Category Archives: Robin Ficker

Who Are These People?

By Adam Pagnucco.

They look like the folks who were elected in 2018.  Their names match the names listed on the county website.  There is no evidence of alien abductions or replacement by clones.  And yet, they don’t sound like members of the Montgomery County Council.

Who are these people?

In a scene seemingly lifted from a strange dream, a majority of the county council convened yesterday to oppose two state bills giving them additional taxing authority.  One bill would let them raise the maximum income tax rate and establish brackets instead of the current flat structure.  Another bill would let them raise property taxes on different categories of property, including homes with more than 5,000 square feet.  Council staff recommended that the council support the legislation.

Six council members said no.

Who are these people?

The six individuals (assuming they are not cloned replacements) who said no are Council Members Gabe Albornoz, Sidney Katz, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice, Hans Riemer and Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson.  The vote of Friedson, who has emerged as the council’s leading voice of fiscal sanity, is no surprise.  But Katz, Navarro, Rice and Riemer all voted for the 8.7% property tax increase of four years ago, an event that contributed to the passage of term limits.  The increase was supposed to close MCPS’s achievement gap, but a recent Office of Legislative Oversight report showed little if any progress on that issue despite the large tax hike.

Some members of past councils might have jumped up and down to be awarded more taxing authority by the state.  The constraints on both property and income taxes are real.  State law requires that counties charge one tax rate for almost all real property (although offsetting credits can be awarded and multiple taxes might be levied).  State law also requires that counties may charge a maximum income tax rate of 3.2% using a flat structure with no brackets.  The state bills advocated by Council Member Will Jawando and Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr do not mandate county tax hikes, but they do grant enabling authority to the council to devise them.  Certain options, like establishing a new top income tax bracket, could raise millions for county government.  And yet six council members said no.

Who are these people?

Let’s let them tell us.  Here are a few quotes from the council meeting at which the state bills were considered.

Friedson: “We need to demonstrate as a county, as a county council, as political leadership at this really important time for where we move forward that we are focused relentlessly on growing the tax base and not only focused on raising the tax rates.”

Albornoz: “We all read the report recently that our colleagues in Prince George’s County have surpassed us with regards to economic development here locally and so we are now not just competing with our colleagues and friends across the river and the District of Columbia, but we’re competing with local jurisdictions right here within the State of Maryland to actively and aggressively expand economic development opportunities here within the county.”

Riemer: “My concern at the moment is there is a really significant tax proposal that is already on the table, and that is to tax services.  And that is going to have a huge impact on our county’s economy.  I feel like we ought to not confuse the conversation about that issue with additional proposals.  I think we ought to let the state leadership kind of drive the train… We ought to just hang back at this time and let the state process do its work and not complicate that matter with trying to drive funding proposals from the county level that are really reaching to the same goal.”

Rice: “I don’t think that we should be continuously going to the well locally and asking our residents individually to be paying more when we realize that as a state we know we can do it the right way.”

Riemer: “I don’t quite understand the timing of this idea and really why we’re talking about it.”

Friedson: “It is the wrong message to be sending at the worst time.”

Left unsaid but no doubt on the minds of the council was the menacing specter of political heckler Robin Ficker, who was on that very day delivering 16,000 signatures on behalf of his latest charter amendment to limit tax hikes.  Past tax hikes helped Ficker pass two charter amendments in 2008 and 2016, but his newest one, which would prohibit growth in property tax collections from exceeding the rate of inflation, is the most draconian of them all.  Ficker cites a long history of county tax hikes in justifying his quest to bring them to an end.  They were, of course, passed by prior county councils.  This time, six council members declined to throw more red meat to Ficker.

Who are these people?

Could it be that they recall the harsh lesson of four years ago and are now more careful in considering the issue of taxes?

If not, let’s call the aliens and ask what they did with our council members!

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Picture This

By Adam Pagnucco.

Picture this, dear readers: two events, both scheduled for today.

