It’s the first of August, and the thermometer is rapidly approaching 100 degrees when Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot arrives to promote a forthcoming week of tax-free shopping.
“So great to be here in Hagerstown. I’ve been here a dozen times since I was first elected,” boasts Maryland’s chief tax collector, now in his fifth year, as he addresses an outdoor press conference at an outlet mall. The ritual is repeated that afternoon in Frederick, as Franchot alternately pops into stores on trendy North Market Street—purchasing a cap embroidered with “Frederick”—and greets passing pedestrians.
As he engages one couple in conversation, he learns that the husband bears the name Tom Johnson. A history buff, Franchot is quick to note that that was the name of Maryland’s first post-Colonial governor: Thomas Johnson, who resided for years just north of Frederick and is buried in the city’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.
“Is that a good omen?” a beaming Franchot asks several companions.
But the former Takoma Park state delegate is more circumspect when questioned later about whether he aspires to the governorship, which will be up for grabs in the November 2014 election. Franchot will turn 67 that year, making it perhaps his last viable shot at the office.
“I really like being comptroller, and a lot of people tell me that I’ve done a good job,” he says. “But in politics, whenever that dynamic exists, people want you to run for higher office. And so a lot of people have mentioned to me that they’d like me to run for governor. We’ll take a look at it. But that’s a long way away.”
Including Thomas Johnson, installed in 1777, 61 men have been selected as governor of Maryland. (So far, women have yet to break through the glass ceiling, though three have been nominated in recent decades.)
The gubernatorial list includes individuals from a large majority of the state’s 23 counties and the city of Baltimore. But not one has been elected to the state’s highest office from a political base in Montgomery County.
Democrat Martin O’Malley, who will leave office after 2014 due to term limits, grew up in Bethesda and Rockville, but moved to Baltimore, where he leveraged election to the city council and the mayoralty into a successful bid for the statehouse.
The closest Montgomery has come to making the list was when acting Gov. Blair Lee III, scion of a local political dynasty, was narrowly defeated in the 1978 Democratic primary. The now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun warned at the time of the “Washingtonianized” ticket of Lee and his running mate, then-state Senate President Steny Hoyer of Prince George’s County (now the U.S. House of Representatives’ minority whip).
Lee’s defeat was attributed more, though, to his service as lieutenant governor in the administration of Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was convicted on corruption charges, even though Lee himself was never implicated in the scandal.
Now, Montgomery County may be poised to leap from political famine to feast—with not one, but two Montgomery-based officials emerging as serious gubernatorial contenders.
While Franchot occasionally permits a peek at his ambitions, Attorney General Doug Gansler, the county’s other equally ambitious elected state officeholder, is being coy.
“It’s so far away right now, and certainly the public does not want a three-year race for governor, attorney general or anything else,” says Gansler, a Bethesda resident and former two-term state’s attorney for Montgomery County. When a Bethesda Magazine writer asked last year if he would run, Gansler responded, “Maybe.”
Gansler can afford to be patient. Thanks in part to an unopposed re-election in 2010, he is sitting on a campaign treasury of nearly $3 million. That puts him ahead, by 6-to-1 or more, of other frequently named Democratic contenders: Franchot, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown of Prince George’s County and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.
And as attorney general, Gansler has been highly visible on issues likely to resonate with Democratic primary voters, ranging from same-sex marriage to environmental protection.
Gansler is more forthcoming about the implications of the 2006 election that brought him and Franchot to statewide power, making them Maryland’s first independently elected officials from Montgomery County since 1919. He characterizes that election as part of an ongoing “seismic change” in the fulcrum of statewide political power.