Comptroller for Life
...Or Is It Someone Else’s Year?
It's been decades since a race for state comptroller was competitive. With eight candidates vying for the office (three Democrats, four Republicans, and the Green Party's Bob Auerbach), this year's contest looks contentious--if not downright confusing. But it's more complicated even than that. One of the Republicans, Stephen N. Abrams, is running just in case the incumbent Democrat, William Donald Schaefer, loses the primary. And one of the other Democrats has been accused (and denies) serving almost the same function--as a way to keep Willie Don in power.
Schaefer, of course, is legendary. The 84-year-old former mayor of Baltimore who oversaw the city's renaissance, the plain-spoken, "do it now" governor for eight years, Schaefer's can-do governing experience is overshadowed only by his political skill. His allies, protégés, and agents roost throughout the state bureaucracy, from the Port Administration to the Department of Transportation to Gov. Robert Ehrlich's cabinet. His power to quietly punish adversaries seems undiminished despite, or even because of, his penchant for saying and doing things so outrageous that a few mainstream politicians have begun to openly speculate (as City Paper first did in campaign coverage four years ago) that he is bonkers.
"Seniors sometimes can pick up very clearly when some of their fellow seniors are starting to lose some of their capacities," former governor Parris Glendening told The Sun in July. "That may be well what we're seeing."
But none of Schaefer's opponents will say that much. Peter Franchot, the five-term state delegate from Takoma Park, comes closest--he harps on Schaefer's "controversy." But while he attacks Schaefer's racial insensitivity, Franchot is also the only candidate--Democrat or Republican--who also says the comptroller hasn't done a good job in office. He zeros in on the Board of Revenue Estimates, which tells the governor and the legislature whether the state budget is balanced.
"In fiscal 2005 they were off by a billion dollars," Franchot says. "A mistake of that magnitude would get any private [chief financial officer] fired."
The error caused painful budget cuts and fee increases, Franchot says. He pledges to do better.
The comptroller collects taxes. He (or she, though the post has always been held by a man) watches the budget, enforces the law against tax cheats, and chairs the board overseeing the state's $34.4 billion pension fund. It is, on its face, not high drama. "Someone said I should debate William Donald Schaefer," says Republican hopeful Anne M. McCarthy. "But can you imagine a debate about tax collection? It would be such a snooze."
But the comptroller's other job, twice a month, is to be the third vote on the Board of Public Works, voting with the governor and treasurer on almost every state contract worth more than $200,000.
Famously (or infamously), Schaefer has allied himself with Ehrlich, a Republican, on the board. The result, Franchot says, is that legislative initiatives--early voting, for instance--have been stymied. "I'm saying to people, the Board of Public Works, under Bob Ehrlich and Don Schaefer has become a two-member mini-legislature," Franchot says.
Schaefer is the only candidate who did not consent to an interview. A campaign aide said he would see if the comptroller was available but did not get back to City Paper; e-mails and calls to his state office were not returned before press time.
Schaefer's extensive campaign web site emphasizes his "integrity," "experience," and "independence," and includes a nearly seven-minute video depicting his 50-year career to such tunes as "The Way We Were" and "I Gotta Be Me." He cites his accomplishments overseeing the Board of Revenue Estimates, improving online services, and getting nearly $200 million in corporate taxes paid by closing a commonly used "Delaware loophole."
That's good enough for Stephen Abrams, a former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, current Montgomery County Board of Education member, and chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee. Abrams is not so much running for comptroller as jogging. Or maybe walking. "My race is not a race against William Donald Schaefer," Abrams says. "My race is just to be there in the event that there is an open seat"--meaning, if Schaefer loses the primary election to one of his two Democratic rivals.
Abrams says he has the financial chops to do the job--he's a graduate of the Wharton business school and president of Eagle Management Partners, a venture capital firm. But should Schaefer prevail in the Democratic primary, Abrams says, "you're going to see the nicest campaign you've ever seen in Maryland."
Montgomery County money manager Mark M. Spradley, on the other hand, wants to use the "bully pulpit" of the comptroller's office to "promote financial literacy," use the state pension fund to underwrite no-down-payment mortgages for state teachers and "first responders," and use creative financing to "accelerate cash flow" into state coffers. "Why does the state of Maryland own Camden Yards?" he asks rhetorically. "Why not . . . sell that privately."
Republican Spradley maintains that selling partial ownership (but not a controlling interest) in moneymaking state assets could bring millions into the state treasury while doing nothing to interfere with state services or the assets themselves (even though stadiums are generally money losers for state taxpayers). Such deals, should they be done, would also mean hefty additional fees for the financial services industry, but Spradley prefers to dwell on the possibilities for ordinary people.
"I want to encourage families to save and invest," he says. "So, give third-graders who are at or above reading proficiency each a $100 savings plan with the Maryland College Savings Plan. Then that child gets a statement every month," and the parents are put on notice to contribute to their child's college education fund early and often.