Picture 1: Robin Ficker, author of numerous charter amendments on taxes and term limits, has announced his intention to deliver 16,000 signatures in support of his latest anti-tax amendment to the county executive’s office.  Ficker needs at least 10,000 signatures to place his amendment on the ballot.  Let’s remember that no one in the history of Montgomery County has more experience in gathering signatures than Robin Ficker.

Picture 2: Just a short walk away in the county council building and almost simultaneously, County Council Member Will Jawando and Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr have announced a press conference in support of two state bills that would enable the county to levy tax hikes.  One bill would allow counties to set different property tax rates for commercial properties, industrial properties and residential properties with more than 5,000 square feet.  The other bill would allow counties to increase their maximum income tax rates from 3.2% to 3.5% and establish income tax brackets.

Picture 1 is to be expected; we have seen Ficker’s grandiose signature deliveries before.  Picture 2 is problematic for two reasons.

First, Jawando and Palakovich Carr justify their bills partly “in order to pay for the increased local share of education funding required under the Kirwan Commission.”  Counties around the state are concerned about how they might pay for any additional local obligations to schools stemming from the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations.  Those obligations are laid out in Appendix F of the Kirwan Commission bill’s fiscal note, which is reprinted below.

A careful look at the phase-in schedule shows that Montgomery County is not currently required to contribute any more to its public schools than it already has been doing until Fiscal Year 2027, which is MORE THAN SIX YEARS AWAY.  Why are these elected officials pushing tax hikes now?  One struggles to see how this is linked in any way to Kirwan.

Furthermore, even in years in which no tax hikes are levied, the Montgomery County government gets an average of more than $100 million in new revenue a year, and that excludes intergovernmental aid.  If the phase-in schedule above were altered to allow a more gradual phase-in for the county’s local obligations – say, $25-30 million a year instead of cramming it all into four years – the county might not have to raise taxes at all.  The county might have to restrain spending in other areas to allocate greater shares of new revenue to MCPS, but that would make up for the fact that local money for MCPS has been one of the slowest growing parts of the county budget for a decade.

Second, this plays directly into Ficker’s hands.  There was a time not so long ago when Ficker’s name was so radioactive due to his NBA heckling and his rampant placement of illegal campaign signs that his very association with a ballot question was enough to kill it.  Those days are gone.  In 2008, the county raised property taxes by 13%.  Voters responded months later by passing Ficker’s charter amendment requiring that nine county council members must vote in favor of any property tax increase breaking the county’s charter limit.  In 2016, the county raised property taxes by 8.7%.  Voters responded by passing Ficker’s charter amendment on term limits by a landslide.  Now, counting the bills supported by Jawando and Palakovich Carr as well as a separate bill by Council Member Evan Glass calling for new taxes on teardowns, there are three different bills pending that allow county tax increases just as Ficker is pushing for a new anti-tax charter amendment.

Ficker must be the happiest man in MoCo.

Ficker does not win passage of his charter amendments because voters love him.  He has run in almost every four-year election cycle since the 1970s, with just one victory (a 1978 Delegate race) that was reversed after a single term.  He has not come close to being elected since.  Ficker wins because he has deduced something that county politicians hate to admit, at least in public: voters are skeptical that our elected officials are capable of behaving responsibly with their tax dollars.  Indeed, the county has levied nine major tax hikes since Fiscal Year 2003, with only one (an energy tax increase in Fiscal Year 2011) occurring during a recession.  The most recent tax hike, the 8.7% property tax increase in 2016, was marketed in part as a way to close MCPS’s achievement gap.  Three years later, the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found that the county has made little or no progress on the achievement gap despite the massive tax hike.

This kind of thing is why Ficker wins.

Let’s think of what is at stake.  In 1978, Prince George’s County passed an anti-tax charter amendment only a little more draconian than Ficker’s.  Five years later, in the wake of the devastating recession of the early 1980s and lacking an ability to raise taxes, the county had to gut services and lay off more than 500 teachers, laying the groundwork for decades of problems.  Heaven help MoCo if we proceed in that direction.

