Franchot seeking a wider role for office

Sun profile

May 28, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

It is customary at the start of Board of Public Works meetings for members to make personal comments, so Comptroller Peter Franchot took advantage last week by introducing his daughter. In case those in the packed State House reception room couldn't locate her, Franchot noted that Abbe, 25, was modestly "hiding behind the television cameras."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, sitting at Franchot's side, grinned broadly and said, "A quality she got from her mother." As laughter filled the room, Franchot - the state's unapologetically outspoken Democratic comptroller - responded with a smile, "It is very unFranchot-like."

In office just four months, Franchot - the former delegate from Takoma Park who ousted William Donald Schaefer - has shown not just affection for the spotlight but an unabashed interest in broadening the policy responsibilities of his office.

He has issued statements about divesting state pension money from Darfur. He has railed against the possible implementation of slot machine gambling to mitigate a looming budget crisis. He supported a doomed House of Delegates health care plan. He led the successful charge against a Kent Island development that environmentalists argued would harm the Chesapeake Bay. And he has cast himself as a chief advocate for expanding Maryland's biotechnology industry.

Hardly matters of usual concern to Maryland's chief tax collector.

Some in Annapolis say Franchot lacks the appropriate deference, not just to the party's new governor but to senior lawmakers. They say Franchot, 59, should stick to managing the state's fiscal affairs, the overarching constitutional mandate of his office.

"No one should tread on the other's defined duties or areas of expertise," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. "We only need one governor in the state of Maryland."

But Franchot, who is tall and trim and bears a striking resemblance to the actor Richard Chamberlain, is not about to clip his own wings - or let others do it for him. Not in the interest of politics - or personal relationships.

Franchot said he ran on a progressive platform last fall and defeated Schaefer, the "Babe Ruth of Maryland politics," the former governor, Baltimore mayor and comptroller - with that agenda.

"I'd like to supercharge the agency. I'd like to take it to the next level," said Franchot, who announced Friday that he would investigate rising gas prices. "I'm a liberal Democrat who is battle-tested. I got over a million votes in an election. I want to be involved in the economic future of Maryland."

Franchot is Maryland's 33rd comptroller, and his victory was far from guaranteed.

After 20 years in the House and a failed 1988 bid for Congress, Franchot decided to run for an office he had never coveted. He said he did not appreciate that Schaefer, a Democrat, seemingly provided a rubber stamp for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on the Board of Public Works, a powerful panel that approves all state contracts. He also disapproved of their shared pro-slots view. Schaefer and Ehrlich, unusually cozy from the start, were "taking the state in the wrong direction," Franchot said.

"I'm very issue-oriented," Franchot said over crab soup and half a tuna sandwich at Harry Browne's restaurant in Annapolis. "Unlike other people who might say, `Oh, that's part of politics, give a little here, give a little there. Everything is compromise.' That's not me. So I objected to that."

Franchot said he suspected early that the anti-Schaefer sentiment among voters was deeper than anyone thought. And when Schaefer and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, another Democratic contender for comptroller, began to feud last fall, Franchot bit his tongue and bided his time.

"It turns out William Donald Schaefer disliked her a lot more than he disliked me," Franchot joked.

The margin was slim, but Franchot had accomplished what was once unthinkable. The Montgomery County attorney, educated at elite New England schools such as Amherst College, had defeated a Maryland legend, the product of blue-collar Baltimore. Franchot went on to win the general election handily.

Schaefer could not be reached for comment for this article.

Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who served with Franchot in the House of Delegates, said Franchot probably was emboldened by the victory.

"Although Peter was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from myself, he was always very articulate and well-respected and very informed from his point of view," said O'Donnell, a Republican from Southern Maryland. "I think he gained additional respect by winning what many perceived to be a long-shot electoral victory for comptroller. And although he may raise some eyebrows with some discussion of far-ranging policy, when he took the reins of the office, he seemed to settle in fairly nicely as comptroller."

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