Ex-Felons Demand Removal of Baltimore City Board of Elections Chair for Voter Suppression

From the Communities United Press Release:

“We have the right to due process!”

Ex-Felons and Members of the Community Demand the Immediate Removal of Sr. Director, Armistead Jones.

Baltimore, Md. – Communities United chapter of Ex-Felons are holding a press conference and rally to call for the immediate dismissal of Sr. Director, Armistead Jones. Under the leadership of Mr. Armistead Jones, the Baltimore City Board of Elections has made a mockery of the voting process, which can be viewed as voter suppression. Numerous errors have occurred under the leadership of Mr. Jones;  enough for him to be called before a special hearing in the Maryland Senate to explain the debacle of the most recent Primary Election. Even at that time, Sr. Director Jones has repeatedly failed the members of his staff, while never taking any personal accountability or ownership of the failings in his role as Sr. Director of the Baltimore Office of the Board of Elections. Mr. Jones’ position of leadership requires that personal accountability for the proper execution of all tasks be solely his. Perry Hopkins, a Field Organizer for Communities United and Ex-Felon states, “Voting is the bedrock of our democracy and as such, we must have absolute faith in the process and be able to rely on those entrusted to handle our votes, accurately count our votes and accurately report the results in an orderly and timely manner.” As a direct result of mismanagement by the current leadership of Sr. Director, Armistead Jones, this was clearly not the case across Baltimore City in the last and most recent Primary Election cycle.

Sr. Director Jones has repeatedly faulted the members of his staff, while never taking any personal accountability or ownership of the failings in his role as the head administrator and Sr. Director of the Baltimore Office of the Board of Elections. Mr. Jones’ position of leadership requires that personal accountability for the proper execution of all tasks be solely his.  Kimberly Haven, an Ex-Felon and advocate stated, “It is our contention, that the actions of Mr. Jones (and his office) not only violated the basic tenet of trust in the execution of our voting process, but in our Democracy as well.”

“I think it’s a personal matter of how he feels. He doesn’t want to look at the Ex-Felons who want to vote, because he’s not concerned about our rights,” says Reginald Smith.

All of the problems listed below, happened on Sr. Director, Armistead Jones’ watch:

1. Several polls did not open or close on time, thereby suppressing the vote, as voters were turned away.

2. Unlawful letters were sent to numerous newly enfranchised Ex-Felon Voters, discouraging them to register to vote, which is an act of voter suppression.

3. There were not sufficient numbers of functionally trained judges to service voters at polling sites.

4. Of his own volition, the Sr. Director certified election results before all votes were accurately counted.

5. Votes and voting ballots were improperly handled and miscounted. Provisional ballots were scanned, over 1000 more votes were erroneously cast than were checked in, and boxes of ballots were missing only to be found at a later date.

6. His current actions have now breached the public trust in the proper and accurate execution of the voting process and his continued tenure also serves as an act of voter suppression.

7. Reasons supporting the termination of Mr. Jones’ tenure clearly outweigh reasons to retain him, as indicated by his recent performance in the service of Baltimore City Voters.

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Kefalas Calls for Pence “to Show that he is accepting of all Americans — including LGBT Americans”

Republican Chrys Kefalas outlines just how extreme Gov. Mike Pence is on LGBT rights in an excellent column in the Washington Post:

During his public career, Pence has been an outspoken opponent of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. In Congress, he opposed efforts to encourage foreign governments to decriminalize homosexuality and sought to block the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As a governor, he stood against not only marriage equality, but civil unions as well. He also opposed a law prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace and signed one opening the door to wide-ranging discrimination against these residents of his own state under the guise of religious liberty.

On their own, such actions would signal that Pence would work to reverse the progress that has been made and stand in the way of efforts to advance the equal dignity and opportunity of all Americans, efforts which so many other Republicans fully support. But it is his past support for, and failure to repudiate, the heinous practice of conversion, or reparative, “therapy” that raises an even more disturbing concern: Pence doesn’t just seem to disagree with advocates for equal rights on issues of law. His record suggests that he personally believes LGBT people are abnormal and unworthy of the equal protection of the law.

As a candidate for Congress, Pence went so far as to endorse a proposal to divert money from a program to help those with HIV/AIDS to organizations “which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Bravely, Kefalas explains why he knows how bad conversion “therapy” can be:

For almost nine months before my 30th birthday, I had the relationships that I most valued questioned and my life demeaned by the use of techniques, including shock therapy, with no basis in science or medicine.

Kefalas is not some liberal bringing the news. Beyond working in the Ehrlich administration and for the National Association of Manufacturers, he just finished a highly credible, if unsuccessful, bid for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. In his own words, he supports the “conservative principles that make America exceptional: free enterprise, personal freedom, equal opportunity and fiscal responsibility.”

Indeed, Chrys is typically American is so many ways. Being gay is a normal, integrated part of his life. On an average Facebook day, Chrys is likely to tout his family’s restaurant, his pride in his Greek heritage (My Big Fat Greek Wedding has nothing on Chrys) and what’s going on at work. And yes, he may well mention the guy he loves too. Why any of this is a threat to America escapes a fast growing majority of Americans.