Spradley, 52, has worked for Legg Mason, Paine Webber, and UBS, and now is an executive vice president of a private equity fund called Mazao Capital. Though he has never held elected office, he ran for state Senate in 1998 and says he worked in public relations for 12 years, "where I had a chance to work on a lot of campaigns" in the 1980s and '90s. He says he also served as political director for the National Black Republican Council, an auxiliary of the Republican National Committee formed to reach out to African-Americans.
Anne McCarthy is a political newcomer, though she claims a political pedigree as the niece of Ed Derwinski, a longtime Illinois congressman and the first secretary of veterans affairs, serving under George H.W. Bush.
"I think it fits very well with my background," McCarthy says of her run for comptroller on the Republican line. "I grew up in a political family. I believe in the power of government to do good things." Number one on her to-do list if elected is "tax relief." McCarthy says she would like to see the state create "tax policies that encourage small to medium-size business growth and small-business formation."
Until June the dean of the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore, McCarthy, 47, has had a varied career. She was a small-time Hartford, Conn., developer in the 1980s, traveled to Colorado State University to start the Center for Entrepreneurial and Family Enterprises in 1999, and was hired by UB in 2002 to do something similar here.
McCarthy, who says she's raised only "$5,000 or $10,000" for her campaign so far, laments Abrams' decision to run hard only if Schaefer loses his own primary. "I think it's unfortunate," she says. "I think the governor has demonstrated that Maryland can be a two-party state. In order to be a viable party, Republicans need to develop their bench strength."
On the other hand: "There's not much to criticize on Mr. Schaefer," McCarthy says. "He's been a loyal and dedicated public servant."
Republican Gene Zarwell, who lost to Schaefer but garnered more than 30 percent of the vote in the 2002 general election for state comptroller, spends a 40-minute interview talking about almost everything except what he'd do differently if he wins the election.
"Number one," he says, "the current comptroller is not really a comptroller, he's a second governor."
Zarwell expounds about a complicated legal battle he is apparently fighting against Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., his claimed role as "CEO or CFO" in "about 15 companies around the world," his introduction of computers to Russia in 1990, his dispute with the U.S. military (he claims to be a retired colonel but also the victim of identity theft by another colonel who "stole my résumé"), and abortion. Of Schaefer, Zarwell says, "he's a good guy, I've known him for years."
Zarwell has run for office many times, most recently for U.S. Senate in 2004, when he lost the Republican primary to state Sen. E.J. Pipkin. He says he's raised no money for his campaign, and makes a statement that brings to mind some of the incumbent's musings: "I just want to be on the ballot and get people to think," Zarwell says. "I want to get to the base causes of the problems we're in. Abortion? No--what I tell little girls is keep your knees together until you're married for crying out loud."
While the Republicans mostly demur and pay homage to Schaefer, the incumbent faces two well-seasoned challengers in the Democratic primary. Franchot, with a long list of key endorsements and a growing campaign war chest, attacks from the left while Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens has staked her claim to the middle ground
"I think I have a very real chance of winning," the two-term county executive says. She dismisses the criticism by some Democrats that she entered the race in order to spoil Franchot's chance of beating Schaefer. "If you've ever run for office," she says, "you know you don't do this to yourself or your family" just to let someone else win. Owens, 62, who is limited to two terms as county executive, says she began contemplating a run for comptroller three years ago.
Franchot counters that Owens, like Schaefer (and Ehrlich), supports slot machines and repeats a rumor that Owens was on Ehrlich's short list for a running mate this year. "She got in very abruptly in May, just when the poll results came out [showing Schaefer's popularity cratering], and she had said repeatedly over the years that she would never run against William Donald Schaefer," Franchot says.
Owens says nothing of Franchot but contrasts her experience as a county executive with his legislative career. "It's a different mind-set and a different set of skills," Owens says. "I really like running things."
Like Franchot, Owens says if she is elected there will be no more ogling young women (or young men, she promises), no more insulting minorities, no more confusing North Korea with South Korea and refusing to apologize to irritated Korean-Americans--as Schaefer did last month. "I think the Board of Public Works has become a laughingstock," Owens observes. "When you're a public official you need to behave with dignity."
But Owens plans no big changes, should she win office. "My budget people meet with the comptroller's staff on a regular basis," she says. "I think there are just superb people there. I haven't seen any huge holes" in revenue collection.
Franchot harrumphs and reads the most recent poll by The Sun, conducted in mid-July. It showed that none of the Democrats had a lead over any of the others. It also showed, Franchot says, that the once invincible William Donald Schaefer is now, well, vincible.
"Currently seven or eight out of 10 voters are going to go to the polls and say retire this man," Franchot says. "And this is someone who has 100 percent name recognition."
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Baltimore, MD 21201