Chalk this one up as the first Big Surprise of the 2014 Maryland political campaign: Peter Franchot isn’t leaving his comfy job as state comptroller to run for governor.
The disappointment from a cast of wannabe comptroller candidates is palpable.
Audible cheers are coming from supporters of Attorney General Doug Gansler, who would have found Franchot a formidable foe in the race for governor, especially in vote-rich Montgomery County, which claims both of them as residents.
On the other hand, those are groans emanating from Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s backers since his fate in the governor’s race could hinge on a splintered vote in Montgomery.
Franchot at age 65 seems to be reveling in his role as state government’s resident naysayer. If Gov. Martin O’Malley says it’s a beautiful day in Annapolis, the comptroller will note that thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon.
O’Malley has called the comptroller “our version of Mitt Romney … He’s very happy taking opposite sides of every issue and always has throughout his career.”
Indeed, Franchot would have had a lot of explaining to do in a gubernatorial campaign. A lifelong Takoma Park liberal, he carved out a well-documented left-wing identity during 20 years in the House of Delegates.
Then he took a huge risk he ran for comptroller in 2006 against two better-known and better-funded candidates, the incumbent, William Donald Schaefer and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens.
While Schaefer and Owens traded insults and turned off voters, Franchot came across as the only adult in the room. Late election night returns gave him a narrow, come-from-behind victory with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Since then, Franchot has set out on a new ideological course — as a born-again fiscal conservative.
Forget all those years when he supported every tax increase and spending program that passed his desk on the House floor. As comptroller, Franchot sounds like a moralistic Reagan Democrat decrying Big Government, denouncing judicial pay raises, opposing legalized gambling, railing against any and all tax increases.
That would not have been a winning formula in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary dominated by liberal voters. But it will make for a great soapbox when the comptroller runs for re-election as a heavy favorite.
This tightwad attitude toward spending and taxes is much in keeping with the demands of the comptroller’s office. Schaefer — a big-spender as governor — embraced that philosophy, too, once he won the job.
So did Louie Goldstein during his 40 years as comptroller. He, too, cautioned against overspending and expansive government, but he did so with a rare mix of country humor and a sparkle in his eyes.
Franchot is taking a different tack — playing the role of constant contrarian at Board of Public Works meetings. He’s got a knack for pithy, critical quotes the media love to turn into headlines.
In gauging a run for the state’s top office, Franchot found himself short in one key category: money. It could take as much as $10 million to win the Democratic nomination. That could have been Mission: Impossible for Franchot.
So now he gets to enjoy the considerable perks of the comptroller’s office and critique all the gubernatorial candidates without worrying about losing his job.
It’s a cushy position. The comptroller doesn’t have to put together a legislative agenda each year, doesn’t have to formulate a complex budget plan every year, doesn’t have to make thousands of appointments and spend three months each year putting together enough legislative votes to get his way with the General Assembly.
The comptroller simply collects all the state’s tax revenue and reports on the results. Technocrats and computers do the work for him. Indeed, the most important part of his job is serving as one of three members of the Board of Public Works, which approves billions in state contracts.
That’s the bully pulpit Goldstein used so skillfully to occasionally savage a bureaucrat he disliked or rail against a handful of projects. Schaefer turned board meetings into theater of the absurd with wise-guy cracks and sniping comments aimed at Gov. Parris Glendening.
Franchot is more diplomatic but his purpose is similar to Schaefer’s get under the governor’s skin.
O’Malley almost invariably has the other vote at board meetings Treasurer Nancy Kopp on his side, which gives Franchot the freedom to make his criticisms sharp and pungent without worrying about the outcome.
Some might tire of always being on the losing side, but it doesn’t seem to deter Franchot. He likes the attention he gets in his role as chronic dissenter, the mock conservative who travels the state to hear from common folks as part of his self-proclaimed “Economic Truth Tour.”
Now that he’s no longer constrained by what would have been the arduous and stress-filled demands of a gubernatorial campaign, Franchot can enjoy the liberation and stir up controversies at will.
It seems to suit him.
Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a communications consultant. His email address is email@example.com.