Republicans need to listen to this guy if they want any hope of saving their party. From a purely practical political perspective, Pence is way behind the curve. A majority of Americans now support marriage equality. For that matter, a majority of young Republicans support marriage equality. Never mind conversion therapy, the “go ahead an hate your neighbor” agenda just doesn’t work anymore.

More importantly, any effort to reconstruct a new positive and moral agenda from the wreckage that is the formerly Grand Old Party will require a focus on freedom. Accepting that government should not legislate against LGBT Americans would be a good start.

Transit-Oriented Development? LOL.

The first Purple Line associated development project is going up and –surprise–is about development rather than transit-oriented development. At Chevy Chase Lake, EYA is building  “62 stately” “luxury elevator townhomes” that start at $1.5 million. All will have two car garages.

Why the two car garages if everyone is going to be riding the Purple Line? Unless you think elevators count, that sure doesn’t sound like transit-oriented development, and surely places into question claims that ridership of people who live near Purple Line stations will be unusually high.

Despite the claims that the Purple Line would increase affordable housing in Chevy Chase, even as quite a few existing affordable housing units get knocked down, this development is not about that goal either. I suppose one can make the trickle-down development argument that increasing supply will lower the price–not one usually associated with progressives who support the project. But we could have done that without billions on the Purple Line.

What is this really about? Thanks to our public subsidy, the owners and developers of the land can build more and make a tidy profit on the roughly $100 million for which they intend to sell the units, which will be valued for their close-in location to DC, proximity to Bethesda and Silver Spring and good school district more than the pricey Purple Line. Accompanied by some shops, I imagine it will be a very nice place to live.

Attracting more wealthy taxpayers and raising the value of the land will also increase the County tax base–good for the County and its economic health. The irony, of course, is that in the future many of the same people who supported the Purple Line as a “social justice” measure will use undoubtedly use this development as an example of the growing economic divide in the County even though the policies they supported made this happen.

Nothing to See Here

On the election front, the Free State promises to be virtually news free between now and November.

Maryland elects all state and county officials during the midterm election. True, Baltimore City is holding its mayoral and city council elections but I can’t say that the suspense is exactly killing me in this all Democratic town. All quiet on the local front.

At the federal level, we have an open U.S. Senate seat where all the drama was in the primary. It is the only open seat rated as “solid Democratic” by the Cook Political Report. No one is waiting with baited breath to see if state Sen. Kathy Szeliga, a Trump supporter, beats out Rep. Chris Van Hollen in a state that FiveThirtyEight says in the second most likely in the nation to vote for Hillary Clinton (polls-only forecast).

Maryland will also elect its eight federal representatives. Again, the excitement was in the primary for two open seats. The Fourth Congressional District saw former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown make his political comeback. In the Eighth, state Sen. Jamie Raskin beat out a record-setting self-funded candidate.

But the general election should be a yawner.  Charlie Cook rates six districts as “Solid Democratic” and one as “Solid Republican.” Rep. Delaney’s Sixth District gains marginal attention as “Likely Democratic.” It seems unlikely that Delaney will be caught napping twice or that he’ll lose in 2016 — the Sixth lists Democratic in presidential elections —  when he didn’t in the Republican banner year of 2014.

If contested Virginia did not share the DC media market,. Maryland could be almost free of TV ads in the presidential campaign. Garrett is in the Pittsburgh media market, so it can also expect to share in Pennsylvania’s inundation.

Even the General Assembly is out of session and Gov. Larry Hogan is doing his expedient best to do his disappearing act during the presidential campaign.

Move along, nothing to see here.

UPDATE: The Cecil Times informs me that Cecil County has a race for county executive this year. Two commissioner seats are also up but unopposed since the Democrats didn’t put up candidates.

MCGEO Gets Ready to Rumble

By Adam Pagnucco.

On Monday night, July 11, some MoCo residents received the following robocall.

I’m Tara Huber. I live in Montgomery County and I’m a county worker in child protective services. My job is to protect the vulnerable children in the county and can be very stressful. My job is made even more stressful by the fact that the County under the leadership of Council President Nancy Floreen has failed time and again to give me and my co-workers the right tools to effectively do our jobs. Floreen has mismanaged the county budget to such an extreme that we don’t have enough staff or tools to manage the high case loads. Protect your Montgomery. Call President Floreen at 240-777-7959 and tell her you expect better management of our tax dollars. Paid for by UFCW Local 1994, 600 South Frederick Avenue Gaithersburg Maryland 20877.

This is a new shot fired by MCGEO, the county employee union, in its on-again, off-again conflict with the County Council.  But it’s a risky one that could backfire.

First, some background.  MCGEO has a number of problems with the council, including:

  1. The council’s trimming of employee benefits during the Great Recession.
  1. The council’s vote to end effects bargaining for the police union, which was later upheld by voters.
  1. The council’s vote to cut MCGEO’s raise in half as part of its recently passed budget.
  1. The introduction of legislation by Council President Nancy Floreen that would change collective bargaining procedures in ways that the union claims would weaken its ability to negotiate.

