Category Archives: Robin Ficker

Will Taxpayers Fund Ficker’s Next Campaign?

By Adam Pagnucco.

As MCM and Seventh State have reported, MoCo political heckler Robin Ficker is running for County Executive.  That’s not shocking – Ficker has a long history of running for office and almost always losing.  What’s new is that Ficker is planning on acquiring a new source of campaign funds.

You, the public.

Ficker’s campaign website explicitly refers to the county’s new public financing system, under which the county matches campaign contributions made by individual residents (but not PACs, corporate entities or non-residents).  The system is opt-in; candidates can use the traditional financing system if they wish.  Ficker created a public financing account to run for Executive on February 8.  But that doesn’t mean he will necessarily get public funds.

Ficker’s campaign website home page.

The county’s system does not distribute taxpayer money to everyone who participates.  Instead, it sets up a number of thresholds candidates must reach before they are eligible for public matching funds.  Under the law, a candidate for Executive must receive at least 500 contributions of $150 or less from county residents totaling at least $40,000 before he or she is eligible for public funds.  The candidate cannot accept money from PACs or businesses and cannot take individual contributions of higher amounts.  Once eligible, the candidate can collect up to $600 in taxpayer funds for each $150 contributed by an individual.  Lesser matching amounts apply to smaller contributions on a sliding scale.  Lower thresholds and different match levels apply to those running for County Council at-large and district seats.

Could Ficker get public money?  Ficker has used two campaign accounts over the last decade, the Robin Ficker for Homeowners Committee (which he used in two runs for County Council) and the Fickers for 15 Slate (which he used to run for the General Assembly along with his son in 2014).  The two accounts together raised $262,762.  Of that amount, Ficker self-financed $259,108, or 99% of his take.  A total of 33 individuals other than Ficker gave to the two accounts.  So Ficker has a long ways to go to get public money.  However, he does plan to use his term limits petition information to raise contributions.  Ficker gathered 17,649 signatures.  If just three percent of those folks contribute $150 or less to his campaign, Ficker will qualify for public matching funds.

And so here is the cost of public campaign financing.  If taxpayers are to fund the campaigns of candidates they might support, they may also have to fund the campaigns of those they do not.  Even the clown prince of political hecklers.  Even Robin Ficker.

Did Ficker Commit Election or Tax Fraud?

Bethesda Beat caught local gadfly and perennial Republican candidate Robin Ficker in a shocking admission the other day:

[In 2009], Ficker lost to council member Nancy Navarro, 7,364 to 4,263, in a special election for the council’s District 4 seat. Ficker said Friday he used his parents’ Silver Spring address to run in that race.

However, the Montgomery County Charter says that you’re supposed to reside in the Council District in which you run:

Each of the five other members of the Council shall, at the time of Nomination and election and throughout the member’s term of office, reside in a different Council district, and shall be nominated and elected by the qualified voters of that district. Any change in the boundaries of a Council district after a member is elected shall not render the member ineligible to complete the term for which the member was elected.

You’re supposed to use your own address, not that of your parents, when you run for office, so did Ficker violate the law? Notice that Ficker did not say that he moved to his parents’ house to establish residency but that “he used his parents’ address.”

According to the Montgomery County property tax database, Ficker has paid property tax on his home in Boyds since at least 1999. As Adam Pagnucco covered at the time, Ficker was still claiming the homestead exemption on his principal residence–his home in Boyds.

How did Ficker establish residency in Council District 4? Was his parents’ home his domicile? Did he live with his parents or with his wife in their home? Did Ficker file taxes at his own home or that of his parents? Did he obtain a new driver’s license with his parents’ address? Did he switch his voter registration, and if so, was that also done legally?

Put bluntly, did Robin Ficker establish legal residency in Council District 4? In light of the obvious evidence and Ficker’s public admission, does the State’s Attorney intend to investigate violations of either tax or election law?

Additionally, do Ficker’s actions violate the Maryland Code of Legal Ethics? The Code states:

A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs. . . .

A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer, or of a candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office. . . .

Robin Ficker is an attorney and would no doubt claim that he complied with the law. Some might hesitate to take his word for it, as “Ficker has been a frequent flyer in disciplinary matters” related to ethical requirements for the practice of law:

ATTORNEY GRIEV. COMM’N OF MARYLAND v. FICKER, 319 Md. 305, 572 A.2d 501 (1990). Reprimand.