If MoCo’s elected officials want to avoid that sort of outcome, they need to behave responsibly.  Save the tax hikes for times of desperate need, like recessions.  The rest of the time, figure out how to live within your means just like your constituents do.  Above all, stop giving ammo to Ficker.

The alternative?  Picture this.  Ficker celebrates in November, bellowing in victory at the passage of yet another charter amendment.  And the county government, struggling in fiscal chains strung up by distrustful voters, becomes more vulnerable to the next recession.

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Could Ficker Win a Three-Way Race for Executive?

By Adam Pagnucco.

There is much condemnation of Council Member Nancy Floreen among Democratic activists for leaving the party and launching an independent run for Executive.  Some of the outrage is related to party loyalty.  Some of it is related to support for the apparent Democratic primary winner, Marc Elrich.  And some of it is related to Floreen’s record in office and historic support by the business community.  Those are all value judgments best left to the readers.  But one concern can actually be evaluated with data – the notion that a Floreen candidacy could enable GOP candidate Robin Ficker to come up the middle and squeak out a victory.  Could that actually happen?

Ficker, who has a long and infamous history in the county, has been running for office since the 1970s.  He was actually elected to a District 15 House of Delegates seat in 1978, a decision reversed by the voters four years later.  Since then, he has run for offices of all kinds and placed numerous charter amendments on the ballot.  Two of his charter amendments – a property tax limitation measure in 2008 and a term limits measure in 2016 – were passed by county voters.

Robin Ficker’s official House of Delegates picture from 1978.  Forty years later, could he be headed to elected office again?

First, let’s look at Ficker’s electoral history since the 1990s.  He has run ten times and lost on every occasion.  In every race, he has been a Republican except for 2006, when he ran as an independent for County Executive.  (Twelve years later, that’s what Nancy Floreen is doing.)

Besides all the losing, the thing that stands out here is Ficker’s unpopularity in the Republican Party.  He has entered six contested GOP primaries since 1994 and lost five of them.  The only time he had opposition and won was when he ran in the 2009 County Council District 4 special election and defeated two no-name Republicans who barely campaigned.  The lesson here is that when Republicans have an alternative to Ficker who is not a Democrat, they tend to vote for someone else.

Even Republicans are reluctant to buy what Ficker is selling.  Photo credit: Getty Images, John W. McDonough.

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When he did make it to general elections, Ficker earned vote percentages ranging from 34% to 41%.  But most of those elections occurred in Upcounty districts where Republicans are a much larger percentage of the electorate than the county as a whole.

Now let’s look at the performances of GOP candidates for County Executive over the last five general elections.

One of the untold stories in MoCo elections is the recent decline in electoral performance by Democratic nominees in MoCo Executive general elections.  From 1998 through 2006, the Republican nominee did not crack 30%.  In the last two elections, the Republican got 34% of the vote.  For the most part, these were protest votes as the Republican candidates had no money, did not campaign and were not expected by anyone to win.  Another thing to note is that the only one of these elections that had an independent candidate was 2006, when Ficker ran against Ike Leggett and GOP nominee Chuck Floyd.  Ficker got just 9% of the vote, another sign of his unpopularity with both Republicans and independents.

Finally, let’s consider turnout by party in MoCo mid-term general elections.

Over the years, Democratic turnout percentage has edged up gradually, independent turnout has increased and Republican turnout has collapsed.  At some point, it’s reasonable to expect that independent turnout might exceed the GOP.

For Ficker to win, he would need to hold onto all the GOP votes, win more than 70% of independents and have Floreen and Elrich split everyone else exactly down the middle.  That would result in Ficker getting 34% of the vote and Floreen and Elrich each getting 33%.  That’s extremely unlikely for two reasons.  First, as detailed above, Ficker is weak among GOP voters and Republicans and independents would have a viable alternative in Floreen.  Second, for this scenario to work, almost half of all Democrats would have to vote against their own party’s nominee to keep Elrich at 33%.  It’s easier to see a path to victory for Floreen, who could win by getting half the Republicans, all the independents and roughly 28% of the Democrats.

