By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 2, 2007) - Less than a year into his tenure, and staring down the job of collecting billions in newly approved taxes, Comptroller Peter Franchot said he is happy in his job and hopes to finish his political career in his current office.
"As long as the people will have me, I'm happy to serve," Franchot said this week, tapping a wooden table for emphasis. "I come to work each day with a big smile on my face."
But other Democrats may not be smiling.
Franchot has sparred often with the party, most recently during the special legislative session. The comptroller criticized Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to call the session and the Democrat-controlled legislature's approval of an O'Malley plan to bridge a $1.7 billion shortfall.
Gazette newspapers columnist Blair Lee said Franchot had a choice after his narrow victory in the Democratic primary last year: Join the existing Democratic power structure that includes O'Malley or choose a more independent path.
Franchot chose the latter and "that responds to what he is to begin with," Lee said. "Peter's always been a bit of a maverick."
Franchot agrees that he would probably be at the top of the Christmas card list of Democrats like O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, if he always followed the party line.
"It's only when I disagree with them that they have a problem," Franchot said. "But I'm not a robot."
Despite what he says now about retiring as comptroller, Franchot's maverick streak is one reason that some political observers believe he may one day be interested in running for governor or U.S. Senate.
Franchot "is an ambitious politician who's not going to limit himself," said Allan Lichtman, an American University professor. "He wants to go as high as he can go. What politician doesn't?"
Franchot's comments about retiring as comptroller are "pretty standard rhetoric," said Richard Vatz, a communications professor at Towson University. "There's never an advantage in saying you" would consider higher office.
Lee said he was not sure whether Franchot will seek a promotion any time soon. He believes Franchot's main goal is to position himself as the head of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
That strategy means Franchot will almost certainly get a primary opponent in his 2010 re-election, Lee said.
"But that was probably going to happen anyway," Lee said, noting Franchot only got 36 percent of the vote in last year's primary against former governor and then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and then-Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens.
Franchot started that race as a longshot, with most attention centered on Owens and Schaefer. Lichtman said Franchot's come-from-behind victory should give him added confidence in future races.
A spokeswoman for O'Malley did not directly comment on Franchot's political future. But Christine Hansen did reference a recent Baltimore Sun column by C. Fraser Smith pushing the rumor that Franchot and Attorney General Doug Gansler might face each other in a race for governor someday.
Lichtman said Franchot has plenty of time to bolster his standing before he faces voters again.
If Franchot, a vocal slots opponent, "can spearhead the campaign against slots, which everyone is assuming will pass, and defeat it, that will be an extraordinary thing," Lichtman said.
"There's an eternity before the next election," he said.