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND v. Robin K.A. FICKER, 349 Md. 13, 706 A.2d 1045 (1998). Law license suspension.

Private reprimand (1998).

Private reprimand (2002).

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND v. Robin K.A. FICKER, 399 Md. 445, 924 A.2d 1105 (2007). Indefinite law license suspension.

Although Ficker’s law license was reinstated after a year in the last case, the dissent in the opinion stated:

If disbarment is not warranted in this case for these types of issues, with a respondent with this history, it will never be warranted. If it is never going to be warranted in these types of cases, we should modify the rules to say so. I would disbar.

MoCo Revolts

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a thundering rebuke to Montgomery County’s governing establishment, voters have passed term limits by a 38 point margin with early votes and election day votes counted.  Folks, let’s call this what it is.

A Revolt.

This year will see one of the largest electorates in Montgomery County history.  While the absolute number of voters may be declining in our mid-term elections, it has been steadily rising in presidential general elections.  County residents voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump (by 54 points as of this writing).  But they also voted for term limits despite the fact that most county voters are Democrats and all county elected officials are Democrats.  This year was reminiscent of the 2008 general election, during which MoCo voted for Barack Obama by 45 points but also approved Robin Ficker’s charter amendment restricting property tax hikes by just 5,060 votes.  This demonstrates the capacity of county voters to keep national issues and local issues separate when they so desire.  The big difference between 2008 and now is that the margin of term limits’ passage was so titanic that it’s possible that half of all Democrats voted for it.

The scale of this upheaval is virtually unprecedented.  Sure, County Council incumbents have been defeated here and there and a sitting County Executive was beaten in 1990.  But the voters voted against all the incumbents this year, or at least put an expiration date on their services.  To find something comparable, you would have to go back to 1962, when five of seven Council Members were ejected, and 1966, when six Council Members were defeated.

Former County Council Member Steve Silverman astutely characterized term limits supporters as “a convergence of strange bed-fellows.”  County employees upset about reduced raises, business people unhappy about what they see as an unfriendly business climate, residents opposed to new master plans with more density, Republicans and unaffiliated voters angry about being marginalized, opponents of the county’s liquor monopoly, people upset about the recent Giant Tax Hike and nanny state laws, and those who genuinely regard term limits as facilitating good government came together as they never have before.  As David Lublin wrote, these groups may have had incompatible visions of what county government should be, but all of them believed the way to get there was to get rid of the incumbents.

Term limits opponents made two primary arguments.  First, they described term limits as “an attack on progressive government.”  This had the effect of making the term limits question a referendum on current county elected officials, a perspective actually shared by many supporters.

term-limits-opposition-fundraiser

And second, they tried to make term limits toxic by emphasizing their support by figures like Donald Trump, Robin Ficker and Help Save Maryland.

term-limits-trump-ficker

That strategy didn’t work for two reasons: the opponents were vastly under-funded as they were going uphill and the message itself was not calibrated for a general electorate that is less liberal than Democratic primary voters.  Social media proved to be the weapon of choice for both sides, and in terms of Facebook likes, supporters outgunned opponents by a ratio of 13-1.  Opponents were counting on the Democratic sample ballot and the Apple Ballot, both opposing term limits, to win.  But whereas the sample ballot is often mailed to all county Democrats, this time around it was mailed only to those who had newly registered.  And the teachers union did not supplement its Apple Ballot poll coverage with multiple mass mailings as they do in mid-term years.  Accordingly, the impact of both ballots was blunted.  Opposition organizer Tom Moore made a valiant effort, but this was an unwinnable campaign from the start.

To be fully understood, this year’s vote must be put into the context of recent history.  Since 2008, county voters have decided four major ballot questions and each time they took what was arguably the less progressive position.  Put those four votes together and here is the message from the voters:

We don’t want more property taxes.  We don’t want more government fees.  We don’t want a labor union running the police department.  And even though most of us are Democrats, we are telling the Democrats who run the county government that twelve years in office is long enough.

This is pretty much the opposite of the long-standing posture of the county’s political establishment.  And it’s not just coming from flakes, fanatics and fringe types like Robin Ficker and Help Save Maryland – it’s coming from a majority of county voters.  If there was ever a moment for the governing class to do some soul searching, this is it.

