Peter Franchot is an ‘outsider’ who spent his career in Maryland politics. Can he become a successful governor?

Published on: June 23, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

Peter Franchot, the state comptroller who is running for governor as a Democrat, fist-bumps with LaShonnah and Preston Small of Waldorf during the AFRAM festival at Druid Hill Park on Sunday, June 19, 2022.

For nearly half of his life — since he was 39 years old — Peter Franchot has driven from his home in Takoma Park to work in Maryland’s state capital of Annapolis, helping decide where tax dollars are spent and later serving as the chief collector of those taxes.

But even after all those years in Annapolis, Franchot insists that he’s actually something of a political outsider as he runs for governor. He says that the true political insiders have chafed at his “maverick” persona and independent streak. Sometimes, that means they’ve thwarted his attempts at progress, he said.

“I speak out to give voice to the voiceless and to help the people that are the little guy,” Franchot said. “I actually identify with them as an outsider, even though I’ve got insider skills and sometimes insider positions.”

Franchot is attempting to marry his actual experience in government ― 20 years as a state delegate, 16 years as state comptroller — with his blunt independence in his run for the Democratic nomination for governor. As he puts it in a campaign video, he has “the vision of an outsider and the skills of an insider.”

Franchot is one of 10 Democrats on the ballot in this summer’s primary election, along with four Republicans. All are hoping to succeed term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

Franchot, now 74, has the most conventional government experience in the bunch. Before becoming comptroller, he served in a leadership role on a key House of Delegates committee that reviews the state budget each year. He counts among his top accomplishments his support of stricter gun control measures in the 1980s and 1990s.

Early in his career, he worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer for then-Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

He said some thought it was crazy when he sought to make the jump from being just one of 188 state lawmakers to becoming the state comptroller. He had to knock off the legendary (but problematically outspoken) Comptroller William Donald Schaefer ― who also was an ex-governor and ex-mayor of Baltimore ― to win the post in 2006.

Franchot said he was emboldened to take on Schaefer after he believed the comptroller had gone back on his word over a key vote on a contract involving workers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

At the time, he was so little known that he sometimes had to correct interviewers on how to pronounce his name: “Fran-CHO.” A long-running joke is that the only thing silent about Franchot is the “t” in his last name.

Not everyone who held power in Democratic politics was keen on Franchot unseating Schaefer. “Absolutely an act of lunacy” is what Franchot remembers being told by naysayers.

Rather than be deterred, Franchot disregarded conventional wisdom and won that election. And for years, he’s continued to find himself on the outs with party leaders.

In 2018, flush with money and with no serious opposition to reelection, he paid for a TV ad that pilloried General Assembly leaders as machine politicians producing automaton lawmakers.

Another time, lawmakers got so frustrated with Franchot’s single-minded insistence on certain alcohol industry reforms that they stripped the comptroller’s enforcement authority over alcohol and tobacco. That same year, lawmakers refused to introduce Franchot’s proposed bills to the General Assembly, something that’s typically done as a matter of courtesy.

And for years, Democrats have grumbled when Franchot teamed up with Hogan on issues as varied as pushing for public school classes to start after Labor Day and haranguing Baltimore-area school leaders for the slow pace of installing air conditioning in classrooms.

In several of those battles, Franchot faced off against the late Kevin Kamenetz, the Democratic county executive of Baltimore County. Kamenetz died in 2018 amid his own campaign for governor.

Kamenetz’s widow, Jill Kamenetz, recently posted a video on Facebook calling out Franchot for having “constantly lied and misrepresented my husband’s record” causing him “constant stress and anxiety.”

“He had the nerve to show up at Kevin’s funeral and sit in the front row as if they were best friends. I will never forget that,” Jill Kamenetz said in the video. “That is the Peter Franchot I know. I encourage all Democrats of Maryland to vote for anyone but Franchot.”

The Franchot campaign declined to comment on Jill Kamenetz’s video.

Generally speaking, Franchot waves off many of his political battles as being overcooked and oversold among a tight circle of observers on State Circle. The people, he insists, like that he speaks truth to power.

“They vote for me because they see me as a straight shooter,” he said.

As governor, Franchot said he would be an independent thinker and remain “cordial and collegial with all of the elected officials, Republican and Democrat.”

Len Foxwell thinks otherwise.

For 13 years, Foxwell guided Franchot’s political strategy as his chief of staff before he was forced out in 2020. Now consulting for other Democrats, Foxwell said Franchot is swayed by advisers and lacks his own solid political philosophy.

“He was very good at criticizing others as a means of gaining attention and relevance, but very seldom was he willing to roll up his sleeves and work with the leaders of the state to find true solutions to our challenges,” Foxwell said. “Once the TV cameras turned their lights off, his interest in the hard work of government waned.”

