The governor of Maryland has long been considered one of the most powerful state chief executives in the country. The pandemic has shown how far that power can reach into the everyday lives of citizens – how we shop, work, play and worship.

Next year, those citizens get to choose Larry Hogan’s replacement. There will be a slew of candidates to choose from, at least for Democrats.

The party primaries are a year away, but the filing deadline is next February. Anyone with a chance to succeed must be getting their act together now.

Comptroller Peter Franchot was unusually early in announcing he would run. No time like the present for a 73-year-old. Hey, he’s five years younger than the president and been in elected office almost as long.

Front runner

Comptroller Peter Franchot

It’s hard to say that Franchot is not the Democratic front runner. He has served four terms, ultimately 16 years, as the state chief financial officer and tax collector, preceded by 20 years in the legislature, mostly on the budget committee. He starts the race with a $2.2 million campaign chest, more than all the other contenders, but will probably need a lot more for the long haul.

For Democrats, he had gotten far too cozy with Republican Hogan. And for some with long memories, there may be lingering doubts about his conversion to being a fiscal conservative after 20 years as a tax-and-spend liberal hot dog representing the People’s Republic of Takoma Park.

On the plus side, as Franchot happily points out, in the 2018 election he got more votes than any other candidate has ever gotten in any Maryland election.

Running against the legislature

Despite his own legislative chops, Franchot has had a deliberately adversarial relationship with the General Assembly and its leaders. He has lambasted them as a corrupt machine and run his last campaign against that machine. He has tangled with the lawmakers against slots and gaming, and for post-Labor Day school starts, craft beer and alcohol regulation, finally being stripped of his authority there.

Now that Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Bush are gone that “machine” has younger and more progressive faces in charge.

In March, Franchot released a list of 112 current and former elected officials who were endorsing him. Only a handful are still in the legislature, meaning most won’t be on the ballot and campaigning next year.

On the other hand, Franchot has persistently cultivated the small business community, handing out awards and shiny medallions in every county. He has spoken to every major and minor business group in Maryland.

What kind of governor?

But what kind of governor would Franchot be? Recently he released an elaborate platform, a hefty list of 14 pledges that leans forward on progressive issues.

Franchot promises to “restore trust in the competence of state government,” continuing his more recent criticism of Hogan’s management. He promises improved mass transit throughout the state, including something like the Red Line in Baltimore that Hogan ditched.

He pledges more accessible broadband, more health care at reduced cost, a zero-carbon footprint with more state-produced renewables, and “100,000 jobs in 100 weeks in industries of the future.”

He promises better educational outcomes, improved school buildings and reduced debt for higher education. But he makes absolutely no mention of the Kirwan commission and its expensive 10-year Blueprint for education reform passed by the legislature over Hogan’s veto.

Paying for the promises

How will he pay for all this? He talks about “savings achieved through the better management of existing state programs” and “innovative solutions to reduce government burden on Marylanders.”

He does not vow “no new taxes,” but that has been his consistent message to the legislature for years.

This sounds fairly magical but Democratic primary voters tend not to punish magical thinking to achieve high-flown aspirations.

All Franchot’s positives could be outweighed by his major flaw – being an old white guy in a Democratic primary where at least a third of the voters are of color.

In 2018, there were nine candidates for governor on the party’s ballot. The two Black men got just shy of 70 percent of the vote. The winner, Ben Jealous, won close to 40 percent of the tally despite having exactly no experience in state or local government or elected office.

The runner up, with close to 30 percent of the vote, was Rushern Baker, a fairly successful Prince George’s County executive and former delegate. Baker is running for governor again. He starts with a strong base in the county he served but suffered last time from a weak campaign.

Three relatively young and definitely ambitious first-term Democratic county executives show no signs of challenging Franchot for the nomination. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski admitted decided to stay put. Prince Gorge’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Howard County’s Calvin Ball seem most likely to seek reelection as well.

Others looking

Former state officials looking at the race include U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, the former lieutenant governor who lost to Hogan in 2014 and who’s been highly critical of his performance, and former attorney general Doug Gansler who got whupped by Brown in the primary that year.

Ashwani Jain, who served in the Obama White House, entered the race in January. John King, former U.S. education secretary and New York commissioner of education, announced in April. There are also Jon Baron, a nonprofit executive, and Mike Rosenbaum, a tech executive from Baltimore.

Never heard of these guys who’ve never run for office before? Exactly.

Franchot would be happy to have a crowded field of decent candidates to run against, particularly with several Black candidates who might split that all important racial vote.

One candidate that might give Franchot trouble is Tom Perez, who is loudly more progressive with lots of impressive experience in government.

Born in the Dominican Republic, he has ethnic appeal, Maryland governing experience and progressive credentials on civil rights and labor, along with strong ties among Democratic Party activists.

Another term for Republicans?

Hey, what about the Republicans? In the 21st century, Maryland has had Republican governors for 12 years, more than they had in 20th century. A lot can happen in the Democratic primary but regardless of the nominee, national prognosticator Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball expects Dems to flip the seat.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, the longtime Columbia resident who has filled in for a governor more than any recent LG, decided he didn’t have the stomach for the race. Current Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, a former labor secretary and Frederick County delegate, stepped up. She is sharp and articulate. Former LG and GOP Party Chair Michael Steele, now a broadcast commentator, is looking at the race, but he is highly visible anti-Trumper, which could be anathema in a Republican primary.

By Len Lazarick | The Business Monthly | June 2021 Issue