Visit any New Hampshire diner around this time of the year, every three to four years or so. You’re likely to run into a presidential candidate in the middle of interrupting a first-in-the-nation primary voter’s sip of coffee as they wolf down a greasy assortment of breakfast delectables.
468 miles south, in Maryland, another political candidate on the stump – state Comptroller Peter V. R. Franchot (D) – greeted Democratic activists on an unseasonably chilly November Wednesday morning in Silver Spring at a Maryland staple – the Tastee Diner – a well-known breakfast retreat known for political canoodling, frequent drop-ins by aspiring political candidates – and home-cooked meals that won’t break the proverbial bank.
Franchot was the invited guest speaker this month before the District 18 Breakfast Club, a group of mostly left-leaning, progressive Democratic insiders and activists who meet regularly to discuss local and state politics.
It was 20 years that Franchot was one of three legislators representing District 20 in the House of Delegates. The Maryland gubernatorial hopeful – who lives in Takoma Park, the infamous trapezoid of leftwing activism (and home to Montgomery County’s county executive and a few councilmembers) – was onetime considered “the most liberal Democrat” in the General Assembly, political observers like to tell.
Over time, though, Franchot’s rather-public political evolution into a “fiscal moderate,” as he calls himself (and a “social progressive”) is the leading cause of heartburn amid some inflexible progressives who feel that Franchot no longer meets the liberal litmus test.
Legislative District 18 is one of Maryland’s most progressive districts. Many of the district’s Democratic activists are part of Montgomery County’s elite insider club – woke partisans, engaged citizens and savvy political operators – who have little tolerance for political moderation – and especially Republicans.
While Franchot was met with respect and greeted cordially by the Club’s leaders, the temperature of the room palpably dropped when the comptroller answered questions and spoke transparently about his position on issues ranging from the need for private-sector growth, the Board of Public Works, Kirwan spending, the I-270/495 beltway widening project, schools beginning after Labor Day, recreational cannabis legalization, and his friendly relationship with Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.
Fielding questions, one activist expressed her concern directly with Franchot over his push for Hogan to sign an executive order that effectively ordered all Maryland counties to begin school after Labor Day.
“You bypassed the legislature in favor of an executive order. How do we know you won’t do that again?” the activist inquired.
Unruffled, Franchot said he did indeed ask Hogan to publish an executive order to move school start times after Labor Day. He pointed out that the move is popular among teachers and parents who stand in support of “letting summer be summer.”
“No, they don’t!” snapped a Democratic activist, who was seated near Franchot.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Franchot shot back.
The same Democratic woman later took umbrage with the perception that Franchot approaches education policy through the lens of spending rather than investing in public school students.
Arguably the biggest conundrum facing state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session is the pricetag for reforming education.
The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – the Kirwan Commission – has called for a $4-billion overhaul of Maryland’s public schools in a series of education recommendations, an effort that Hogan has called “pie in the sky” and a tax hike on all Marylanders.
Even so, District 18 activists barely broached Kirwan with Franchot, whose duties include operating as the state’s chief fiscal officer and tax collector. Not a single question was raised about how state lawmakers intend to raise the money to pay for Kirwan, or what burden taxpayers will incur.
Montgomery County education activist Laura Stewart only briefly mentioned the Kirwan Commission in a question posed to Franchot. Later, Franchot lamented Baltimore-area schools for lacking adequate heating and cooling systems, causing students to have to wear jackets in classrooms because of recent artic-like temperatures.
Stewart shot back, interrupting Franchot, “That happens here, too,” referring to Montgomery County
“We have to fix it!” Franchot said, emphatically.
Franchot highlighted his push to reform Maryland’s craft beer industry, which lessens regulations and restrictions on Maryland craft brewers, who Franchot points to as spurring millions of dollars in economic activity that is beneficial to the state’s economy.
His pollster regularly communicates with him, he said, grinning, pointing out that he is a “rockstar among young Democratic and Republican voters,” namely over his Reform on Tap initiative – a policy agenda set forth by the comptroller’s office to modernize Maryland’s beer laws and promote economic growth across the state.
The Reform on Tap initiative was yet another opportunity for Franchot to do battle with the so-called “Annapolis political machine” and its “political bosses,” a political do-si-do that the soon-to-be 72-year-old Army veteran relishes and basks in. He’s carved out a political brand, for sure, one as a machine-busting disrupter, a seasoned outsider, unafraid and undaunted in taking on the political powers that be.
But for some Democrats who were quietly seated at the diner that morning, Franchot’s self-touted popularity was bordering on a superfluous refrain.
“Yeah, we know you’re popular,” quipped Maggie Fox from the back of the room as Franchot annunciated his personal appeal amid voters statewide and the popularity of the Reform on Tap initiative and schools beginning after Labor Day.
Fox, who is a writer and a journalist, said she came to hear Franchot speak and “wanted to see if he was listening.”
“I get the impression of arrogance,” Fox told A Miner Detail. “He is proud of the fact that he bypassed the legislature and colluded with Governor Hogan.” She said that while she has not picked a 2022 gubernatorial candidate, based on what she heard Wednesday from Franchot, she is checking him off her list.
“I don’t plan to vote for him if he runs for governor,” Fox shared.
Over the summer Franchot announced that he is “strongly considering running for governor in 2022. A Democrat, Franchot will seek the Democratic nomination of his party.
Although on Wednesday, a District 18 Democratic voter questioned whether Franchot would actually run for governor as a Democrat given his moderate positions and his close, working relationship with the Republican Hogan.
Dismissing the notion that a Democrat like himself could not have a working relationship and a friendship, no less, with a Republican, Franchot told the restless crowd of Democratic partisans that he always tries to do his best for the public.
“I am a reformer. I am open to any idea. I happen to be open to commonsense Republican ideas,” he said.
It was last summer when Franchot announced that he would remain neutral in the gubernatorial contest, declining to endorse his party’s nominee, former NAACP chief Benjamin T. Jealous, a move that angered some progressives. Franchot cited the need to “get along with whoever is elected” as his reason for keeping mum.
“Democrats and Republicans want politicians from opposite parties to having working relationships,” Franchot shared, which drew a mixed reaction from some. “I’m interested in addition, not subtraction.”
At the conclusion of the breakfast, Franchot did the most Franchot thing he could do: He surveyed the room, searching for potential recipients of his black and gold medallions, a distinct honor reserved for people who have performed some type of meritorious service.
Franchot asked if there were any veterans in the room. There was one – a man. Franchot presented him with a medallion.
Franchot perused the all-American classic breakfast joint upon exit, looking to grab the ear of other breakfast goers who didn’t show up for politics.
“Hi! I’m Peter Franchot. I’m your state comptroller,” he said to a group of men seated at the countertop. He stopped to chat with an elderly man wearing an Army ballcap; he was enjoying a hearty plate of bacon and eggs.
Franchot leaned into the man and presented him with his comptroller’s medallion, thanking him for his military service before heading out the door.