As he and a reporter settled into socially-distanced chairs on the sun-drenched front porch of his Takoma Park home on Monday, he whipped out several sheets of white, lined notebook paper and asked if he could read it before taking questions.
“This is something I wrote last night — or two nights ago — by myself. ‘Hi, my name is Peter Franchot…’”
The Montgomery County Democrat enters the race as an early favorite, thanks to a cascade of advantages:
- Franchot waltzed to re-election in 2010, 2014 and 2018, garnering more 1.6 million votes in his last race. (His last competitive contest was in 2006, when he knocked off the legendary William Donald Schaefer in a tight, contentious three-way Democratic primary.)
- He has $1.5 million in the bank and is raising money, he says, “every day.”
- He is the first candidate to formally declare his intentions, meaning he essentially has the field to himself while COVID-19 keeps potential opponents largely on the sidelines.
- His alliance with the state’s popular Republican governor, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., and his pro-business outlook give him serious across-the-aisle cred.
- Having served 20 years as a state delegate and 14 more as tax-collector, he has a knowledge of state government that will likely surpass any of his rivals.
- And, he can claim to have run a sprawling bureaucracy that touches every person and business in the state.
Although he has lost only one race since 1986 — a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 — Franchot wants it known that he is “all in” for 2022 and taking nothing for granted.
His “elevator speech” — read to a reporter during his first in-depth interview since declaring his candidacy — is a mix of high calling and mundane service delivery. (During the course of a 70-minute interview, it became clear he has a near-obsession with state employees answering the phone promptly and courteously.)
“I’m running for governor to give equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every Marylander,” Franchot says.
“In the first six months as governor, I will fix every pothole in the state, pick up all the trash, and have every state agency answer the phone within 30 seconds, with a live friendly state employee who will help you and will understand your frustration.”
Once he gets his feet wet as Maryland’s chief executive, Franchot says he plans a top-to-bottom reassessment of how the state collects and spends money.
“After six months I will implement a series of fundamental reforms to state funding of the transportation sector, the health sector, the education sector, the environmental sector and the public safety sector,” he said.
“All these reforms will be tested on a pilot basis and will be scaled-up on an affordable fiscally-sound basis. Can I accomplish this? Yes,” he added. “Because I’ve already done it during my 14 years as comptroller.”
Franchot’s long alliance with Hogan is a key part of his centrist, pro-business image. But it also led to battles with the two men who ruled the General Assembly for a generation — former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Progressive groups fumed as well.
As he prepares for the 2022 race, Franchot said he will run on the reforms he brought to the comptroller’s office (speedier tax refunds, phones that get answered, unclaimed property that gets returned to its owners) and his vision for the state.
“People are going to say, ‘gosh, the guy’s competent. He’s already shown that he can accomplish things. And he’s got some ideas that we make progress in the state of Maryland.’”
He said his partnership with Hogan — on the state’s economy, starting the school year after Labor Day and many other issues — will be a concern “only among the most partisan of partisans.”
“That was the same attack used on Joe Biden and frankly he seems to be — the last time I looked — successful,” Franchot quipped.
“I have the perspective of an outsider in politics but the skills of an insider. I’m an independent Democrat, un-bought and un-bossed, who will lead the state into a new era of reform and progress.”
Franchot acknowledged that he has butted heads with legislative leaders of his own party. But he said the mood in Annapolis has changed since the election of Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) to succeed Miller and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) to take over after Busch died.
“I will never be a go-along, get-along governor who defines his or her success by how much of your money is being spent. I will only define success by the results. And my goal will be for fast improvement for all. But I’m going to keep a special focus on keeping money in your pockets and those of small businesses.”
In addition to his six-month blitz on potholes and highway litter, and his state spending reforms, Franchot said he will propose a new approach to cleaning the Chesapeake Bay, which he will call the Blue New Deal — “where we actually take what we’ve been doing, in partnership with Virginia and Pennsylvania, and reform it. And make Maryland the key player as far as restoring oysters to the bay, restoring rockfish to the bay, restoring oxygen to the dead zones in the bay.”
