Monday, January 22, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Democrat Peter Franchot took office yesterday as Maryland’s 33rd comptroller — and he made it clear within moments that he won’t be content to be a behind-the-scenes tax collector.

Mr. Franchot, a 20-year House member from Montgomery County who knocked off former Comptroller William Donald Schaefer last year, said after taking the oath of office that he wants to push for biotechnology jobs and to fight slot-machine gambling.

The ambitious agenda came even though Mr. Franchot no longer has a vote in the legislature or any power to influence state policy except as part of a three-person board that approves state contracts.

Talking about projected future deficits, Mr. Franchot said, “I will continue to argue — and use the power of my office — to oppose any solution that includes the reintroduction of slot machines into our great state. We’ve been down that road before — and, frankly, it was a disaster.”

The speech drew a sharp response from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a fellow Democrat who supports slot machines.

“He’ll quickly learn that his job is a tax collector, not a policy-maker,” Mr. Miller said after Mr. Franchot’s speech. “Slots are going to happen whether he likes it or not. It’s as simple as that.”

The gambling question has been among the most divisive in state politics in recent years. Mr. Miller and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, backed slots, but other Democrats, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, disagreed.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who swore in Mr. Franchot yesterday, has said he supports slots, but doesn’t think they should be a centerpiece of a legislative session.

Mr. Franchot acknowledged his maverick status. Few gave him a shot at preventing a third term for Mr. Schaefer, a former governor, in a three-way primary. After the primary, Mr. Franchot cruised to victory in November over Republican Anne McCarthy.

Mr. Franchot acknowledged that on the night of the September primary, he thought he would lose, but he insisted he would not back down.

“I will be an outspoken advocate for the progressive values for which I’ve always stood,” he said. In Board of Public Works meetings, Mr. Franchot vowed, he will “ask tough and sometimes inconvenient questions.”

Mr. Franchot’s allies said the new comptroller isn’t afraid of a political fight.

“Peter never shied away from challenging the status quo and was seen at times as a renegade,” said Delegate Curt S. Anderson, Baltimore Democrat.

Mr. Franchot is only the third person to hold the comptroller’s office in 50 years, following Mr. Schaefer and longtime comptroller Louis Goldstein. Mr. Franchot pledged to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Schaefer, but he couldn’t avoid being teased a little about his long-shot campaign that got him the job.

Mr. Miller told the crowd gathered for the inauguration that Mr. Franchot told him a year ago that he wanted to challenge Mr. Schaefer.

“I said, ‘It’s going to be a cold day in hell before you’re sworn in as comptroller,’ ” he joked. “I don’t know about hell, but it sure is icy here in Annapolis.”

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