Peter Franchot, the state comptroller who is running for governor as a Democrat, talks with Baltimore City police officers during the AFRAM festival at Druid Hill Park on Sunday, June 19, 2022. Franchot gave them commemorative medallions from his office, as he often does when he meets people with backgrounds in law enforcement or military service.

Dalya Attar, a state delegate from Baltimore, said Franchot’s willingness to forge his own path is a valuable trait for a governor. It’s one of the big reasons why she endorsed Franchot’s campaign.

“I’m one of those people that believes you need to make a decision on what you believe is right, not based on what your friends decide,” Attar said. “Peter is the one person who I know, from his record, does the same thing. He makes decisions on what he believes is right.”

Franchot has repeatedly traversed the state, first as comptroller and lately as a candidate for governor. Tall and thin with white-blond hair, he stands out in a room and intently listens to the people he meets. He often reminds them of some action he’s taken (delaying tax deadlines during the pandemic, promoting the craft beer industry) as he fishes into his pocket for one of the medallions he carries with him.

Borrowed from the military’s practice of leaders handing out “challenge coins” for exemplary achievement, Franchot (and other politicians) hand them out as tokens of praise ― and a physical reminder of the recipient’s encounter with the politician.

Franchot has given out countless medallions over the years, though a spokesperson is quick to note the medallions are paid for with campaign donations — not tax dollars.

A woman holds a commemorative coin given to her by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot at Baltimore's AFRAM festival on June 19, 2022. Franchot, who is a Democratic candidate for governor, frequently hands out the coins, especially to people with military or law enforcement backgrounds. The other side says: "In Recognition of Excellence, Service, & Sacrifice" and carries Franchot's name and title.

With no credible opposition since first becoming comptroller in 2006, Franchot has been able to shake hands and chat up voters each election season without having to engage in debates or ramp up much of a campaign operation. The campaign donations keep rolling in, and Franchot and his running mate, Monique Anderson-Walker, started 2022 with $3.28 million in the bank.

Franchot thinks he’s banked goodwill among voters as well. He has the most name recognition in the crowded Democratic field, and even polls paid for by his rivals put him in the lead of the race.

The money, name recognition and experience, in some respects, make Franchot a front-runner in the race even as he promotes his “outsider” status. He hasn’t won significant endorsements from the state’s largest unions or the heaviest political hitters. He’s been quieter than other candidates, appearing in the fewest number of forums and waiting to put out TV and radio ads.

He’s also veered slightly away from policy positions that are shared by the other Democratic candidates.

Most of the other candidates can’t answer quickly enough when asked about a public education improvement plan known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, offering full-throated support and promising to find ways to pay for it.

Franchot, however, acknowledges he was skeptical of the ambitious and expensive Blueprint and its funding requirements.

“I was a bit of a skeptic because it didn’t have any funding applied to it ... I will implement what the legislature wants, but I was skeptical about the dollar amounts,” Franchot said. He believes that under his leadership as governor, the state’s economy will improve, leading to more tax dollars coming in to pay for the education plan and other needs.

And when discussing the Red Line ― a proposed east-west rail line in Baltimore that Hogan canceled ― Franchot suggests that instead of automatically going with conventional rail or light rail, perhaps the state should consider monorail instead.

“I’m not talking about Seattle,” Franchot said, referring to that city’s single track that goes less than a mile, “I’m talking about something that’s really pretty common around the world right now.”

Franchot’s main pitch to voters is essentially a promise for better customer service that he said would replicate improvements he’s made in the comptroller’s office.

He’s pledging to fill potholes on state highways and have phone calls to state agencies answered promptly. He also wants to establish a “czar for fraud detection” in state government.

“I just said to myself: ‘Why don’t I export what I’ve learned at the comptroller’s office?’ As much as I love the job and love the agency, why don’t I export what we’ve done here to all the other agencies?” Franchot said. “And to do that you can’t go hat-in-hand and just offer ideas, you have to go and run for the job that is responsible for it.”

It’s Franchot’s experience as an elected official, including his knowledge of taxes and budgets, that swayed Jonathan Schwartz to Franchot’s camp this year.

“The comptroller’s 16 years of intimate involvement in the budget means he understands the importance of maintaining a strong economy in the state and how to manage the Maryland budget,” said Schwartz, a Baltimore County resident who has worked and volunteered in Democratic politics for years.

Schwartz, whose day job is executive director of The Lyric in Baltimore, said Franchot’s willingness to buck authority doesn’t bother him. Schwartz thinks Franchot is the most electable Democrat in the field, and many who dislike Franchot may soften if the party retakes the governor’s mansion.

“The most important thing is to win the general election, and I believe he is the strongest general election candidate in the field … I think that the Democratic leaders in Annapolis would rather have a Democratic governor to work with than a Republican governor,” he said.

Franchot believes he’ll be able to move beyond any tensions with other politicians if he’s elected.

“All of that’s forgiven, as far as I can tell, when you’re elected governor,” he said.

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