The Noblest Profession, Peter Franchot, Comptroller of the State of Maryland

This is the one hundred and fifty-first episode of Public Interest Podcast with Peter Franchot, Democratic Comptroller of the State of Maryland, member of the Board of Public Works, former Delegate representing District 20 in Montgomery County, former Capitol Hill staffer, attorney, former Democratic nominee for Congress, former delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008, 2012, 2016, and U.S. Army veteran. Franchot, a self-styled fiscal watchdog and warrior for the public interest, speaks about elected office as a noble profession in which empathy, compromise, and independence are virtues that he hopes will reverberate across society, generating a future generation of public servants.

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PETER FRANCHOT is the Comptroller of the State of Maryland. Peter is also a member of the Board of Public Works. He's a former Democratic delegate representing District 20 in Montgomery County, Maryland, is a former Capitol Hill staffer, an attorney, and a veteran of the United States Army. He's a former delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2003, 2012, and again in 2016, and is also a former Democratic nominee for the United States Congress.

Franchot: I have been a warrior for public interest issues all my life. I think my mother taught me always to stand up the police and in school and I always felt much better when I was sticking up for some of the kids that were not good athletes, so that is the genesis of my altruism that I've carried forward in my public career.

Now that I'm Comptroller I find that every day I am working in the public interest primarily by helping individuals who are in financial situations that are difficult and complicated but also in being available as a state elected official.

Cooper: After college you enlisted in the United States Army, which is associated with more politically conservative individuals, yet you made a career out of serving as a liberal elected official. How did you end up in the Army with such liberal views?

Franchot: Well I actually didn't finish college. I was at Amherst College and halfway through my sophomore year I dropped out to go to New Hampshire to work on the “Clean with Gene” campaign with Gene McCarthy who was running in the 1968 Democratic Primary on an anti-Vietnam War platform.

Ironically, while organizing college campuses against the war for Gene McCarthy, I got a draft notice saying: “Dear Sir, You no longer are protected by your college involvement and you are to report for the draft law,” which was a shock to me.

Cooper: You left college to join a political campaign because of the anti-Vietnam war platform of those campaigns. And by virtue of your civic activism you actually ended up getting embroiled in the war.

Franchot: My parents actually said I was pretty clueless that I didn't realize I was giving up my student deferment but such as it is it actually in retrospect proved to be a tremendous experience. I was drafted for two years. I spent 21 months not 24 months because I was allowed to get out early to return to college. But the Army was a great experience for me not in the sense that I enjoyed it but I was put on a troop train in New York City and sent down to Fort Jackson, South Carolina with the other draftees, who were a different group of people than those with whom I was previously associated in my life.

Cooper: Despite your experience in the Army, you’ve never seemed to use your experience and your status as a veteran to your political advantage as have others, most notably former Lt. Governor Anthony Brown in his 2014 bid for Governor. Why?

Franchot: I didn't have the kind of long-term career that Lt. Governor Anthony Brown had; I was just a very ordinary cog in a very big machine. But I will say that the machine the military proved to be enormously beneficial to me as an individual and I would recommend the military as a terrific stabilizing force for young people who are looking for direction in life.

Cooper: So running off that idea, Peter I'd like to ask your opinion on a matter that you don't have jurisdiction over as a comptroller but that you might have theoretically had jurisdiction over the course of your 20 years representing the People's Republic of Takoma Park in the Maryland House of Delegates.

As you know, many nations in Western Europe and perhaps in other parts of the world have service requirements for their youth. Military conscription is something that's widespread around the world and that clearly led to your experiences in the U.S. Army. My question is do you think that there ought to be either mandatory requirements or guaranteed opportunities for all youth between certain ages to either join the military or perform some other form of civil public service?

Franchot: I generally support that concept. I think it should be mandatory that every young person puts at least a year of their lives towards some constructive public purpose by serving in the military, teaching in a school, or being involved in some other fashion in supporting our infrastructure. And I would like to see veterans included in some leadership capacity. I don't suggest that everybody has to go through boot camp, but I do think it's an opportunity to install some structure, discipline, and to give a sense of purpose to some young people's lives, [which is] particularly important now [since] the economy is changing in front of our eyes [under the influence of] globalization and modernization using technology. [As a result] a lot of jobs are being eliminated, which is causing a tremendous amount of dislocation in the country and around the world. I think that a mandatory one or two year program for young people where they are involved in some kind of public interest activity would give them the chance to learn about the new economy rather than the old one.

Cooper: And the one thing that kids lack when they leave high school or college is professional experience and perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to finding entry-level employment is a lack of professional experience. A mandatory service project will give them the opportunity to do the give back to a state that has given them so much. This service experience will complement a free public education by providing youth with an opportunity to gain real on-the-job experience that will make them more marketable in the new economy.

