By DAVID J. SILVERMAN, Capital News Service
SILVER SPRING, Md. - To his friends and supporters, comptroller-elect Peter V.R. Franchot's rise from statewide political obscurity to defeat Maryland's most recognizable political figure in September's Democratic primary was one of the most underappreciated stories of the year.
Franchot, 58, took on the cantankerous incumbent William Donald Schaefer, and with a little help from a third contender, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, brought down the man who through his own impolitic behavior had overstayed his welcome.
Even on the night of the Democratic primary, Franchot recalls watching the election returns flashing up on the television and realizing his name at first was not listed with the other two candidates.
"It was Schaefer X amount, Owens Y amount," he recalled to a packed room of supporters who gathered Tuesday night to celebrate his victory over Republican Anne McCarthy. "I remember turning to [his wife] Anne and saying, 'Is it possible that no one voted for me?"
It's the fitting image of an underdog for the 58-year-old father of two who says he's determined to prevent the state's vulnerable from slipping through the cracks.
Franchot, 58, will bring to the job 20 years of experience in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he has served on the Appropriations Committee. He recently chaired the subcommittee on transportation and the environment.
A graduate of Amherst College and the Northeastern University School of Law, Franchot says his parents always told him that no matter what he did in life, it was important to give back more than he received.
"I always side with the underdog, the little fellas," he said, vowing to continue to aid "the people in our society who need help from government to be able to thrive and have a good quality of life."
Franchot will get that opportunity as comptroller, the state's chief tax collector. He will serve on the powerful Board of Public Works, a three-member panel that reviews and approves state contracts and projects totaling many millions of dollars.
In that capacity, he says he will be an independent voice in the mold of former comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. He also invokes the name of the man he defeated.
"I'm going to be a fiscal watchdog in the William Donald Schaefer tradition," he said of the departing 85-year-old Schaefer, who served for eight years. "I'm going to look at every dollar and say, 'This is the taxpayer's dollar and we have to treat it as a sacred dollar.'"
He says he will apply a "Maryland values test" to every vote he casts. The values include improving education, cleaning the environment and Chesapeake Bay, making Maryland more mobile with better mass transit, improving safety and making Maryland more competitive.
Among the proposals that do not meet his litmus test are slot machines, of which he has been an outspoken critic in the legislature.
"As long as I'm comptroller, I will fight until the last dog dies to keep slot machines out of the state of Maryland," he said during his speech Tuesday night.
This could put him at odds with Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley. Although O'Malley opposes casino gambling, he favors a limited number of slots at racetracks and has expressed his desire to solve the contentious issue.
Franchot also vowed that no public parks will be sold to private developers, an apparent knock on Ehrlich, whom Democrats accused of attempting to sell off parkland to a well connected developer.
Although he promises to be independent, he also pledges to uphold the "progressive" outlook for which he says he has earned a reputation in the legislature. Some of his chief supporters throughout the campaign have been labor unions.
"I'm proud to be a labor Democrat," he said. "That's code for meaning I'm a progressive Democrat and I support working families."
But such outspokenness has made him a target of Republican attacks. After Franchot shocked the state with his victory, Ehrlich caricatured him as an extreme liberal and said he would "do everything I can" to prevent him from winning election.
"Peter lives on an island," Ehrlich said at a Republican dinner in late September. "Chances are, no one in this room will ever visit that island."
Franchot says the accusations were absurd, and pointed to an endorsement he secured in August from The Washington Post praising his credentials as an independent. Franchot won almost 60 percent of the vote in Tuesday's general election.
During the primary, Franchot billed himself as the only true Democrat in the field. Franchot also had the good fortune of staying above the fray as Owens had to spend much of her time responding to Schaefer's attacks, which included calling her "Mother Hubbard" and suggesting she was getting fat.
Franchot said the distractions helped his campaign by highlighting his emphasis on the issues. Recapitulating the primary race during his victory speech Tuesday night, Franchot paused while explaining the Mother Hubbard episode to deliver an off-the-cuff comment: "Thank you dear lord."