These events and more have caused MCGEO President Gino Renne to tell the Post that his union might support Robin Ficker’s term limits amendment.  And on the night before the hearing on Floreen’s collective bargaining bill, the above robocall went out.  None of this is a coincidence.  Indeed, the union is gearing up for battle.  And no one, whether friend or foe of MCGEO and its fearsome President, has ever claimed that the union backs down when it is under threat.

The problem is that the robocall has little merit and such tactics may provoke the council to do even more against the union’s interest.

Montgomery County has a gigantic Health and Human Services (HHS) budget.  In FY16, HHS had an approved budget of $289 million, with 1,359 full-time positions and 327 part-time positions.  Children, Youth and Family Services, for which the robocall speaker (a MCGEO Vice-President) works, had an FY16 approved budget of $79 million with 525 full-time equivalent positions.

Using FY09 data, your author found that Montgomery County had the biggest HHS budget (along with housing) of any local jurisdiction in Maryland.  On a per capita basis, MoCo spent more than double the state average and lagged only the City of Baltimore.  MoCo spent more than 8 times on HHS and housing than did Prince George’s County.  From FY10 (the peak year prior to the recession) through FY16, MoCo’s HHS budget grew by 13%.  And as for the County Council specifically, it adds millions of dollars on top of the Executive’s recommended budget for HHS every year.  Below is a list of the HHS items added by the council to the Executive’s budget this year, financed with a nine percent increase in property taxes.

HHS Rec List FY17

It’s hard to argue that the council pinches pennies on HHS.  MCGEO has pooh-poohed the tax hike on its website.  What would the union like to see?  Does the council need to raise property taxes by 20% to get its approval?

There is more.  MCGEO is considering supporting term limits for county elected officials.  Fair enough.  The union has some legitimate grievances and any union would fight against a breaking of its collective bargaining agreement.  But let’s remember that the collective bargaining bill detested by MCGEO only had two sponsors at introduction, Nancy Floreen and Craig Rice.  That doesn’t speak well of the bill’s chances under normal circumstances.  But if MCGEO amps up its tactics and really does come out for term limits, could it actually help to recruit votes for Floreen’s bill?  After all, what do term-limited Council Members have to lose?  And let’s not forget that this council will decide on funding two more MCGEO annual compensation packages before the next council is seated.

In May 2011, when the County Council met to pass a budget that included cuts to employee benefits, a group of nine clowns appeared in the audience.  One of them wore a name tag with the first name of the Council President.  The police union refused to admit responsibility but was widely blamed.  Less than two months later, the council voted unanimously to repeal the police union’s right to bargain the effects of management decisions.

What goes around comes around.  Is MCGEO next?

Anyone But Robin Ficker

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post’s legendary editorial from 1988 says it all: Anyone But Robin Ficker.  The only problem with it is that it’s nearly thirty years old.  And the scourge of Montgomery County has been plenty busy since then!

Robin Ficker is well known to elected officials and veteran activists because of his forty-year rampage through the county.  But for those who have not yet encountered him, or have been exposed to him only through his most recent attempt to pass term limits, here are Four Facts about the man local politicians hate the most.

He is a World-Class Heckler

If there is ever a Heckler Hall of Fame, Robin Ficker would be a charter member.  He has all the tools of heckling: a booming voice, boundless energy, a rapacious hunger for attention of any kind and absolutely no fear.  For many years, he was indisputably the Number One heckler in the NBA, harassing opponents of his beloved Washington Bullets from directly behind their bench.  Ficker once explained the key to his heckling technique to ESPN.

It’s important to really read up on the opposing team and follow the game very closely, so that you’re conversant with the psychological weaknesses of the other team,” advises Robin Ficker, the Bethesda-based attorney who was once the NBA’s preeminent heckler.

Ficker never cursed at players or used sexual or racial insults, but he was still massively disruptive.  He read passages of tell-all sports books to players and coaches, making sure to focus on the inflammatory parts covering them.  His use of props and bullhorns caused some players to use ear plugs and provoked the Golden State Warriors to throw towels and Gatorade at him.  Legendary former Boston Celtics boss Red Auerbach called Ficker “a disgrace” and urged the Bullets’ owner to revoke his tickets.  The NBA passed a rule to forbid fans from heckling teams during timeouts, taking away one of Ficker’s greatest weapons.  And in an unholy alliance, former Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley even flew Ficker out to a playoff game to heckle the Chicago Bulls.  Ficker gave up his season tickets in 1997 after his seat was moved away from the court, but he continues to heckle at University of Maryland wrestling matches.

Ficker shows off his heckling skills.

He Runs for Everything, All the Time

Ficker has been continually running for office for more than 40 years.  The list of offices is nearly endless: U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Maryland Senate and House, MoCo Executive, County Council and school board.  (Does anyone know if Ficker has run for President?)  He once considered running for Governor and sought out a running mate through a classified ad that said, “Prefer female who is tax-cutting Republican, ambitious, intelligent, fearless, adventurous, hardworking and young (age 30 by 01/07) with flexible schedule to traverse Maryland.”

