In political battle, a `happy warrior'

Montgomery Democrat has a few laughs and some harsh words for opponents

State Comptroller

Maryland votes 2006

August 29, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,sun reporter

It was a sweltering day on North Avenue in West Baltimore, and Peter Franchot was denouncing elected officials who appear in taxpayer-funded commercials and promising never to do so if elected state comptroller.

Just then, with timing no advance team could conjure, a Maryland Transit Administration bus rumbled by sporting an advertisement with a smiling picture of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promoting a housing program.

"That is a moving violation of the state law," said the Montgomery County Democratic delegate, referring to a new state prohibition on spending taxpayer money for promotions that feature candidates for state office.

"He should not only lose the election; he should have some points applied to him," Franchot said with a broad grin.

With two weeks to go before the votes are counted, it is clear that Franchot is having the time of his life as he stumps the state in an attempt to pull off what would be one of the great upsets in Maryland political history: toppling the legendary William Donald Schaefer in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.

"I'm a happy warrior," Franchot proclaims, laying claim to the nickname once applied to Hubert H. Humphrey.

To Republicans, Franchot as the state's chief tax collector and a member of the powerful Board of Public Works is a nightmare prospect. The 20-year lawmaker, who chairs an important budget subcommittee, is an unabashed partisan who hails from Takoma Park, a city regarded as ultra-liberal even by Montgomery County standards.

For months, Franchot has been cheerfully crossing the state lambasting Schaefer and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens as representatives of the "Ehrlich wing" of the Democratic Party.

Franchot, 58, is pursuing an aggressive strategy of defining Owens - a centrist Democrat by most measures and a supporter of Martin O'Malley for governor - as a virtual clone of Schaefer. He was the first of the candidates to air a negative campaign ad, producing a spot that labels Owens and Schaefer "peas in a pod" with Ehrlich.

Franchot's take-no-prisoners approach has appealed to many of the core activist groups that provide much of the passion in Democratic races. His poll numbers have been unimpressive, perhaps reflecting low name recognition. Despite that, he has been piling up endorsements by the bushel from labor, environmental groups, Baltimore ministers and the old-line Democratic clubs of Baltimore County's east side. He was also recently endorsed by The Washington Post, a potentially significant factor in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Franchot said he sees the contest boiling down to a race between him and Owens, with Schaefer fading to a third-place finish. He brashly predicts victory with 40 percent of the vote.

Unlike the genteel Owens and the above-the-fray Schaefer, Franchot appears to relish a bare-knuckles political fight, whether on the campaign trail or in a House committee room.

As a House transportation and environment subcommittee chairman, his tussles with Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan provided some of the best political theater in Annapolis the past four years. On issue after issue, the two were articulate and aggressive antagonists, but Flanagan could be provoked to anger while Franchot consistently seemed to be enjoying himself.

"I enjoy the give and take of politics," Franchot said. "When we're jousting, I keep it in perspective. Jousting is the state sport, after all."

At Flanagan's final budget hearing before Franchot's subcommittee, the two exchanged compliments on their mutual dedication to public service.

"People who would watch us from afar don't appreciate the fact we're good friends," said Flanagan. He told Franchot he respects his advocacy "no matter how misguided you might be."

Where Schaefer has long been leery of making campaign appearances before less-than-friendly audiences, Franchot relishes the opportunity to engage critics head-on. He has made repeated appearances on WBAL's conservative call-in shows - at one point, coolly correcting host Ron Smith when the talk-show host pronounced his name with an exaggerated French accent.

(It's pronounced Fran-CHO. The Annapolis joke is that the "t" is the only silent thing about him.)

Though he has been accused of being a show boater, Franchot makes no apologies for seeking to stand out among the 141 members of the House of Delegates

"I am a pragmatic, experienced, successful, progressive Democrat. I get results in the legislature. People know that," he said.

Among the accomplishments Franchot points to is a 1999 law, of which he was the lead House sponsor, that cut Maryland's real-estate closing costs and gave about 900,000 families refunds on hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax escrow payments.

"It returned more money at once than any other piece of legislation in the state," he said.

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