Franchot: To finance this national effort [taxes could be levied on industries composing the new economy] or it could be some kind of national or state equivalent of war bonds where you ask people to participate.

Cooper: But the key is that such a program would include every person between 18 and 25. That would provide youth with one to two years of skill-building while teaching them how to show up on time for a job and demonstrating what it takes to hold a job in the private sector.

Franchot: I think it's more imperative now because this whole job situation is changing. Driverless cars [may replace] taxi cab drivers and it may be possible for robot [drones] to deliver food at a restaurant. I know it's a little bit far-fetched but we're in the process of replacing people in the workforce with machines. So we have to come up with new jobs and new ways of employing people, especially young people. And so I think you're onto something there with the mandatory service requirement but the jury's still out on how to pay for it, how it's structured, and what exactly a job of the future will look like.

Cooper: So I’d like to transition back to the topic of you being Comptroller. We've just been discussing how to find jobs, gain job experience, and how to pay for it. But once someone has a job, they pay income taxes and the Comptroller collects those revenues. So I'd like to ask you to define the role of the Comptroller?

Franchot: The Comptroller of the State of Maryland is a statewide elected position, which makes it somewhat unique since many other states do not have elected comptrollers; instead most states have appointed budget officers. [The role Comptroller of Maryland] was established in 1851 to oversee the finances of the state. The state was in bankruptcy because the bank and the Treasury made all sorts of unwise investments and so they created in the state constitution the position of comptroller. I'm the chief fiscal officer of the state according to the Constitution. As [Maryland’s] fiscal steward I 1) collect all taxes, 2) process 3.2 million tax returns each year, 3) am heavily involved in issuing tax refunds, and 4) am responsible for fighting tax fraud, which is an emerging problem. Those are the core responsibilities of the office.

I'm additionally a member of the Board of Public Works (BPW) which is an extremely powerful entity in Maryland and is unique in the country as a three person panel that also includes the governor and the state treasurer. [The governor and I] happen to come from different parties. He's a Republican and I'm a Democrat. The Treasurer is elected by the legislature. This panel approves 9-10 billion dollars in state contracts every year. We meet every two weeks and it's an enormous kind of clearing house of taxpayer funding for different contracts.

Cooper: You mentioned that you sit on the BPW and you alluded to the fact that you sit on the Board with the governor and the Treasurer, the Treasurer being Nancy Kopp, a Democrat, alongside you, a Democratic Comptroller, with both of you being joined by Republican Governor Larry Hogan. You previously mentioned that in the House of Delegates you represented a very liberal, progressive, somewhat socialist-leaning constituency in the Takoma Park and Silver Spring area of Montgomery County. Since Governor Hogan was elected in 2014 you and he have come, at least in the public eye, to have quite a personal friendship and furthermore you seem to have forged a successful working relationship together.

Your relationship is especially striking when juxtaposed to the tenuous and slightly acrimonious relationship between the legislature and Governor Hogan and when juxtaposed to your previous stances while a part of the legislature under the previous Republican Governor, Bob Ehrlich. To many it would seem that your views have evolved into more moderate positions. Could you elaborate on the gradual evolution of your political identity and how that occurred within the confines of realpolitik requiring you to work across party lines on the BPW?

Franchot: [As] Comptroller I have some independence from the political machine to which I ordinarily [would] have had allegiance [as a legislator]. [I hold] a statewide [elected] office [and voters] expect someone who [holds this office to be] fiscally moderate and independent of normal political machinations. [That of course comes with caveats;] if you become someone who is harmful to and opposed to your own party's values [then] I suppose you might be subject to defeat in a primary election.

But I follow two truths. One truth that I hold very strongly is that [in elected office I must always be] working in the public interest, as [being] an elected official is a noble profession. And the second truth [that] I follow is that there's nothing wrong with bipartisanship. And so during my tenure as Comptroller I have actively tried to drop the partisanship except when it gets around election time. I have tried to be independent, which I guess is the word that I would use to describe myself.

And since the election of Governor Hogan two years ago, yes, [he and I have] formed a friendship but it's mostly around moderate fiscal policies where we have a strategic partnership on the Board of Public Works. I think it's single-handedly been a relationship that has resulted in the fiscal house of the State of Maryland being put into much better shape. I don't want to take too much credit for doing things on the Board of Public Works, but on things such as state procurement we have significantly reduced single-bidder procurement awards. This is that important because [without this reform] the incumbent vendor [generally wins state contracts], taxpayers [have no sense of whether or not] they're getting a good deal, [and] there's no transparency, there's no competition, and there's no accountability.

So together, Governor Hogan and I significantly cut down on the number of single bidder contracts and that's good for the State of Maryland. Unfortunately it often gets mischaracterized as sleeping with the enemy. [I’ve been focusing on] getting results [that benefit] the people and I think [that] it's [been] well received by the public. [And I’ve been] elected three times and each time I've gotten more votes than anyone else in that election. And I'm now going to be on the ballot again in 2018.