Ficker’s only win was his 1978 election to the House of Delegates, which was reversed four years later.  He did run for Congress once in the meantime, a race that saw him fighting with a female debate moderator for a microphone.

His campaign style is sadly familiar to wincing voters: thousands of illegal signs placed in public rights-of-way and self-funded illegal mailers lacking authority lines.  District residency requirements mean little to him.  Former Gazette columnist Blair Lee wrote in 2008, “In one election, he circumvented the ban against posting his orange ‘My Friend Ficker’ election signs on utility poles by hanging them 20 feet high on every other pole. We’re talking about a guy who, in the dead of night, climbs hundreds and hundreds of utility poles nailing up his lawn signs.”

Ficker’s electoral taint applies not only to himself, but to others.  The Post once reported that “he started a write-in campaign for Edward M. Kennedy in New Hampshire in 1972 only to learn his funding had come from the Nixon White House, which wanted to discredit Edmund Muskie, then considered a threat to Nixon.”

Ficker shows off his debating skills.

Ficker is equally prolific at placing charter amendments on the ballot.  Most of them deal with tax restrictions, but he has put term limits on the ballot at least twice before.  Ficker excels at this because he has the energy necessary to gather signatures at every conceivable public venue, and in a county of one million, ten thousand people can be found to support almost anything.  After decades of anti-tax failures, Ficker succeeded in passing a unanimous, nine-vote requirement on the County Council to break the county’s charter limit on property taxes in 2008.  The council met that hurdle in approving a nine percent property tax hike this year, giving new momentum to Ficker’s current term limits ballot drive.

His One Term in the House of Delegates was an Epic Disaster

Early in his political career, Ficker actually got elected to the House of Delegates as a Republican from District 15.  Annapolis quickly regretted it.  His colleagues said, “they have never met anyone who lives for publicity the way Ficker does.”  His “long, protracted questions, sometimes about the most minor issues” provoked “a considerable amount of exasperation at times.”  The Post noted that his “gadfly politics and long speeches often emptied the House chamber in Annapolis.”  Speaker Ben Cardin said this of Ficker: “I would be glad to make a contribution to Robin’s campaign… As long as he runs for the Senate or Congress or anything but the House of Delegates, I stand ready to help.”  Possibly his only meaningful accomplishment was to help kill D.C. voting rights.

Ficker’s name on a bill was regarded as the kiss of death.  Even his support could kill a bill.  One lawmaker moaned, “The bill is dead…. I mean, if I had a bill I wanted killed the first thing I’d do is persuade Robin Ficker to speak for it.”  On another occasion, a Delegate begged Ficker not to speak on behalf of his bill.  Ficker did it anyway.  The Delegate retaliated by breaking his microphone.

There were many stories about Ficker during his four years in the statehouse.  Here is one from the Post.

Ficker shares a suite of offices with fellow Montgomery Republicans Constance A. Morella and [Luiz] Simmons. When the three moved in, Morella’s name, as the top vote-getter, was on top. Ficker switched the names. Somebody switched them back (Morella says she knows nothing about the incident.) Ficker switched them again. When they were switched one more time, Ficker had the final word–he bought a tube of Krazy Glue and glued his nameplate in on top.

Ficker was unperturbed by his notoriety.  “At least I know I’m noticed. There are a lot of people in Annapolis who would like some recognition.”

Ficker was defeated in 1982 by Democrat Gene Counihan, much to the relief of Annapolis.  To this day, Counihan proudly embraces the nickname he was given by his grateful colleagues:

The Ficker Kicker.

Ficker running for Montgomery County Council in 2009.

Ficker 2009 sign

He is Frequently in Trouble

Ficker has been in trouble repeatedly ever since he was expelled from West Point in 1963, in part for “speaking abusively to hospital personnel while being treated for a broken leg.”

It’s hard to track all the Ficker Incidents.  Most of them have to do with his misconduct as an attorney.  Should we begin with 1988, when Maryland’s Attorney Grievance Commission accused Ficker of an ethics violation for advertising his expertise in palimony suits even though the state does not allow palimony?  (He was later cleared, but a judge said the ads were in “bad taste.”)  Or how about 1990, when the Court of Appeals reprimanded him for failing to show up at the trials of two clients?  In 1995, the Attorney Grievance Commission slammed him when he “allegedly left clients stranded without representation in court and in one case sent a novice lawyer who was unfamiliar with the case into the courtroom.”  There is also Ficker’s 1996 conviction of battery and malicious destruction of property in connection with a traffic accident involving a pregnant woman.  The woman testified that Ficker “exploded in anger,” “was out of control,” and broke her sunglasses after he bumped her car and she tried to get contact information from him.  After Ficker appealed, he was acquitted of destruction of property and the battery charge was dropped.

Ficker’s law license was suspended in 1998 and 2007 for violations of competence and diligence.  Here’s what the Court of Appeals wrote after the second suspension.