Just to be clear, we are skeptical that anyone can defeat a Democratic nominee in a MoCo countywide election.  But whatever the ramifications of a possible Floreen independent run, we’re pretty sure that one of them will not be a victory by Robin Ficker.

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Is Ficker Using Public Financing to Promote His Law Practice?

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive candidate Robin Ficker is enrolled in the county’s public financing program and has announced that he has qualified for $231,185 in public matching funds.  Those funds are supposed to be used to finance his campaign for office.  But his Facebook ads raise the question of whether he is also using them to promote his law practice.

Ficker has run at least three political Facebook ads from his Robin Ficker Law Offices page.

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The content of the ads is unquestionably political.  But the Facebook page is a mixed bag.  It advertises his services as a criminal defense lawyer and has his business phone number.  It also offers a combination of political content and promotion of Ficker’s legal work.

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To be fair, Ficker’s ads do not advertise the legal posts.   But whenever a voter sees one of his political ads, they see “Robin Ficker Law Offices” at the top.

Maryland COMAR 33.13.10.03 prohibits the use of campaign funds for “the personal use or the personal benefit of a candidate.”  Montgomery County COMCOR 16.21.01.05 prohibits the use of public financing funds for “personal use.”  Whether Ficker is running afoul of these regulations is a matter for the authorities.  But if he wants to avoid this issue entirely, Ficker should establish a political Facebook page that is separate from his business.  That’s what other candidates do and Ficker should do the same.

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Campaign Finance Reports: County Executive, June 2018

By Adam Pagnucco.

The June campaign finance reports are in and they will be the last ones available prior to the primary. Today, we’ll look at the County Executive race.  A note on methodology.  First, we calculate total raised and total spent across the entire cycle and not just over the course of one report period.  Second, we separate self-funding from funds raised from others.  Self-funding includes money from spouses.  Third, for publicly financed candidates, we include public matching fund distributions that have been requested but not deposited in raised money and in the column entitled “Cash Balance With Requested Public Contributions.”  That gives you a better idea of the true financial position of publicly financed campaigns.

Below is our fundraising summary for the County Executive candidates.  The numbers for Robin Ficker presume he has qualified for public matching funds but we have not heard definitively whether he has.

It’s official: David Blair has broken Steve Silverman’s 2006 spending record of $2 million in an Executive race.  (Sorry Steve but you knew it wouldn’t last forever!)  Blair’s $3 million in spending, mostly self-financed, exceeds the $2.1 million combined total so far reported by the other candidates.

Marc Elrich has excelled in public financing and has also had the good fortune to see the second-best financed candidate (Roger Berliner) going negative in TV and mail against the best-financed candidate (Blair).  Combine that with the attack strategy of Progressive Maryland and Elrich can use his own money to promote himself and let others do the dirty work of bringing Blair down.  It couldn’t get any better for Elrich.

Speaking of the attacks on Blair, the scale of them is becoming clear.  Berliner has spent $51,048 on mail and $391,234 on TV, all of which had negative messaging about Blair.  The Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance PAC has so far raised $100,000, most of it in union money, to oppose Blair.  The combined amount between the two – $542,282 – is likely the most money ever spent on attacking a candidate for County Executive and the race is not over.  To our knowledge, none of the other Executive candidates has been targeted by negative TV commercials or negative mail.

The other three Democratic candidates – George Leventhal, Rose Krasnow and Bill Frick – are struggling to compete with limited resources.  Leventhal has had money problems for the entire campaign but he is working his heart out.  That plus his longevity and diverse base of supporters get him into the mix but he is still a long shot to win.

