ANNAPOLIS (November 05, 2018)—If it were a horse race, the challenger would be considered a longshot.
Nevertheless, in a contest for the Maryland comptroller's seat, a little-known Republican candidate is more than willing to take on the well-established, incumbent Democrat all the way to the finish line.
In a contest for the Maryland comptroller's seat that appears to be an overwhelming mismatch, a little-known challenger is more than willing to take on a well-established incumbent.
The incumbent, Peter V.R. Franchot, will win a fourth term in office if he is re-elected as state comptroller on Tuesday.
Although he often finds himself at loggerheads with many establishment Democrats, he has suffered few political consequences for his estrangement from the status quo.
On the contrary, Franchot earned more statewide votes than any candidate from either party in the 2014 elections.
The only person to step up and challenge him for the comptroller's seat this election cycle is Republican candidate Anjali Reed Phukan, a 40-year-old Montgomery County native who lives in Ocean City, Maryland.
Phukan, a certified public accountant, describes herself as expertly qualified to hold the office because of a career of over 20 years auditing federal and state government agencies and private sector businesses.
"For years, we have elected politicians like Franchot to do a job that should be done by an accountant," Phukan wrote in an email. "Not having an accountant in the position has led to misappropriated local budgets and gross financial mismanagement."
Phukan is referring to Franchot's office misallocating a total of nearly $21.4 million in tax revenues to municipalities in the state between 2010 and 2014.
This is not the first time Phukan has attempted to unseat Franchot. She ran as a write-in candidate for comptroller in 2014 and earned 595 votes.
In 2016, she ran in an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education. She placed second in the race and managed to tally over 100,000 votes.
"Not a bad showing for a candidate with no campaign funding," Phukan recalled.
Phukan is not your typical political figure, to say the least.
She is a self-described drug addict in recovery, who said that "after drugs, graduated from college in 2.5 years with 3.9 GPA, passed the CPA exam and had my MBA before I was 21."
"I believe in loving and praying for the enemy, that this is the solution to world peace and growth, because no one, including me is perfect," Phukan added. "There is solid math behind cooperative politics, in my humble opinion."
Since triumphing over Republican Anne McCarthy for his seat in 2006, Franchot has endured his share of criticism from his fellow Democrats in Annapolis.
The seasoned politician's assertive style can be a challenge for Annapolis lawmakers and municipal officials around the state who are not on his side of an issue.
Franchot often uses the start of meetings of the Board of Public Works—a panel he shares with state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, D, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan—to advocate at length for issues in his sights.
A lack of air conditioning in Baltimore city and county schools have become regular targets of his ire—despite both jurisdictions being under the political control of Democrats. And an effort to push back the start of public schools beyond Labor Day—arguing that more vacationers mean more tax revenues for state coffers—was a success he shared with Hogan in 2016.
Many gripes during his current term, however, have not been about his personality or his effectiveness at the job as the state's tax collector. (The state ended the last fiscal year with a surplus of more than $500 million, according to the budget released by the comptroller's office in August.)
Rather, it has been Franchot's uncommonly close relationship with Hogan that has gotten under the skin of some of the party establishment.
Nevertheless, Franchot did not face a single challenger in this year's primary elections.
So, Phukan stands by herself as the lone opponent in the comptroller's race.
(Here is Phukan's candidacy announcement: youtu.be/71UnwqUpy3E)
On the state's election landscape, Franchot is ubiquitous. His campaign reported an account balance of $1.1 million as of Oct. 26. His healthy financing has allowed his team to effectively promote his achievements on television, radio and print throughout Maryland. His campaign spent just under $387,000 on media and print advertising since Aug. 28.
Franchot's advertisements emphasize his independence from traditional party politics. His latest television spot concludes with the narrator saying, "Peter Franchot, independent Democrat. Unbought. Unbossed. Serving the taxpayers. Protecting our money. Putting Maryland first. Peter Franchot. Because he's your comptroller, not theirs."
(Here is a Franchot TV commercial: youtu.be/rXcf4rAwdtg.)
In vast contrast, the Phukan campaign showed a balance of only $285 in her account in August and filed an affidavit with the board of elections on Oct. 21 stating that "we do not intend to receive contributions or make expenditures in the cumulative amount of $1,000 or more."
Attempts to reach the Maryland Republican Party for comment have been unsuccessful.
Phukan, without the benefit of an advertising budget, has little ability to effectively promote her platform or mount a widespread challenge against Franchot.
But she uses the small pulpit she has to point to campaign donations from Democratic 6th District congressional candidate David Trone to Franchot in 2016 as evidence the comptroller is using his clout to pay back a political connection rather than advocate for Marylanders.
Franchot has been an outspoken supporter of deregulation of alcohol control laws in the state that many believe would benefit retailers like Trone, co-owner of the Total Wine & More retail alcohol chain.
Between 2011 and 2014, Trone's businesses made donations to Franchot and other Democrats' campaigns that exceeded the legal limit of $6,000 per candidate. The umbrella company, Retail Service and Systems Inc., was issued citations by the Maryland State Prosecutor's office in 2016.
The case was settled, and Trone's company admitted no wrongdoing. The Franchot campaign returned the donations.
Supporters of the comptroller reject that his interest in deregulation is motivated by anything other than a desire to promote doing business in Maryland.
"Anybody who knows the Comptroller's history would know that he's been fighting for small businesses all around the state and against the stranglehold of the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board," said Len Foxwell, Franchot's chief of staff, in a telephone interview with Capital News Service. "These reforms have been widely supported by the vast majority of Marylanders. That is who the comptroller works for."
Earlier this year, the Democrat-controlled Maryland Legislature approved a task force to examine whether the comptroller's office "is the most appropriate agency to ensure the safety and welfare of the residents of Maryland."
The deregulation issue is expected to be considered again during the 2019 legislative session, state officials have said.
Even with re-election odds heavily in the incumbent's favor, both candidates say that the Nov. 6 contest is not over until the last vote is counted.
The three-term comptroller only wants what is best for Maryland, Franchot said.
"If I don't succeed I would encourage my opponent, Anjali Phukan, to follow the path that we have already laid out," Franchot told Capital News Service in a telephone interview. "I mean it when I say I want good government. I mean, let's get rid of these political machines."
As for Phukan, she does not lack confidence, even in the face of an uphill climb and minimal support from the governor's office.
"I did not seek the governor's endorsement, out of respect for his friendship with Franchot," remarked Phukan. "Hogan is polite with me when we meet. I believe we can work well together when we are both elected in November."