As we observed initially, this is the fifth time that Ficker has run afoul of his obligation to manage his office in a proper manner. He was warned twice by this Court, in 1990 and in 1998, and, despite his claimed improvements, seems not to have learned enough from those warnings. As the result of his cavalier attention to proper office management (1) one client (Robertshaw), facing incarceration, was virtually abandoned until the eve of trial and then was represented by an associate who had not read the entire file, who was unaware that his client had two prior convictions, and who first presented the available options to her in the lobby of the courthouse on the day of trial, (2) another client (Paulk), facing criminal charges that could have resulted in incarceration, was abandoned on what she assumed would be a trial date and which, only by fortuitous circumstance unknown to her or Ficker, had been limited to an advice of rights proceeding, and (3) a third client (Ponto) ended up having an arrest warrant issued against him. We see in these violations an inexcusable lack of concern on Ficker’s part for the welfare of his clients, an unwillingness, after four warnings, to make the necessary improvements to his office management. Accordingly, we believe that the appropriate sanction is an indefinite suspension from the practice of law, with the right to reapply for admission no earlier than one year from the effective date of the suspension.

Would you want to be represented by this man?

A Ficker mailer from his recent campaign in Congressional District 6.

Ficker Trump Cruz

So given all of the above, why did Ficker’s anti-tax charter amendment pass in 2008, and why is his latest term limits amendment favored to pass?  The answer is that MoCo’s elected leaders overreach, especially on the issue of raising taxes.  By and large, the county’s electorate appreciates the role of government in solving problems and maintaining a high quality of life.  But county leaders have approved six major tax increases in the last fifteen fiscal years and voters are getting tired of it.  That’s why they voted to limit property tax hikes in 2008, and the County Council responded with a nine-percent increase this year.  It’s almost impossible to give someone like Ficker the political high ground, but that’s what has happened.  And it appears that elected officials will pay the price.

But as for Robin Ficker himself?  The voters have made their decision on his many runs for office over the course of decades, and it’s not going to change now:

Anyone But Robin Ficker.

Two Myths About Term Limits

By Adam Pagnucco.

The fight over whether term limits should apply to Montgomery County elected officials is now underway, and that’s even before political heckler Robin Ficker has submitted his signatures for his proposed charter amendment.  Supporters and opponents are offering arguments for their point of view, some with merit and some without.  Today we will take down one of the most prominent arguments from each side.

1.  Term Limits are Needed to Create Competition

The historical record shows plenty of competition for elected office in Montgomery County.  It just doesn’t happen to be the kind of competition that some term limits supporters want.

Since charter government was established in 1970, there has been one Republican County Executive (Jim Gleason, the first to hold that office) and three Republican Council Members (District 1’s Betty Ann Krahnke and Howard Denis and District 2’s Nancy Dacek).  The other county elected officials have all been Democrats.  But there has been substantial competition among the Democrats over the years, including the Neal Potter vs. Sidney Kramer factions in the 1980s and early 1990s and the competing council slates in 2002.

Below are the election results over the last six cycles.

MoCo Elections 1994-2014

Incumbents were reelected 42 times and lost 6 times.  It’s important to note that two of those six losses were by Republicans in general elections: Dacek (2002) and Denis (2006).  Including them, incumbents had a win rate of 88%.

But when you count the open seats (15 of them including three special elections), newcomers filled seats one-third of the time.  That’s plenty of turnover and FAR more than Congress.  Ficker’s objection is that Democrats replace other Democrats, and term limits won’t change that.

2.  Term Limits Supporters are Similar to Brexit Voters

This is an argument made by four-term council incumbent George Leventhal, who has called term limits “a dumb, unnecessary protest gesture” and compared supporters to Brexit voters.  Leventhal has also noted that Help Save Maryland, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a “nativist extremist” group, has gathered signatures for the charter amendment.  This is a clear attempt to marginalize term limits supporters and paint them as pawns of racist xenophobes.

There are two problems with this argument.  First, if Ficker, Help Save Maryland and the county GOP were the only people in favor of term limits, they would have absolutely no chance of passage.  So why are Council Members like Leventhal so worried about it?  The answer is that he and other opponents know the issue is getting broader traction.  Second, the motivations of supporters are almost entirely local ones.  Consider the following groups who might be tempted to back term limits.

People Who Object to the Giant Tax Hike

The nine percent property tax hike is extremely unpopular, unnecessarily large, and could not have come at a worse time.  If term limits becomes a proxy vote on whether the Giant Tax Hike should have gone through – and Ficker is doing everything in his power to link the issues – term limits will pass by a mile.

Business People

Business owners and managers have been complaining incessantly about the difficulty of doing business in Montgomery County for many years.  Passage of repeated tax hikes along with progressive legislation that increases the cost of doing business feeds into their unhappiness.  Then there are the restaurants and retailers who are forced to do business with the county’s incompetent Department of Liquor Control.  Term limits seem like a good idea to some of them!

County Employees

First, the County Council abrogated the county employee unions’ collective bargaining agreements .  Next, the council introduced legislation to weaken their ability to negotiate.  Some in labor are furious and there is even a chance that one or more unions could SUPPORT term limits.

