Is It Time for Peter Franchot to Change his Party Membership?

Hogan Franchot

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot’s political odyssey has been well-documented. During his years as a Member of the House of Delegates from Montgomery County (1987-2007), he was one of the chamber’s most out-spoken progressives, widely regarded as a partisan Democrat.

Franchot’s transformation began 10 years ago when he ran for and won the statewide office of comptroller. In his new role as the State’s tax collector, he started to demonstrate a fiscal conservative streak that had never been evident before. Responding to the demands of the office, a statewide rather than district constituency and a political calculation about shifting attitudes of Marylanders, Franchot’s new orientation has served him well in two decisive reelections.

His new office has also given him a much larger audience and a new platform, the meetings of the Board of Public Works. Franchot, who has never been accused of being camera-shy, has initiated a series of public confrontations that have won him lots of headlines as well as the animosity of many Democrats. Questions have arisen about the appropriateness of some of the fights he has picked, such as his attempt to intervene in Towson University’s decision to reduce the number of intercollegiate athletic programs.

Many Democratic elected officials have seen his actions as both grandstanding and well outside the purview of his office. During Martin O’Malley’s eight years as governor, Franchot frequently criticized O’Malley’s decisions as well as those of the General Assembly leadership.

After the 2014 Election in which Republican Larry Hogan won an upset against the Democratic nominee, Anthony Brown, Franchot veered even farther to the right. In Governor Hogan, he found an ally on issues  before the Board of Public Works, particularly the state procurement process. And, as the Comptroller continued to use the forum to advance his own pet peeves, he got the support of Hogan.

Now in the dog days of summer, about the only thing going on is Franchot and Hogan trading compliments.  They’ve even gone shopping together to promote the State’s upcoming sales tax holiday. Soon, however, Franchot will resume his crusade to move the school start date to after Labor Day and Hogan will voice his support for the effort. This comes shortly after his spring campaign railing against the absence of air conditioners in some Baltimore County schools.

The latter effort is particularly curious given that Franchot and Hogan are proposing remedies that are less fiscally responsible than the Baltimore County phased plan. Their approach is also legally questionable as they are arguing to use capital budget funds for air conditioners that have less than a 15-year life expectancy.

Much of what I’ve described is just Peter Franchot being Peter Franchot. He gets antsy when he goes very long without being in the headlines. His emphasis on fiscal restraint is certainly appropriate to his office.

However, the air conditioner war comes across much more like a deliberate political fight that he has picked with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who may be positioning himself to run for either governor or comptroller in 2018. Moreover, Franchot isn’t content just to have a disagreement about a public policy issue; he and his office question the motives and integrity of whoever is the opponent of the moment.

And, finally, there’s the continuing love fest with Larry Hogan. It’s clear that Franchot feels much more comfortable, politically and personally, with the governor than with any of his Democratic colleagues in the state. Few of them would even agree to my use of the word “colleague” at this point.

Is the Hogan-Franchot alliance a refreshing example of bipartisanship, as a Washington Post article just suggested? That’s a hard argument to sustain given that Hogan keeps demonstrating that he is a fiercely partisan Republican. He and Franchot certainly agree on some fiscal issues and the Governor supports the Comptroller’s public rants. But where are the examples of Franchot having gotten Hogan to support any Democratic or progressive issues?

I don’t really have any expectations that Franchot will become a Republican. He continues to cling to a self image of as a progressive, although he certainly doesn’t spend much time advocating for issues that fit that label. Franchot is supporting Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election, although that’s hardly a profile in party loyalty or courage.

The rub will come in 2018. Is there anyone in the State of Maryland who believes Franchot will support the Democratic candidate for governor that year? And if he backs Hogan, as he certainly will, how do Maryland Democrats deal with him during the campaign?

As a result, Franchot will likely face a challenge in the Democratic primary. While he seems well positioned at this point, his success may ultimately depend on Hogan maintaining the level of popularity that he currently enjoys, which is far from a sure thing.

To answer my starting question, Franchot will continue to be a Democrat but in name only. While there should be room in a political party for a range of views and perspectives, it’s hard to see the issues on which Franchot is still a Democrat.