Two Democrats competing in rare open primary to become Maryland’s top accountant and tax collector

Published on: July 07, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 12, 2022 8:52 PM EDT

Democratic candidates for Comptroller Tim Adams and Brooke Elizabeth Lierman.

Maryland Democrats will face a choice of who should be the state’s chief tax collector, accountant and bill payer for the first time since 2006, when current Comptroller Peter Franchot knocked off then-incumbent William Donald Schaefer.

Now, after winning reelection three times with at least 60% of the vote, Franchot is moving on to pursue the governor’s seat in the 2022 Democratic primaries. Two potential Democratic successors are vying to become the state’s top financial executive and will face off in the July 19 primary, while a Republican waits in the wings for the general election. All have previously won Maryland races and are pitching a combination of public and private sector experience to convince voters.

Maryland’s comptroller collects taxes and forecasts revenue but also holds one seat on the state’s three-member Board of Public Works. Along with the governor and the state treasurer, the comptroller oversees a wide range of fiscal responsibilities, including monitoring state spending, managing debt and approving state contracts. Whoever wins in November will find themselves part of a triumvirate of freshly minted statewide leaders. For the first time in at least a century, the offices of governor, comptroller and attorney general are all without an incumbent seeking re-election.

The Democratic primary pits Tim Adams, Bowie’s first Black mayor and founder of defense contractor Systems Applications and Technology, Inc. — or SA-TECH — against Brooke Lierman, an attorney and two-term state delegate from Baltimore City. Both are eager to fill Franchot’s shoes, and have taken keen interest in the pursuit of what Franchot has dubbed “tax cheats.”

“We give out a lot of tax credits and other things based on promises from businesses,” said Adams, “and I would like to do an audit to see how successful that is.”

Lierman is similarly excited, saying that she is “looking forward to bringing my perspective as an advocate for low wage workers … to make sure that unscrupulous employers are not getting away with defrauding the government.”

While both are driven toward using the office’s powers toward a fairer tax system, their backgrounds and candidacies diverge from there.

Adams spent most of his life in the private sector before winning Bowie’s mayorship in 2019. He started SA-TECH “out of the trunk of [his] car” and grew it into one of the top minority-owned defense contractors in the country, with hundreds of employees in 23 states providing engineering and IT support, among other services, to customers.

Adams, 63, continues to run SA-TECH as its president and CEO while serving as mayor of Bowie. He is immensely proud of what he and his team have built over the last 33 years, he said, but if elected comptroller, he would “step away entirely” from corporate leadership.

SA-TECH, which Adams said pulled down $90 million in revenue in 2021 and has a client list that includes the Naval Air Warfare Center and U.S. Army Contracting Command, does not have any contracts with the state of Maryland, although it does support the Office of Information Technology for Prince George’s County, of which Bowie is a part.

Adams believes his executive experience sets him up to be the ideal candidate. He says he can balance being the “top paymaster who pays off vendors, state employees, doing estimates … [the comptroller’s office itself] has over 1,000 employees across 12 offices.” The comptroller, according to Adams, needs the know-how to manage this expansive staff.

Adams thinks businessmen of his stature should “put themselves out there. It’s not just about stroking a check,” he said. “It’s about engaging with our youth and our community.”

Lierman’s job history, by contrast, has been geared more towards public service, first as a Maryland civil rights and disability lawyer before being elected to state office. After getting her law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she said she “had the honor of representing a wide variety of people who are often marginalized, and whose stories aren’t known or told.”

Highlights of Lierman’s legal career include getting one of the largest settlements ever from the Baltimore Police Department for the wrongful conviction and 21-year imprisonment of James Owens. She also took the Walt Disney Company to task over a violation of the federal labor law when the company closed the ESPNZone in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 2010.

Since 2015, the 43-year-old Lierman has represented South and Southwest Baltimore in the House of Delegates. In this role, she introduced bills to enhance the labor rights of student athletes, give paid family leave to all Marylanders and protect the environment. She helped pass the Climate Solutions Now Act in April, which established a net-zero emissions goal for Maryland and avenues for state officials to make that goal a reality, including new building standards and creating a zero-emissions public passenger vehicle fleet.

She hopes to continue this climate advocacy as comptroller.

“The comptroller’s office also has to ensure that when we are spending money on infrastructure through the Board of Public Works, that we are spending in a way that takes climate change and climate resilience into account,” she said. Similarly, Lierman said that she wants to use the office’s procurement powers to promote equity and racial justice by making sure requirements for minority-owned businesses are not waived when awarding state contracts.

“I believe that government’s role is … creating opportunity and removing barriers. So if that’s what a progressive is, I’m proud to be a progressive,” said Lierman.

Adams’ campaign has also emphasized equity and other progressive values in its messaging. Adams was quick to say he’s a friend of businesses, the economic engine of our society, but added that “if you think really good schools for our children is progressive, then I’m a progressive.”

Both candidates addressed how they would use the power of their seat on the Board of Public Works. Lierman, while acknowledging that most of the board’s decisions are unanimous, said she will nonetheless be a “voice of the people” on the board; Adams similarly said he will vote “in the best interests of Maryland taxpayers.

Across the aisle, the unopposed Republican nominee finds activist candidates too big for their proverbial britches.

“I look to be more traditional in that role [of comptroller] than my Democratic colleagues that … seem to be talking about a lot of issues outside of the comptroller’s purview,” said Barry Glassman, who currently serves as the Harford County Executive.

Glassman, 60, emphasizes limited government and — unlike many in his party right now — his penchant and even love for bipartisan cooperation.

“When I served in the [Maryland state Senate], although I was a Republican, I worked across the aisle and then got bills passed by Democratic members of legislature,” Glassman said, “as well as Republicans.”

Glassman developed such a personable reputation in an era of contentious party politics that he was selected to lead the Maryland Association of Counties. “I’m a people person,” he laughed, remembering the responsibility. “[Colleagues] see me as Barry Glassman, not as a Trump Republican, non-Trump Republican, or whatever else.” Glassman sees himself more in line with Gov. Larry Hogan than with other national Republican figures, he said.

Glassman has a significant financial hurdle to clear to get on the level of his Democratic opponents. With just over $465,000 on hand as of January, Glassman has to raise over $1 million to catch up to either of his potential opponents. “I think it will pick up after the primary,” he said. “Gov. Hogan only had $600,000 heading into his campaign.”

Jon Meltzer is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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