One thing that many people outside labor don’t understand is that unions are political organizations.  Local union leaders are elected by their members every three years.  Each union has to deal with internal discussions, occasional disagreements and even dissent.  Members have expectations of service and performance, and when they are not met, there can be consequences.  When an employer rubs a union leader’s face in the bitter mud of defeat, that leader must fight back or risk being seen as weak.  And if such a leader tells members that term limits are the only way to defend their rights in the workplace, a lot of those members are going to listen.

Non-Democrats and Moderate Democrats

Republicans and unaffiliated voters have long been on the outside looking in at county politics.  But many moderate Democrats, especially those far away from the liberal precincts near the Beltway, don’t feel adequately represented either.  True or not, comments about “Takoma Park liberals” dominating county government are not unheard of, even among Democrats.  The county Democratic Party’s rank-and-file is more ideologically diverse than its elected leadership, and if the leaders don’t do things to keep moderates on board (like limit the size of tax hikes), they will lose some of them to the likes of Governor Larry Hogan and even to the cause of term limits.

Note the common thread of the concerns held by the above groups: none of them are linked to racism, xenophobia or political extremism.  Whether they are right or wrong, all are rooted in local issues and many are in line with these folks’ self-interest.

In general, it’s a REALLY bad idea to call voters “dumb” even if sometimes there’s a little bit of truth in it.  If that’s the argument that term limits opponents use, term limits will DEFINITELY pass.

Why Term Limits Will Probably Pass

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County political heckler Robin Ficker, who has tormented politicians and voters alike for decades, is on the verge of getting a charter amendment calling for term limits for county officials  on the ballot.  Ficker’s previous term limits amendments failed by 8 points in 2000 and 4 points in 2004.  But Ficker, whose energy and combativeness have not declined with age, is trying again.

And this time the heckler just might get the last laugh.

Many things have changed over the last twelve years, and all of them favor the passage of term limits.  Consider the following.

1.  The Giant Tax Hike

I have written in great detail about the county’s Giant Tax Hike, but look at it in simple terms.  Imagine a public gathering of county residents at a restaurant, a festival, a park or any other public space.  Then give them three options from which to pick.  First, they could have a nine percent hike in property taxes that would be spread throughout the county government.  (That is what the County Council passed.)  Second, they could have a tax hike of about half that size with the proceeds going towards education alone.  (We laid out how to do that in a prior post.)  Or third, they could have no tax hike.  Which option do you think they would pick?  Which one do you think would they be LEAST likely to pick?

Many voters will go to the polls with twin sets of two words on their minds – “tax hike” and “term limits” – and for a lot of them, they go together.  That’s what Ficker is counting on and by maximizing the tax hike, the County Council played right into his hands.

2.  Declining Local Media Coverage

We spent a lot of time discussing the near disappearance of local media coverage in our Politics After the Gazette series.  The result of this is that people know a lot less about what their elected officials do than they did twelve years ago.  Back then, the Post had multiple reporters covering county government and it competed vigorously with the Gazette and a daily, the Montgomery Journal, both of which are gone.  Now, there are basically two people responsible for local news here: the Post’s Bill Turque and Bethesda Magazine publisher Steve Hull.  That’s it, folks.

When voters don’t know what their government does, they are less likely to understand it and trust it.  And the few stories that remain are disproportionately negative ones.  Over the course of the last year, the two dominant stories on Montgomery County government have been the Giant Tax Hike and the dreadful performance of the county’s liquor monopoly.  Neither one generates happiness among the public.

3.  Declining Voter Turnout

Voter turnout has been declining in Montgomery County for some time now, although this year’s contested Presidential primary was an exception.  Consider the trend in mid-term primaries, which usually decide elections for county officials.  In 2002, 143,762 voters turned out in MoCo’s primary.  That number fell in every cycle through 2014, when 111,231 voters turned out.  That is actually less than primary turnout in 1990, when 118,527 people came out to vote.  The declining number of voters shrinks the mailing universe used by county-level candidates, meaning that an ever-smaller number of people receive communications from candidates.  The number of Democrats who voted in all three of the 2006, 2010 and 2014 primaries totaled just over 40,000 people, or four percent of the population.  That means the HUGE majority of the population does not hear from candidates at election time, and as we said above, it’s hard for people to trust elected officials they don’t know.

4.  The General Electorate is Getting Less Liberal

Years ago, the general electorate – which votes on ballot questions and charter amendments – regularly voted down right-wing proposals like Ficker’s.  Not anymore.  On each of the last three occasions on which they were asked to settle a policy question, the voters opted for the less progressive option – approving Ficker’s property tax amendment in 2008, opposing the ambulance fee in 2010 and opposing some of the police union’s collective bargaining rights in 2012.  Democrats account for roughly 60% of the county’s general election voters and not all of them are liberals.  When it comes to general election voters deciding policy issues, all bets are off now.