Rumors have swirled for weeks about labor polling and MCGEO President Gino Renne confirmed them to Bethesda Magazine on Friday.  Renne said that Elrich and Blair were “neck and neck” in a number of polls and said, “When you combine all the different polls, it’s a good solid snapshot of what’s going on… I would say it’s statistically insignificant [between Elrich and Blair]. It’s all about who can get their voters to the polls. If the election were today, I’d have to call it a toss-up.”

We have written about Elrich’s base before: it’s a combination of anti-development activists, progressives and people living in and near Takoma Park.  But Blair is developing a base too by consolidating those who want a different direction in county government.  Frick and Krasnow have a similar message but they don’t have the money to make it stick like Blair does.  And so this election is turning into a contest between different visions of change: a move towards greater progressivism or a move away from tax hikes and towards more economic development.

Who knows which side will win?

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Campaign Finance Reports: County Executive, May 2018

By Adam Pagnucco.

The May campaign finance reports are in and we will start breaking them down with the County Executive race.  A note on methodology.  First, we calculate total raised and total spent across the entire cycle and not just over the course of one report period.  Second, we separate self-funding from funds raised from others.  Self-funding includes money from spouses.  Third, for publicly financed candidates, we include public matching fund distributions that have been requested but not deposited in raised money and in the column entitled “Cash Balance With Requested Public Contributions.”  That gives you a better idea of the true financial position of publicly financed campaigns.

Below is our fundraising summary for the County Executive candidates.

Council Member Roger Berliner (whom your author supports) is the leader in money raised other than self-funding and also in cash on hand.  He is closing in on a million dollars raised for the race, which was roughly Ike Leggett’s total in 2006.  He has enough money to be heard in the final month.

Council Member Marc Elrich is the leader among the publicly financed candidates.  His total raised of $745,352 is almost five times what he raised in his 2014 council race when public financing was not yet available.  Elrich has a long history of vastly outperforming his fundraising because of his large and loyal base of supporters, some of whom have been with him for decades.  With more than $400,000 to spend in the final month, he won’t blow anyone out, but he can combine that with a grass-roots field program to finish strong.

Businessman David Blair is going to break Steve Silverman’s fundraising record in 2006 with more than $2 million.  The difference is that Silverman raised his money from the business community while Blair is mostly a self-funder.  Blair’s self-financing of $1.9 million sends a message that he is deadly serious about winning.  He is the strongest of the outsider candidates.

Council Member George Leventhal will get votes because of his longevity, name recognition and sheer hard work in the campaign cycle.  (His brilliant Avengers-themed video could get some votes too!)  But he doesn’t have enough resources to make a big push at the end.

Former Mayor of Rockville Rose Krasnow is a substantive and knowledgeable candidate who impresses those she meets.  But she made two big mistakes in this campaign: getting in late and using public financing.  Those mistakes reinforce each other.  If she had gotten in early, she might have been able to raise enough in public financing to compete with the totals accumulated by Elrich and Leventhal.  Since she did get in late, traditional financing offered a better option to raise money in a hurry.  Now she is in the same situation as Leventhal and Bill Frick: struggling to make a final push.

Your author likes Delegate Bill Frick (D-16) a lot personally but he doesn’t have the resources to make his case.  We wish Frick had stayed in the House of Delegates and plotted a course to succeed his former district mate, Brian Frosh, as Attorney General.  The path not taken will be harder now.

Republican Robin Ficker has applied for public financing, but as of this writing, we don’t know whether he will receive it.

Overall, there are two competing narratives among those who are really focused on this race – admittedly, a minority of the voters.  First, there is the view that the county should be more progressive.  It should be bolder about closing the achievement gap, do more to help vulnerable residents (including renters), institute tougher environmental protections and push back against the influence of developers and big businesses.  People with that perspective are mostly rallying behind Elrich, who is the overwhelming choice of progressive endorsing organizations.

Then there is the narrative advanced by your author’s writings on the county budget and the economy, the Washington Post’s endorsement editorials and the now-famous report by Sage Policy Group: to pay for progressive priorities, the county needs a stronger tax base.  That message plays more to the outsider candidates, especially Blair, who put it in a recent mailer.  But there’s no reason why Berliner and Leventhal shouldn’t embrace that perspective too.

