With Sights on First Statewide Role, Franchot Isn't Taking Any Chances

By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006; B06

Del. Peter Franchot, the Democratic nominee for comptroller of Maryland, paced the deck behind his century-old house in Takoma Park, taking inventory.

Over there, he pointed a few feet away, is a hole in the deck. Splintered wood edges the opening. The garage has a leaky roof, and the house has a wet basement. The list of things in need of repair keeps growing, trumped by campaign expenses and tuition bills in the Franchot household budget.

"We said we had to defer the deck and the garage," Franchot said. The equity in the house they've lived in for 20 years helped finance a $750,000 loan to the campaign.

Standing in his back yard last week, a month after his victory in the primary election over legendary Maryland politician and incumbent Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Franchot drew a broad analogy about managing money -- a key piece of the state post he's seeking.

"At the state level, you do the maintenance and the preservation," said Franchot, 58, a lawyer who has represented the 20th District in Montgomery County since 1986. "You want to fix the garage. You want to fix the potholes. You want to invest in your infrastructure before it crumbles."

After two decades in the General Assembly advocating for liberal causes, Franchot is poised to move into a statewide role with oversight of tax collection and a voice in Maryland's largest contracts.

A Baltimore Sun poll late last month showed Franchot with a 2 to 1 lead over the Republican candidate, Anne M. McCarthy, who resigned as dean of the University of Baltimore business school to run for office.

But Franchot said he isn't taking any chances. Since his unexpected primary victory, Franchot has created ad hoc councils to advise him on fiscal management and economic development. He has traveled across the state and campaigned heavily in Western Maryland in hopes of taking that region in the general election Nov. 7.

At every campaign appearance in the month since beating Schaefer and the other Democratic challenger, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, he has worn the same yellow tie, a gift from his wife that has become his "new lucky tie."

"He always wears it, and on the weekends he always wears khaki pants," said his wife, Anne Maher, who also is a lawyer.

"And I always tie my right shoe first, before my left shoe," added Franchot, a former coach of youth hockey and soccer.

Such habits, said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), are "a real hockey thing.

"With hockey, if you're on a winning streak, you use the same stick. It's a tradition. And hockey and politics, they're both contact sports. And Peter has experience in both."

As a lawmaker, Franchot has sponsored bills to limit the sale of handguns, to protect environmentally sensitive land and to create the intercounty connector, which he says is critical to the state's success as a business community and a good place to live. He said he is most proud of sponsoring the bill that resulted in retroactive reimbursements of advance mortgage payments to about 700,000 homeowners in Maryland in 2000.

Although he grew up in relative affluence, Franchot has found his political allies in the working class. Labor unions have been longtime supporters because he has worked to improve health care and protect pensions for working people, said Merle Cuttitta, president of Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union. The 10,000-member Local 500, along with several other labor unions with large memberships, endorsed him in the primary elections.

"They were all on the same page with Peter Franchot," Cuttitta said. "That's not an easy feat. . . . What matters is he has spent his whole career in service of the public and doing what's best for them."

The arc of Franchot's life includes dropping out of Amherst College to join the presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, which led to Franchot's being drafted in the Army in 1968 for two years of duty at Fort Hood, Tex. The Army was Franchot's "school of hard knocks," he said. He was supposed to have been trained as a forward artillery observer, but his superiors made him a clerk because he had more education than many soldiers.

"I was a college kid, and I was quickly brought down to earth by the sergeants," Franchot said.

He credits the Army, and his mother's example, for helping him develop a sense of empathy for people from different economic backgrounds.

Janet Howell, Franchot's mother, said she remembers "Petey," the middle of three sons, as the one who looked out for his brothers. "I always just thought of him as being sort of a caretaker," said Howell, 84, who lives in Highlands, N.C.

He now works as a business development consultant specializing in not-for-profit health care for Cassidy & Associates, a lobbying firm in the District.

Parked outside his Takoma Park home one day last week was the red Volvo he gave his daughter Abigail, 25, who is attending Columbia University's graduate business school. His son, Nicholas, 22, is a student at Yale University majoring in political science.

On days when he is not campaigning, he is usually at home making fundraising phone calls and trying to generate votes from the perch in his favorite chair, his yellow Labrador, Cody, curled up on the floor next to him.

He said he has formed long-lasting friendships with fellow legislators in Annapolis, but when the workday is over in the General Assembly, he says he does not linger. "I've never spent a single evening in Annapolis," Franchot said. "I'm not part of the inner circle."

After two decades in elected office, he still gets asked his name. He'll shake someone's hand at a campaign event, he said, only to be asked how to pronounce Franchot (with a long "o").

Over the years, that name has worked to his advantage. His first election in 1986 featured 11 candidates vying for three seats in the House of Delegates. "Nobody knew me," he said.

A distant cousin, Franchot Tone, had been a famous actor in Hollywood who had married Joan Crawford and starred with Clark Gable in the 1935 version of "Mutiny on the Bounty."

"So I called Franchot Tone's son, Pat, who's around my age, and he said, 'I'd love to help you, but I'm a Republican,' " the candidate recalled. "I said, 'Pat, come on, this is family.' "

A new brochure went out, a still photograph of Tone and Crawford on the cover, a letter from the son of Franchot Tone on the inside. Finally, people began to recognize the candidate from Takoma Park, Franchot said.

Since winning the primary in September, more people know him than at any point in his career, Franchot said.

"Now it's completely different," Franchot said. "Instead of two out of 20 of my phone calls being answered, now it's 18 out of 20."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company