After a primary season fraught with upsets that landed far-right fringe candidates on the general election ballot, the contest for state comptroller this November seems refreshingly ordinary.

Baltimore City Democrat Del. Brooke Lierman and Republican and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, two experienced politicians grounded in each of their respective party’s traditional ideals, will face off in November for one of the most powerful jobs in the state.

Both candidates’ proposals to enhance the comptroller’s office are generally in concert. They say they’ll plan to update the office’s technology, provide quality customer service, and increase spending transparency and access to government contracts. However, there’s nuance in the way each says they’ll approach the job and how they see their divergent political ideologies influencing their decisions.

Maryland’s comptroller does more than collect taxes and predict revenues. They also vote on the Board of Public Works, the state’s spending approval board, alongside the governor and the legislature-appointed treasurer. The board has the power to approve or deny millions of dollars in state contracts with private vendors.

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A ‘watchdog’ moderate

If elected, Glassman, a 32-year veteran politician, says he’ll be a “watchdog for Maryland taxpayers” and possibly the only Republican check on the state spending board, should Democrat Wes Moore win the governor’s race.

As a former state delegate and senator and current term-limited county executive, Glassman’s pitch to voters rests on his decades of government experience, personal integrity and accomplishments. While running the state’s eighth-largest county, Glassman automated the county’s timekeeping, financial record keeping and budgeting; funded pay raises by spending wisely; cut property taxes; and is leaving behind an estimated surplus of at least $28 million, he said.

Glassman “caught the political bug” as a political science major at Washington College, he said, and described himself as a moderate inspired by socially liberal Republicans like former Illinois congressman John B. Anderson.

Conservative on abortion and guns

But his voting record while serving in the General Assembly reflects traditionally conservative ideals on abortion and gun rights. Glassman sponsored or supported multiple failed bills that tied restrictions and bureaucracy to abortion access, including one in 2013 that would have required hospitals to report abortions to the state health department and a 2010 bill that would have required physicians to provide women seeking an abortion the opportunity to see an active ultrasound or picture of the embryo or fetus.

Glassman voted against the Firearms Safety Act of 2013, which became a law that banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley proposed the bill after the 2012 school shooting of first graders and staff in Newtown, Connecticut.

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Glassman said he does not see the comptroller’s role as political and would follow Maryland law when reviewing contract decisions.

“The comptroller is the Chief Financial Officer of the taxpayers and that is it,” he wrote in an email.

He wouldn’t vote against a contract because the services provided abortion access under Maryland law, he said.

“Maryland voters have spoken on abortion, and I would follow Maryland law on any contracts that may come before the BPW,” Glassman wrote. “I would handle contracts regarding firearms the same way.”

Power to influence statewide change

However, Lierman, a two-term delegate, said every member of the Board of Public Works brings their values to their decision making. And she’s clear about where she stands.

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“If there is a contract from the Maryland Department of Health to provide abortion care services … I will bring my value that I am strongly pro-choice in voting to make sure that that contract gets through in a timely way,” she said.

The civil rights and disability lawyer views the job as one with the power to influence statewide change.

“The comptroller is not a bean counter,” Lierman said. “The comptroller hires bean counters.”

Her campaign platform charts a far more detailed course than Glassman’s — some of which includes closing the racial wealth gap, broadening access to state contracts for small businesses and businesses owned by women, minorities, and veterans. Lierman also plans on creating a taxpayer advocacy office.

Politics runs in the family

Lierman grew up in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, and says she was raised by civic-minded parents who taught her to believe “that politics is about service to others, and government can be a real force for good.” Lierman’s mother, Connie Lierman, was a home care nurse. Her father, Terry Lierman, at one time headed the Maryland Democratic Party and served as chief of staff to Democratic Whip and Majority Leader U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer.

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During her legal career and during her time as a state lawmaker, Lierman has focused on making sure the voices of others are heard, she said.

As a candidate, she’s continuing to listen. In September, her campaign launched a listening tour called “Build a Better Maryland,” meeting with state leaders in labor and technology, tax preparers, women entrepreneurs and Black leaders. She said she has heard consistent messages.

”I think people want to have somebody who’s constantly looking for ways to lift up families and communities and small businesses, and make government work better for them,” she said.

She currently co-chairs the state’s pension fund committee and has been an advocate for increasing statewide public transit, affordable housing access, violence prevention and civil rights.

“I think I’ve developed an ability to bring people together at the local level and marry their concerns with an ability to get things done at the state level,” she said.

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Breaking the barrier?

This year’s comptroller’s race marks a rare chance at a job incumbents have historically held on to in a year where all three statewide office incumbents, including the governor and attorney general, have vacated their seats. Should she prevail, Lierman would make history by becoming the state’s first female comptroller.

And according to recent polls and Maryland’s registered voter spread, Lierman is statistically likely to break that barrier. She led a September survey from Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR by a comfortable 16-point margin over Glassman in a state dominated by registered Democrats by more than 2 to 1.

Lierman has broad financial support and dozens of endorsements, including from federal and state lawmakers, labor unions and climate advocates, revealing the working relationships she’s cultivated during her years in the General Assembly.

An uphill climb

But with only weeks left before Nov. 8, Glassman’s campaign bears a steep uphill climb to build the cross-party coalition necessary to push him over the top. And his fundraising efforts have been hindered by the two extremist Republican candidates at the top of the ticket, he said.

Gubernatorial candidate Del. Dan Cox and attorney general candidate Michael Peroutka hold extreme right-wing ideals, parrot conspiracy theories, and — without evidence — continue to deny the 2020 elections results.

Glassman said some of his Republican and Democratic supporters were discouraged after the Republican primary results.

”It can be hard to convince folks to invest in you,” he said. “Although they agree that I’m the best qualified candidate.”

Hogan endorsement

While Glassman earned the endorsement of term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, it’s unclear what that will get him as the Maryland GOP struggles with an identity crisis. A Hogan endorsement certainly wasn’t enough to push the governor’s hand-picked successor and his former labor and commerce secretary Kelly Schulz across the Republican primary’s finish line.

For the comptroller candidates still in the race, both campaigns say they plan to run through the tape.

Lierman will continue meeting with potential constituents and fundraising. “I will continue to be running a 24-county campaign,” Lierman said.

As the finish line draws closer for Glassman, he’ll continue to meet with community groups and leaders across the state. But he’s not wasting any steam second-guessing his departure from leading a Republican stronghold he won twice by landslide margins for a statewide bid.

“No matter what happens ... I’ve been blessed to have a great career,” he said. “So I have no regrets.”

brenda.wintrode@thebaltimorebanner.com