It’s important to recognize that these views are not mutually exclusive.  Not all progressives are skeptical of economic growth.  And not all people who would like to see a stronger economy oppose spending the resulting revenue on progressive priorities.  But the two messages contain differences in emphasis and differences in potential for attracting blocs of voters.  Both of them represent change in some form, implying that running on resume and experience won’t be enough in this cycle – at least not in the Executive contest.  Everyone needs to pick a path forward to win.

Next: the Council At-Large race.

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McGee Files for Matching Funds… And Then There is Ficker

By Adam Pagnucco.

Update: Council District 5 candidate Kevin Harris has also filed for matching funds on May 15, claiming $12,400 in qualifying contributions from 176 in-county residents.

Original Post: Council District 1 candidate Jim McGee filed for public matching funds on May 15.  His filing claims 157 qualifying contributors and $36,580 in qualifying contributions, above the respective thresholds for a district race of 125 and $10,000.  Two other District 1 candidates have qualified for matching funds, including Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez and Reggie Oldak, who has already applied for the maximum amount ($125,000) available under the program.

On Monday, we wrote that county law stated that the qualifying period for matching funds ended 45 days before the primary, which this year fell on Saturday, May 12.  That is true.  But at the time, we did not know that the State Board of Elections had allowed candidates to file as late as May 15 with only qualifying contributions received by May 12 eligible for matching funds.  A reader brought that to our attention and we updated the post.  But we are gonna own this one: we screwed up.  Your author apologizes to Jim McGee and Seventh State readers.

Then there is Robin Ficker, who is running for Executive in the public financing program.  Ficker registered his public account on 2/8/17 and so far has not qualified for matching funds.  (The other Executive candidates in public financing – Marc Elrich, George Leventhal and Rose Krasnow – qualified some time ago.)  Ficker told Bethesda Magazine that he was unaware that he was subject to the 45-day qualifying period because he has no primary opponent.  In order to qualify for matching funds, Executive candidates need 500 contributions from individuals living in the county totaling at least $40,000.  Ficker then sent an application for matching funds on May 15 but it asked for… zero dollars.

Can anyone figure this out for us?  Because we admit it – we can’t!

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These Public Financing Candidates Are Done

By Adam Pagnucco.

Update: Even though the deadline is May 12, the State Board of Elections said on March 30 that they will allow a candidate to file for matching funds as late as tomorrow (May 15) provided that all qualifying contributions were received by May 12.  We will see if any of the above candidates file reports by tomorrow night.

Original Post: According to Montgomery County’s public campaign financing law, candidates have until 45 days before the primary election to qualify for public matching funds.  Since the primary is on June 26, the qualifying period ended on Saturday, May 12.  According to filings with the State Board of Elections, the following candidates did not qualify for matching funds by then and will not be receiving them.

Rosemary Arkoian – At-Large

Richard Banach – District 1

Craig Carozza-Caviness – At-Large

Bill Cook – District 1

Robin Ficker – County Executive

Lorna Phillips Forde – At-Large

Richard Gottfried – At-Large

Neil Greenberger – At-Large

Kevin Harris – District 5

Kenge Malikidogo-Fludd – District 5

Jim McGee – District 1

Melissa McKenna – At-Large

Darwin Romero – At-Large

In addition, Bethesda Magazine reported that these candidates were ruled ineligible for matching funds because their submissions to the State Board of Elections did not meet the thresholds of either in-county contributors or in-county money received to qualify.

Shruti Bhatnagar – At-Large

Loretta Garcia – At-Large

Paul Geller – At-Large

Michele Riley – At-Large

Tim Willard – At-Large

These eighteen candidates represent almost half of the thirty-eight active candidates in public financing.  Starved of resources and unable to get their messages out, none of them will be elected.

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