Comptroller Peter Franchot holds a press conference in opposition to SB 703 and HB 1052 which removes the regulation of alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel from the Comptroller's Office. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
The highest vote-getter ever for a state office, Comptroller Peter Franchot may be the most popular and successful Democrat in Maryland politics. But after repeatedly bashing fellow top Democrats for years with criticism they view as bombastic and unfair, he is a man with increasingly few allies in Annapolis.
On the opening day of this year’s legislative session in January, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller mocked Franchot from the dais, implying he is a closeted Republican. Recently, when Franchot tried to introduce what he considers an important bill, he said legislative leaders in the 188-member General Assembly refused to file it for him.
Now, members of his own party are moving to strip Franchot of one of the functions he’s most proud of — his authority over a team of officers who enforce state regulations on alcohol and tobacco sales. And the risk of losing that power is real: the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill to move the enforcement to a new commission.
The lawmakers pushing the bill say they’re acting to preserve good government. They argue Franchot has become too politically active in the alcohol industry — holding fundraisers at breweries and accepting donations from those he oversees, all while being responsible for enforcing alcohol laws.
An ongoing dispute over regulating the alcohol industry in Maryland bubbling up, with the state’s comptroller and lawmakers offering dueling views of a bill that would change how liquor laws are enforced. Maryland is one of three states that has an elected official overseeing alcohol enforcement.
Franchot fires back that the move to take away his investigators would cost taxpayers millions. And, he asserts, it’s payback from Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch for his push for legislation to help local craft brewers ahead of what he derides as “out-of-state beer cartels.”
Representatives for Busch and Miller declined to comment.
Franchot’s war with the legislature has simmered for a long time — dating back at least to a 2007 fight with Miller over legalizing slots in Maryland. Since then, lawmakers have repeatedly moved to weaken Franchot’s office after he opposed them on issues ranging from slots to air conditioning in schools. It’s now starting to impact how state government is run.
Franchot then joined a so-called “Take A Hike, Mike” rally to call on Miller to step down. And, facing no serious opposition himself in the 2018 general election, Franchot ran a negative TV ad in which he described Miller as a machine “boss” and depicted lawmakers as drone-like “yes men,” marching in lockstep to Miller’s commands.
In November, more than 1.6 million Marylanders cast ballots for Franchot — he often quotes the figure of 1,620,264 — a record for any candidate in a gubernatorial year. He was re-elected to a four-year term, at a salary of $149,000 a year.
“I blow right by any of the insults and sarcastic comments,” Franchot said of his rivals in a recent interview. “I happen to view the Democratic Party as a split party. It’s not split between liberals and conservatives. It’s split between insiders here in Annapolis and outsiders. I represent the voice of the outsiders.”
When lawmakers returned in January for the 2019 General Assembly session, the battle was joined again.
Within weeks, Democratic leadership introduced legislation to strip the comptroller of enforcement powers over alcohol and tobacco. Franchot, in response, called news conferences to accuse his legislative rivals of being in the pockets of “unelected lobbyists” who he said dictate beer policy in favor of mass-production brewers and against small Maryland firms.
Franchot has called on Busch to fire his campaign treasurer, whom the comptroller called “the biggest Budweiser distributor in Anne Arundel County.”
The treasurer, Neal Katcef, CEO of beer distributor Katcef Brothers, said he’s been friends with Busch since they were kids.
“The speaker has never made a decision because of our friendship, he never would do so, and I would never ask that of him,” Katcef said in a statement.
He said his company distributes Budweiser and craft beers.
And Franchot accused state Sen. Ben Kramer — a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsor of the bill to move enforcement from Franchot — of having “alcohol payments put into his pocket each month.” Kramer co-owns commercial properties, including one that leases space to a Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control store.
Top Democrats have returned fire.
Kramer recently said during a hearing in Annapolis that Franchot has “abused the power and the authority” of his office to “extort” money from entities he regulates. The senator accused the comptroller of using “Bernie Madoff-like aplomb” to manipulate the different segments of the alcohol industry.
In a politically-tinged power struggle with the governor and state comptroller, the General Assembly reversed Gov. Larry's Hogan veto Thursday. With the veto overridden, the Board of Public Works will no longer get final say in school construction decisions.
In response, Franchot filed an ethics complaint against Kramer, according to the comptroller’s chief of staff Len Foxwell.
“Senator Kramer’s comments were disgraceful. They go far beyond the boundaries of acceptable legislative or political discourse,” Foxwell said.
At the center of the sniping is the legislation to establish an Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. It would replace Franchot by July 2020 in overseeing his Field Enforcement Division, which has about 60 staffers and investigates violations of state regulations pertaining to tobacco and alcohol sales, among other duties. The proposed commission would be appointed by the governor.
Franchot alleges the change would cost taxpayers nearly $50 million over the next five years, citing a report by the state Bureau of Revenue Estimates. But an analysis by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services found that it would cost $4 million in the first year to establish the commission and move the field investigators. After that, the state would face about $700,000 each year in increased expenses.
Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, called Franchot’s personal attacks inappropriate. Davis said he declined to submit a bill for Franchot aimed at boosting craft brewers in Maryland because of the way the comptroller acts.
“All these slights real and imagined, it’s getting old,” Davis said. “He literally accused the members of the legislature of being on the take. It’s dangerous and reckless when you have someone in statewide elected position making unsubstantiated charges.”
The animosity has left some observers of state politics with a feeling of distaste.
“It’s embarrassing to see this degree of back-and-forth from people who are in the same party,” said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. “It keeps getting worse and neither side wants to back down. The assembly may think if they slap him down, maybe he’ll shut up. I think they’re going to find it has the opposite effect.”
John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, said Franchot appears to be relishing the fight.
“After the election, I think he would have handed out the olive branch,” Dedie said. “Instead, he handed out poison ivy.”
Franchot still has some colleagues he can work with in Annapolis. He supported insurgent candidates in 2018 who he sees as “outsiders” like himself — such as Sens. Mary Washington and Cory McCray of Baltimore — who upset long-tenured allies of Miller.
State Sen. William Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the veterans caucus, said he considers the comptroller a friend.
“He’s definitely an anomalous figure,” Smith said. “He represented Takoma Park and he was an extremely progressive liberal delegate. He’s since broadened his appeal and moderated his politics. People on the Eastern Shore love him. People in Baltimore County love him. There aren't many like him in Maryland politics.”
And as much as Democrats grumble about him, no one dared challenge him in the 2018 primary.
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Still, Dedie said he sees little to gain — and much to lose — in the short term from Franchot’s approach to dealing with fellow top Democrats. He warned members of the assembly could keep stripping Franchot’s powers until he has nothing left to do but collect state income taxes.
At a recent Board of Public Works meeting, Franchot got some support from his ally across the aisle as he continued his multi-day verbal attack on lawmakers in the General Assembly.
Hogan called the legislature’s move to remove investigators from Franchot’s office “petty” and said it was a “personal attack.”
But Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat, pushed back.
“I don’t think calling people’s motives into question really helps the discussion,” Kopp said.