Cooper: I'd like to ask about your work as comptroller where you try to identify and penalize tax cheats, reduce cigarette smuggling, and the illegal sale of alcohol and fuel. As Comptroller, you’re fond of claiming that you're closing corporate tax loopholes and of characterizing yourself as a fiscally responsible, independent fiscal watchdog. However these were not the manner in which you characterized yourself when you campaigned for or worked within the House of Delegates. Given those differences, how has it come to pass that you decided to run for comptroller against the incumbent former Governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer?

Franchot: Well let me be really honest and say that the iconic former Mayor of Baltimore, Governor of Maryland, and two-term Comptroller didn't very much like me running against him and, ironically, I ran against him on a [platform] that I was a real Democrat and that he wasn't because he had gotten so close to President George H.W. Bush and other national Republicans.

I have moved to the center on fiscal issues because of the nature of the job. The expert briefings that I receive on economic issues have caused me to come more in the center on fiscal issues. And have been very well received by the voters not just around the state but frankly also in District 20, my old liberal district, [proving] that it is a myth that liberal Democrats are somehow not concerned about fiscal matters; they are and they're very concerned about their own budgets, their own small businesses, and about fiscal matters in politics. [However] the state Democratic Party does not focus on [fiscal responsibility] and instead focus on issues that are very important like discrimination and gun control, which are issues that I've worked on, but those are more cultural issues than they are economic issues. And so that's the reason that I've moved to the center on fiscal issues but I remain an absolutely rock solid Democrat my entire life.

Cooper: I'd like to ask you a final question Peter, which is to speak to the taxpayers of the State of Maryland and explain why being a politician is a noble profession. Elaborate upon how you have managed to become independent, act in accordance with what you believe is in the best interest of the public, and why you've been motivated to serve the public interest for the past three decades.

Franchot: Well I enjoy the opportunity to make a difference. And I'm very honored and very privileged to have been the comptroller for the last 10 years. It's a large statewide office and there are very few of them in Maryland. [Being comptroller] gives me an opportunity to do the right thing for people and I'm grateful to the voters for letting me do that.

Recently we helped an elderly woman in western Maryland who we found had fallen way behind on her taxes and she owed quite a sum of money in back taxes. We put her on a payment plan, which I believe [came out to] five dollars every other week. And my staff came to me and said, “Sir with all due respect, the woman is going to have to live to be 142 to pay off all of her back taxes.” And I said that's fine. I understand that but we're not here to make her life miserable. She doesn't feel right about falling behind on her taxes but we're not going to [extract] a pound of flesh from her because she didn't have very much money. We're simply going to put her on a payment plan that she can afford. It's that ability to inject myself into situations where the bureaucracy might otherwise be harsher than I would be where I can supply some of the empathy that I value so highly. [Regarding your question about whether] politics is a noble profession, [my answer is] absolutely, and it's harder than you think.

Now what happened recently in politics [with the 2016 Presidential election] is a little troubling to me because the hyper partisans on either side have [taken] control of their [respective] parties. [While] I do not believe that Donald Trump should be President of the United States because he is a reckless, impulsive, volatile, and frankly a dangerous individual, I do not believe that his followers should be punished, confronted, orshouted at by [the Democratic Party].

[Instead] we need to get [Trump] supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters together and have them talk more to each other so that we don't end up having neighbors hating neighbors because of who they support politically. And I am positive that I can play a positive force in urging people to fight the emotions of the day and to try to be rational, level headed, and empathetic. And I've already indicated my opinion that no one should be treated with disdain or hatred simply because they are Republican; we can either support or oppose the President and still interact with your neighbors and friends. I hope to play a calming role [in the current political environment].

Cooper: That has been Peter Franchot, the Comptroller of the State of Maryland who speaks about a noble tradition of public service through elected office or otherwise, from his time on the front lines as a campaigner, as an advocate for environmental issues alongside Ralph Nader, and who speaks about the importance of having empathy for those with whom one differs. He calls for greater civility and respect in the national dialogue as together turn to face the many challenges facing our great nation. Peter is a man who is willing to be pragmatic when it comes to advancing the public interest and he's willing to put aside any sort of reservation he may have with another's approach to the public interest and find compromise because, for Peter, as we've heard before with other interviewees half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. And making sure that everyone gets a fair shake and that we humanize the political process, for example by enabling a woman of limited means to feel like she is responsible and she's being fair and that she's being treated fairly by the state. Peter is someone who seeks to raise the path of public service to something of a noble calling and that is why he touts the benefits of bipartisanship and empathy as he recounts his lifelong path of public service.