Franchot bet big and won

The Baltimore Sun

You want something big in politics? You have to take big risks. You have to be willing to know that people are laughing at you and avoiding your fundraising calls because they think you're delusional.

This year's exemplar of the implausibly bold would be Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County, who thought he could topple one of Maryland's political icons, William Donald Schaefer - a former two-term governor, savior of Baltimore and comptroller. Dream on, people said.

But there he was Nov. 8, with more than a million votes and one of Maryland's most important offices. As a member of the state's Board of Public Works, he'll have one of three votes on billion-dollar spending projects.

Had there not been entertaining and important races at every point of the horizon, Mr. Franchot's win would have been the story of the year. Maybe it is anyway.

He almost doesn't believe it himself, even now.

"I got a million votes. It's stunning. It's humbling," he said in an interview this week. Humble is not a word many associate with the confident, sharp-tongued delegate from Takoma Park.

Last week, during a trip to Baltimore, he was carrying a copy of the new book about former governor Harry R. Hughes. Mr. Hughes was so far behind in the polls in 1978 that his name is linked with one of the most memorable put-downs of all time in Maryland. A colleague in the state Senate called Mr. Hughes "a ball lost in tall grass." It was true, but Mr. Hughes had the last laugh.

So, of course, did Peter Franchot. People who gave him token campaign contributions are apologizing now for not giving him more. "I wanted to help," one of them said, "but you were at 11 percent in the polls."

Actually, he says, it was 9 percent. And looking like it might fall further when a third candidate entered the race.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens seemed likely to guarantee Mr. Schaefer's re-election by diluting the anti-Schaefer vote, sharing it with Mr. Franchot.

But then Comptroller Schaefer and Ms. Owens fell into a bit of name-calling. Mr. Franchot attained stature by comparison. He was endorsed by The Washington Post and The Sun. His "numbers" - his standing in the polls - began to improve.

He thinks three issues worked for him in the primary: his opposition to slot-machine gambling, his opposition to developers and the resultant sprawl, and his charge that both opponents were close to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

He also credits his usually sunny disposition, which helped him with the voters - and with himself when the going was rough.

"In a campaign," he said, "you have to delude yourself. Otherwise it's a forced march." People like optimism, he said. They like a risk taker. He proved that again by loaning his campaign $750,000 of his own money.

What he wanted to do then and wants to do now, he said, is prove that a progressive politician could be an independent fiscal watchdog. His many years in the General Assembly, many of them on the important Appropriations Committee, give him familiarity with money matters.

He says he won't make major changes in the comptroller's office immediately.

"It'll be the same cake with different icing," he says.

He knows the political fraternity is exulting at the possibility of a clash of egos in Annapolis: Governor-elect Martin O'Malley, Attorney General-elect Douglas F. Gansler and Mr. Franchot - all young, smart and ambitious - are certain to collide, it is said.

"There will be friction," he says, "but I campaigned with Martin O'Malley all over the state. I support him. But I'll have sharp elbows to protect the independence of my office," he said.

He and Mr. O'Malley could collide over slots, but he thinks the issue may end up on the shelf. He calls it an unnecessary distraction from more positive interests such as making Maryland a world center for life sciences.

And his own further ambitions?

"Schaefer said it best: If you take care of people, everything else falls into place."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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