Peter Franchot and the Art of the Gimmick

When I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago, I stopped paying attention to  the “inside baseball” of Maryland politics.  Plenty of other commentators are doing a great job of giving readers behind-the-scenes analysis of the drama of Annapolis.  Josh Kurtz’ Maryland Matters is a recent and valuable addition to that roster.

On the other hand, having written about and been involved in Maryland government and politics for many years, I continue to see familiar patterns. And now I have the advantage of not getting stuck in the weeds of day-to-day dramas and pseudo-dramas.

Thus, it was with real interest that I noticed a flurry in the last few days of news reports and columns about the political fortunes of Maryland’s Comptroller, Peter Franchot.   I have known Peter for decades, have written frequently about him–he claimed to have put my piece, “Peter and the Wolves”, on the wall of his office–and, yet, I admit to being puzzled by his most recent political incarnation.

Franchot is about to be elected to his fourth term as State Comptroller after years in the House of Delegates.  He has a highly skilled political staff working for him and seems to be in constant campaign mode.  I don’t mean the latter comment as a criticism.  He’s built a strong following for himself and carved out a position on the right edge of the Democratic Party that would seem to ensure continued electoral success.  Franchot doesn’t even have an opponent in the Democratic Primary this year and will not face a serious challenge in the General Election.

The thing I have trouble understanding is why, after having made himself all but unbeatable electorally, Franchot has now decided to spend the preponderance of his efforts and his political capital engaged in fake populism.

Barry Rascovar, longtime observer of Maryland politics, recently wrote a column entitled “Comeuppance for Franchot” describing the overwhelming defeat in the Maryland General Assembly of his initiative to change the state laws on craft brewers.  The Comptroller has annoyed legislative leaders for years, but this most recent repudiation was more emphatic than usual.

I don’t know enough about the substance of the “beer wars” to have a clear opinion.  Franchot has positioned himself as the champion of small business owners, a populist looking out for the little guy.  From my perspective, even if he has the high ground on this issue, his approach to gathering support for it has been one of the most ham-handed I have ever seen in years of watching the General Assembly.  Franchot and his people insulted legislators, did little to make the case for his bill other than public rallies at breweries and, at the end, brought the supporters along on a fools’ errand.

Franchot is not dumb.  In the opinion of many, Len Foxwell , his chief of staff, is one of the smartest political operatives in Maryland.  Yet, they could hardly have done a worse job of trying to get his bill passed.  Viewing their actions from without, it looked like they were interested only in firing up brewers, drinking a lot of beer and burnishing Franchot’s populist credentials.

Unfortunately, Beer Wars is hardly an isolated incident.  The Sun on Thursday editorialized about the challenge facing schools inundated by snow days this year.  As the result of Franchot and Governor Larry Hogan’s publicity stunt to force schools to begin their year after Labor Day and end by June 15, many counties are literally out of options to reach 180 days.  Hogan’s executive order, in support of Franchot’s idea, took no account of the educational needs of students or the administrative problems for schools, but, instead, ginned up a phony marketing slogan of “Let Summer be Summer” in order to help a few pizza parlors in Ocean City.

It will be easy to add to this list the ridiculous bit of theater about air conditioners in schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County or Franchot’s earlier meddling into Towson University’s decision to eliminate its baseball program.  That program, in fact, has been restored, and you can certainly argue about the merits of the original decision. What you can’t do, however, is come up with any sensible rationale for why it was an issue that merited the intervention of the State’s Comptroller.

Chickens are now coming home to roost.  The General Assembly is considering legislation to take control of Maryland’s school construction program away from the Board of Public Works, where Hogan and Franchot currently occupy two of the three seats.  Another bill would set up an inquiry as to whether oversight of the state liquor industry should be removed from the Comptroller’s Office.

And all of this comes before this year’s state election.  Franchot will be reelected but Hogan’s fate is far from secure.  In what is likely to be an enormous Democratic wave, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.

What will Franchot do during the campaign?  Given his close relationship with Hogan, it’s hard to imagine the Comptroller supporting the Democratic candidate for governor, even if that person wanted his support, which is also far from certain.  And, if Hogan loses, Franchot is going to feel particularly isolated in Annapolis in 2019.  He’s burned a lot of bridges and has few friends left in the party of which he is still a nominal member.

And yet, had he chosen to use his popularity to advocate for issues like school funding, women’s health, rights of immigrants and environmental protection, Franchot might have actually had a record worth remembering.  He will, instead, be known for squandered opportunities regardless of how many terms he serves.