Opposites distract

Our view: School visit underscores the O'Malley-Franchot divide

April 25, 2008

It's not often that the state's chief tax collector makes a trip to Towson to share his views on local elementary school overcrowding, but Peter Franchot is not your average comptroller. Even by Mr. Franchot's just-spell-my-name-right standards of publicity, Wednesday's visit was notable: There was no pending state contract, tax issue or related matter to justify his decision to visit Rodgers Forge Elementary School as part of a broader school construction projects tour.

Instead, it appears Mr. Franchot came to send a message. Or maybe two. Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is a possible candidate to run against him in the 2010 Democratic primary race for comptroller. If the Towson school overcrowding mess has put Mr. Smith on the hot seat, the comptroller was not averse to fanning the flames.

But wait, there's more. It's no secret that Mr. Smith's potential 2010 candidacy has been promoted by Gov. Martin O'Malley as a way to keep Mr. Franchot in line. The governor isn't happy that the comptroller is spearheading efforts to defeat his slots proposal at the ballot box this November. So Mr. Franchot wasn't just pushing back on Mr. Smith, he was giving a poke to his party's top dog as well.

The O'Malley-Franchot clash has become a notable schism in Annapolis. Democrats don't always get along - Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's tiffs of a decade ago were legendary - but the current officeholders aren't far behind on the political Richter scale.

One week Mr. O'Malley is calling Mr. Franchot a hypocrite, the next Mr. Franchot is tweaking one of the governor's closest allies. Who says there's one-party rule in Maryland? As Will Rogers might observe, this is no organized party.

There's certainly nothing wrong with a little free speech. It's far better to have officeholders who are independent than those who thoughtlessly fall in line.

But Mr. Franchot also risks becoming something of a political pariah, his populist message scoring with the public but souring his relations with his fellow elected leaders. That may boost his political career, but it's hard to see how it helps him run his agency.

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