5.  Change at the Board of Elections

The last time Ficker tried to get term limits on the ballot was in 2010, when the county’s Board of Elections rejected his signatures.  But the current board now has a Republican majority appointed by the Governor and was accused of “naked voter suppression” by the County Council during a recent dispute over early voting sites.  Who among you believes that this new board will race to protect the council from term limits?

6.  No One Has the Council’s Backs

When Ficker got term limits on the ballot in 2000, a large coalition of state legislators and business, labor and civic groups came together to oppose him.  Two committees spent tens of thousands of dollars on mailings and campaigned vigorously to stop Ficker.  The result was an 8-point loss for term limits.

An anti-term limits lit piece from 2000.

Ficker C 1 Ficker C 2

That is not happening now.  Some participants in the 2000 coalition would actually be perfectly fine with term limits in 2016.  The business community dislikes the tax hike and believes the county government does not do enough to compete with D.C., Virginia and the rest of Maryland.  The public employee unions are upset about the council’s abrogating their collective bargaining agreements and one of the biggest unions may even SUPPORT term limits.  And in a way, term limits may be in the strategic interest of these groups if they can get supportive candidates elected to the open seats. As for the state legislators, some may very well run for the open County Council seats in part because of council salaries, which are on track to be three times what Annapolis lawmakers receive.

Robin Ficker may be the most unpopular political figure in the history of Montgomery County.  Politicians and party activists have been laughing at him – and not in a good way! – for decades.  But even the most clownish hecklers understand the old truism: he who laughs last laughs best.

MoCo’s Giant Tax Hike, Part Six

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s giant tax hike will have consequences.  Here are a few of them.

1.  Term limits are more likely to pass.

There are several reasons why Robin Ficker’s newest term limits amendment will probably pass if he gathers enough signatures to place it on the ballot, but the tax hike is one of the biggest.  The last time the council broke the charter limit in 2008, voters responded by passing Ficker’s charter amendment to make tax hikes harder.  With a new tax hike in place, voters may be tempted to respond with term limits.

Ficker has taken notice.  He regularly runs Facebook ads linking term limits, the tax hike and the council’s 2013 salary increase like the one below.  Commenters respond predictably.

Ficker vs Elrich

Ficker may have a new ally in his quest to evict the council: MCGEO President Gino Renne.  After the council voted to abrogate his union’s collective bargaining agreement, Renne told the Post, “I’m tired of these clowns,” and said his union might support term limits.  An alliance between Gino Renne and Robin Ficker would be one of the strangest events in the history of MoCo politics.  Whoever can produce a picture of these two smiling and shaking hands will be awarded a gift certificate from Gino’s beloved Department of Liquor Control.

2. Outsider candidates could be encouraged to run for county office.

If term limits pass, two things will happen.  First, the County Executive’s seat and five seats on the County Council will be open in 2018.  Second, the tax increase will be blamed for the success of term limits.  Both factors could lead to the entry of outsider candidates with a message like this: “We need new leadership.  We need to do things differently.”  Translation: we need to run the government without giant tax hikes.

Some of these outsiders may use the county’s new public financing system to run.  But the strong performance of David Trone, who started with zero name recognition and won many parts of CD8, will encourage self-funders.  This being Montgomery County, there are a LOT of potential self-funders, including those who have previously run for office.  Candidates in public financing can raise as many individual contributions of up to $150 each as they are able to collect, but the system caps public match amounts at $750,000 for Executive candidates, $250,000 for at-large council candidates and $125,000 for district council candidates.  A wealthy self-funder could easily overwhelm candidates who are subject to these caps and make a mockery of public financing.

3.  More charter amendments on taxes are possible.

Ficker’s 2008 property tax charter amendment, which instituted the requirement that all nine Council Members must vote to override the charter limit on property taxes, was a mild version of his previous ballot questions on the subject.  His 2004 Question A, which would have abolished the override provision entirely, failed by a 59-41 percent margin.  Now that the 2008 amendment has been proven ineffective, Ficker could be encouraged to bring back his more draconian version soon.  In the wake of this new tax hike, would voters support it?

Passage of a hard tax cap would have very grave consequences for the ability of county government to deal with downturns.  In 2010, the County Council responded to the Great Recession by passing a tough budget combining cuts, furloughs, an energy tax increase and layoffs of 90 employees.  When the next recession comes, if the county has no taxation flexibility, it might have to pass a budget laying off hundreds of people and gutting entire departments.  If the levying of giant tax hikes in non-emergencies causes the voters to abolish the possibility of levying them in true emergencies in the future, it would be a serious calamity.

4.  Governor Larry Hogan is a big winner.

One of Governor Hogan’s favorite political tactics is to play the Big Three Democratic jurisdictions against the rest of the state, with the City of Baltimore being his prime target.  But he can also point to Prince George’s County, where the County Executive (and a potential election opponent) proposed a 15% property tax hike, and also to Montgomery County, where the council passed a 9% increase.  His message to the voters will be a simple one.

“Look, folks.  This is what you get when you allow liberal Democrats to have one-party rule: giant tax hikes.  That’s why you need people like me in office to stop them.”

How many MoCo Democrats will ask themselves this question: “What is easier for me to live with? Larry Hogan or nine percent tax hikes?” What do you think their answer will be?

