She dropped out of Washington politics in 2015 and founded a nonprofit dedicated to helping women who found themselves in the situations she was in when she first came to Washington.
Guynes later moved to Baltimore and launched a run for city council in 2019, enlisting former union activist Mark McLaurin as her campaign manager.
In looking for political alliances for his candidate, McLaurin turned to someone who could open up a lot of doors – Foxwell.
The comptroller’s top aide was impressed with her. Guynes worked relentlessly at the nuts-and-bolts of retail politicking and her story of redemption seemed to resonate in a city whose entrenched troubles cried out for a similar rehabilitation.
Impressing Foxwell opened the door to Franchot. The first-time candidate scored an enthusiastic endorsement.
“Quite simply, she is one of the more remarkable people I’ve met in politics,” Franchot said in a Feb. 2 endorsement message posted on his Facebook page. “Natasha overcame the most vicious cycle of addiction and poverty and abuse that one could ever imagine, and has since dedicated her life to empowering vulnerable young women, and giving them the tools they need to avoid that same terrible path.”
Franchot, Foxwell and some others tied to the comptroller’s office made small donations to Guynes’ campaign. The comptroller also made calls to voters on her behalf and posed for photos with her going door to door in southwestern Baltimore neighborhoods.
But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined Guynes from retail campaigning. Without that, and without the network of connections already in place for the more established candidates, Guynes finished sixth in a nine-person Democratic primary in June.
By then, the relationship between Guynes and Foxwell had changed.
Sometime after the June primary, the relationship between Guynes and Foxwell went from political to romantic, according to interviews and emails obtained by the Daily Record through the Maryland Public Information Act.
Those emails, which include screenshots of text messages between Guynes and Foxwell, depicted an intense relationship that included intimate meetings in Foxwell’s treasury building office in Annapolis, sometimes while the staff was absent, working remotely because of the pandemic. (Foxwell, after the initial publication of this story, said he and Guynes, despite her email claims, did not have sex in his office.)
The emails, mostly from Guynes to Foxwell’s state account in the days leading up to Foxwell’s dismissal, came a month or so after Foxwell broke off the relationship.
The affair had ended by Labor Day, with Foxwell cutting off contact as he attempted to rebuild his own marriage.
Guynes, cut off from Foxwell’s personal email and, to a lesser extent, his social media accounts, responded two days later with an email to his state account.
“I missed your call on Sunday. My apologies,” Guynes wrote the morning of Sept. 15 before heading to a meeting in Annapolis. “I will be swinging by when there.”
That meeting never happened. Instead, Guynes sent a dozen emails that day, including nine in a 90-minute period. At times she referenced their personal relationship, requested meetings and included screenshots of intimate conversations.
The emails were copied to others, including McLaurin as well as Emmanuel Welsh, Foxwell’s deputy, and other members of the comptroller’s staff.
“My last message is this – this is a state government email,” Foxwell wrote on Sept.15. “Please do not send personal content to this address. It’s inappropriate.”
It was Foxwell’s last message to Guynes from his state government account.
Communication between the pair, at least using a state email address, appeared to have ended until Sept. 27. In messages over the next three days, Guynes sought a meeting with Foxwell and later Franchot, writing “Len is about to be the second most powerful man in politics — I had Len’s support — at no professional fault of my own, I don’t anymore. That leaves Comptroller Franchot.”
By Sept 29, spurred by activity on Facebook, Guynes acted on her desire to have a meeting with Foxwell, who had already asked Maryland Capitol Police responsible for protecting the building to not allow her back to the comptroller’s office suite. The head of the comptroller’s enforcement division, which employs sworn police officers, was also alerted as part of a standard office protocol.
Guynes was stopped at the door after being told Foxwell was unavailable. She said she would wait in the lobby of the public building.
What happened next is somewhat unclear.
Col. Michael Wilson declined to comment on the incident, saying that his agency did not respond to Guynes’ visit.
A spokeswoman for the comptroller’s office confirmed more than a half-dozen uniformed Maryland Capitol Police officers were called and ultimately escorted Guynes out, an incident Guynes herself confirmed in an email to Foxwell and his wife and to Welsh.
In a follow-up email to the three, Guynes sought a meeting with Franchot and said she left him a voicemail. Staff to the comptroller said it was actually two text messages.
In one, she asked for a meeting and for his support, including “encouraging to support me in running for delegate.”
In a second text, Guynes detailed the affair with Foxwell, calling it “an abuse of his power” and asking for another meeting.
Franchot did not respond, his staff said.
By Sept. 30, Foxwell went on administrative leave for the balance of the week.
The following week, Franchot asked for and received the resignation of his longtime adviser, announcing the change in a brief press release sent out after business hours.
Today, Guynes, Foxwell and Franchot are in very different places, yet all in a sort of limbo.
Guynes declined to be interviewed on the record for this story, but she issued a statement.
“It’s important for me to express my sincere remorse to Comptroller Franchot, and the entire Franchot team family for the extent that this unfortunate romantic affair has distracted from their great work. As an active member in my sober community, I am reminded to pray that those I may have hurt and even more for those that may have hurt me, that they have whatever I would personally want for myself. With that, each night, I pray that every member of the Foxwell family knows they are loved.”
Guynes is considering her next campaign, including a possible run in the 46th Legislative District in the event that incumbent Del. Brooke Lierman decides to seek another office.
Similarly, Foxwell also provided a statement in lieu of an on-the-record interview.
“I committed an inexcusable breach of trust in my personal life. My wife, Kerry, has been an amazing wife and mother to our two children, and she deserves so much better than this. For the pain I’ve caused her through my selfishness and disrespect, and for the disruption this has caused in the lives of our children, I am deeply sorry and will never forgive myself,” Foxwell wrote.
Foxwell’s time in the office officially ends at the end of October when his administrative leave concludes. He did not discuss his future plans.
“The best I can do is to take everything I’m learning as a result of this self-inflicted ordeal and use it to become a much better person, husband, father and friend. Kerry and I are deeply, personally grateful for the outpouring of support from friends from every part of Maryland as we work to fix what I’ve broken.”
Franchot is now bereft of his top adviser, a man who would have been instrumental in guiding a possible gubernatorial candidacy.
Supporters close to the comptroller said the change has invigorated the 72-year-old comptroller and clarified his interest in running for governor. They noted that much of the senior staff in place, including Welsh and others, while hired by Foxwell, are loyal to the comptroller and understand his needs and how the office functions.
Franchot is Franchot, not Foxwell, they said.
Welsh, Foxwell’s former deputy, will drop “acting” from his title as chief of staff. “Manny will be an excellent chief of staff. I have full confidence in his abilities to excel in this position,” said Franchot, in a statement.
If he pushes ahead with a campaign for governor, Franchot will need a robust fundraising effort. He currently has more than $1.5 million in cash on hand. He would likely need to post $2 million in January in order to show he’s a serious candidate.
Not doing so could leave the door open for a number of Democrats including Tom Perez, the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee. A presidential victory for Joe Biden could open the door for Perez to seek the job and line up support from national donors and labor and make him a formidable candidate.
As for any regrets in backing Guynes’ campaign earlier this year? Franchot, through an aide, said he has none.
“Comptroller Franchot was proud to endorse Ms. Guynes’ campaign for Baltimore City Council. He was inspired by her amazing personal journey and strongly believed that she was uniquely suited to effect meaningful change in the city.”