Franchot is also ramping up criticism of Hogan, his longtime ally.
He said he gives the state’s Department of Labor a grade of “C-minus” for its handling of the spike in unemployment insurance claims.
While the comptroller said he is sympathetic to the crush of claims, changes in federal eligibility, and the need to switch processing systems in the middle of the pandemic, it is “not acceptable” that so many people have had to wait weeks or months to get their first checks.
He said the state must do more to help out-of-work Marylanders who are in financial crisis.
“We handle getting [income tax] refunds back in 2.1 business days and we have a very successful fraud detection unit. They should, too, and they don’t,” he said.
“Why don’t you just call somebody and make sure they’re not fraudulent?” he said. “You’ve got their name, you’ve got their number. If it’s somebody in Southern California who doesn’t sound legit, then don’t send it. But if it’s a Marylander who’s saying ‘I’ve been without my unemployment for three months,’ and they give their name and address, really, it’s not that hard.”
(Hogan and Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson have said their vigilance against fraudulent unemployment claims has saved taxpayers millions of dollars. The agency detected a massive fraud operation over the summer.)
Hogan’s virus focus ‘has shifted’
On Monday, Hogan spoke to the Ronald Reagan Institute about the Republican Party’s future and the 2024 election.
Franchot said the governor’s moves onto the national stage have pulled him away from managing the COVID-19 crisis at home.
“Recently he’s obviously had a shift in focus because I take it he’s… obviously running more nationally. And I think he’s lost that connection with what he was doing earlier, which I thought was very commendable and resulted in his very high poll numbers.”
“That’s the concern I have, is that he’s shifted,” Franchot added. “I can understand why he’s looking to the national thing where obviously a Republican presidential primary is a lot different than being governor of Maryland. But if I had to pick I’d prefer the earlier version [of Hogan] rather than the current one.”
Kirwan and the digital downloads tax
With the legislature set to reconvene in January, the comptroller urged lawmakers to “back off” plans to override Hogan’s veto of an educational initiative, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, also known as the Kirwan reforms.
“We’re certainly not going to be in an economic recovery mode until the end of the next calendar year,” he said. “They don’t know where the $4 billion [to fund the Kirwan reforms] is going to come from, other than ‘maybe this’ and ‘maybe that.’ Just postpone it. Nobody anticipated the pandemic.”
The new tax on digital downloads should also be delayed, he said. “We should have no tax increases during the pandemic. Postpone it for a session. Even if it’s well-intentioned, it’s egregiously badly timed.”
The legislature’s focus next year, the former state House appropriator said, should be to “stabilize what we have.”
Under new management
In October, Franchot parted company with his longtime chief of staff, Len Foxwell, a skilled strategist who was expected to take the lead role in the 2022 campaign and move with the candidate to the State House if Franchot’s gubernatorial bid was successful.
Franchot would not discuss the circumstances that led to Foxwell’s abrupt departure.
“I owe a tremendous amount to Len, because he was with me for 13 years. That’s a personnel situation. Otherwise, I’d tell you things — but I can’t. He’s a tremendously talented, smart professional. I wish him the best, frankly. And he did a tremendous amount for me.”
In a not-so-veiled dig at Hogan, Franchot said, “it’s always better to have one chief of staff for 13 years than four in a much more limited time.” [Hogan in fact has had five chiefs of staff and an interim chief in his six years in office.]
There are two members of Congress, Reps. Anthony G. Brown and David J. Trone, at least four county executives and others who could run against Franchot in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor.
Incumbent officeholders — particularly the young county leaders — should think twice, he suggested.
“They’re all terrific folks,” Franchot said, referring to Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr., and Howard County Executive Calvin S. Ball.
“The problem is they have a four-year second term that they would be giving up. Second, they’re not particularly well known outside their counties. Number 3, they have a tiger like me sitting there. It’s just reality.”
With campaign events and policy rollouts expected to come as early as the first months of 2021, Franchot pledged to run “like I’m 10 points behind.”
“I’m going to be in this battle all the way. And I’m the candidate that challengers really fear, which is someone who is actually willing to lose. I’m in it. Everything I have will be in it.”