Hogan received 37% of the vote in Montgomery County in 2014.  He had a 55% approval rating in MoCo according to a Washington Post poll last October.  A Gonzales poll taken in March found that registered voters in the Washington suburbs (defined as MoCo, Prince George’s and Charles) gave Hogan a 62.6% job approval rating, with 35% strongly approving.  If Hogan can use the tax issue to run in the low 40s, or even as high as 45% in MoCo, he will be very difficult to beat for reelection.

Reelecting himself is not Hogan’s only priority.  He would also like to elect enough Republicans to the General Assembly to uphold his vetoes.  That task is easier in the House of Delegates, where Democrats hold 91 seats, six more than the 85 votes required to override vetoes.  If the GOP can pick up seven seats, as they did in 2014, they can uphold the Governor’s vetoes on party line votes.  That would cause serious change in how Annapolis operates.  Could big tax hikes in Democratic jurisdictions like Montgomery help the GOP get there?

5.  It will be harder to get more aid from Annapolis.

In 2007, former Baltimore State Senator Barbara Hoffman commented to the Gazette on Montgomery County’s ultra-wealthy reputation in Annapolis.  “They have to overcome the view that they’re rich and trouble-free. … That’s not true anymore.”  She was right then, and she is even more right now.  The county has massive needs for transportation projects and both operating and construction funds for the public schools.  But when the county levies giant tax hikes on itself to pay for these needs, is it letting the state off the hook?  State legislators from other cash-strapped jurisdictions that lack wealthy tax bases like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac are perfectly happy to let MoCo tax itself while they ask the state to tax MoCo even more to pay for their needs.  (Remember the 2012 state income tax hike, of which MoCo residents paid 41% of the new revenue?)  As a result, the next time the Lords of Annapolis are asked to help Montgomery County, they could very well reply, “Tax yourselves to pay for it. You always do.”

6.  A major argument in favor of the liquor monopoly has been proven hollow.

County officials predicted that if the liquor monopoly was lost, annual property taxes would have to rise by an average $100 per household.  Instead, the monopoly was preserved and the council passed a property tax hike that will cost an average $326 per household.  The tax hike was in the works since at least January 2015, long before small businesses and consumers launched their campaign to End the Monopoly.  And the $25 million in new spending added by the council to this year’s budget actually exceeds the $20.7 million that the liquor monopoly is projected to return to the general fund.  This proves once and for all that liquor monopoly revenues do not prevent tax hikes!

7.  There will be pressure in the future for another tax hike.

As we discussed in Part Three of this series, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne decision, which requires counties to refund taxes paid on out-of-state income, was one reason for the current property tax hike.  Senator Rich Madaleno’s state legislation extended the time that counties had to pay for refunds from Fiscal Year 2019 to 2024.  Below is a table showing the fiscal impact on all Maryland counties combined, of which Montgomery accounts for roughly half.  While the legislation enables counties to spend less in FY 2017-2018, it requires them to spend more in FY 2020-2024.  MoCo will have to spend around $20 million a year in most of the out years.

Madaleno Wynne Bill Fiscal Impact

Given its $5 billion-plus annual budget, Montgomery could easily afford the out-year payments by slightly slowing the growth rate in its annual spending.  But instead, the council added $25 million in new spending on top of the Executive’s FY 2017 budget, and unless it is cut, that spending will continue in future budgets.  The cumulative impact of that new spending plus future Wynne refund payments will start to be felt in three years.  At that point, the council could very well face a choice between trimming back their added spending or raising taxes.  What do you think they will do?

8.  Economic development will now be harder.

Despite the wealth in some of its communities, Montgomery County struggles with the perception that it is not business-friendly.  While its unemployment rate is low by national standards, its real per capita income fell steeply during the recession, much of its office space is obsolete and it lacks Northern Virginia’s two major airports and its new Metro line.  The chart below shows the county’s private sector employment from 2001 through 2014.  Despite recent sluggish growth, the county had fewer private sector jobs in 2014 than it did in 2001.

MoCo Private Employment 2001-2014

And while the county lost private sector jobs, the Washington region as a whole grew by 9.5% over this period.

Washington Private Employment 2001-2014

There may be a variety of factors explaining MoCo’s weak economic performance, but consider this: in the last 15 fiscal years, the county has seen six major tax increases.  The county broke its charter limit on property taxes in FY 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2017 and it doubled the energy tax in FY 2011.  (Most of the latter increase is still on the books.)

Good government is an exercise in balancing needs.  Education, transportation, public safety and public services are valuable and require resources, at times necessitating tax increases.  But all of that is impossible without a vigorous private sector that creates jobs and incomes and pays the government’s bills.  Those priorities must be balanced, and when they are, progressive policies can be afforded.  But if they are not, economic growth will fail, government services will be harder to sustain, taxes will fall increasingly on a shrinking base and a downward spiral could begin.

In the wake of its long-term stagnant economy and its Giant Tax Hike, how close is Montgomery County to that tipping point?

Maryland Politics Watch

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