Opponents of term limits may be right about one thing – they may change the names of elected officials, but not the type of them.  Democrats, often very liberal ones, will continue to be elected because of our closed primary system.  But the combined message of the last four ballot questions imposes a hard choice on the elected officials of today and tomorrow.  They can try to balance the interests of various constituencies across the political spectrum at the possible cost of losing the progressive support that influences Democratic primaries.  Or they can stay the course and watch more moderate general election voters pass even more restrictive ballot questions, including perhaps the ultimate bane of progressivism – a hard tax cap.

Term Limits Opposition in Shambles

By Adam Pagnucco.

With the challenge to Robin Ficker’s petition signatures having failed in court, the opposition to term limits has hit a new low.  Opponents have less than three weeks left and over 400,000 prospective general election voters to reach.  Tick tock says the clock.

How do you win on term limits?  Here’s a theory: voters will vote in accordance with their perceived self-interest.  Whoever wishes to sway them must address their self-interest and take account of how they see it.  Failure to do so means losing the argument.

So far, the opponents’ arguments against term limits seem to be that they are unfair to elected officials, that Robin Ficker is a baaaaad man (he is), that county Republicans favor them, that nativist extremists were involved in gathering petition signatures (they were), that Nancy Navarro would be denied three full terms under Ficker’s language, that Donald Trump favors term limits and that term limits supporters are like Brexit supporters.

Well, OK.  But what do any of these arguments have to do with the voters’ self-interest?

And then this happened.

“Oh wait a minute.  Never mind, voters.  Forget about what we told you.  We are going to court so you won’t be able to vote!  What’s that?  You will be voting after all?  Oh.  Well, remember what we were saying…?”

Adding to the above is that most prominent opponents of term limits have a personal self-interest in the issue.  Several incumbent Council Members have spoken publicly against them.  Tom Moore, the opponents’ organizer, is a former Rockville City Council Member who ran for County Council in 2014 and might do so again.  Almost all of the scanty funding for the anti-term limits committee came from Council Members, their staff, their family and a non-profit receiving county money.  Are there any non-politicians (aside from Charter Review Commission Chair Paul Bessel) who are willing to work to defeat term limits?

Ficker, on the other hand, does have a narrative aimed at voters.  His sales pitch is that, according to him, current elected officials are “self-serving” by awarding themselves large salary increases and voting for big tax hikes filled with goodies for interest groups that help them get reelected.  The costs of all this are passed on to taxpayers.  Ficker proposes breaking this cycle by instituting term limits and getting new people elected with “fresh ideas.”  Put aside for a moment that there are numerous problems with his theory, including that there is already substantial competition in county elections and that the 2014 public financing law could promote even more competition.  Ficker is speaking directly to the pocketbook interests of voters while the other side is currently not.

Right now, all the momentum is with term limits supporters as many factors are working in their favor – especially the council’s Giant Tax Hike.  Opponents are going uphill, with a tremendous amount of work to do and very little time.  At this point in the 2000 term limits battle, legendary Duncan operative Jerry “Darth Vader” Pasternak had put together a massive coalition to fight Ficker, and the opponents ultimately won by just eight points.  In contrast, little of this work appears to have been done this time around. The opponents’ Facebook page has just 69 likes (FAR less than the 4,699 likes on Ficker’s page) and there is no money for a mail budget.  The opponents are relying on the Apple Ballot, the Democratic sample ballot and prayer.  Compare this to the 2000 effort, during which Darth Pasternak’s Empire did at least three mailings plus 130,000 robocalls.

Paul Bessel’s scholarly dissertation on term limits is helpful, but is anyone other than a handful of insomniac college professors going to read it?  Opponents need a direct, relevant message.  Something like this:

Come on, voters!  Is it really in your self-interest to disenfranchise yourselves?  Do you want to prevent yourselves from reelecting an official whom you believe is doing a good job?  Do you benefit from a government that is run by bureaucrats and lobbyists?  Do you really think a County Council jam-packed with lame ducks is going to act on your behalf?  What exactly are YOU getting out of all this?

There’s nothing here about Ficker, Help Save Maryland, Trump or Brexit.  It’s about the voters, stupid!  Just like it’s supposed to be.

Term limits opponents need message, resources and scale – and they need those things yesterday.  Because at this moment, Ficker is on pace to win, perhaps by double digits.

Help Save Maryland, GOP Push Term Limits

By Adam Pagnucco.

Brad Botwin, Director of the anti-immigration group Help Save Maryland, has sent out the following email promoting term limits.

*****

UPDATE ON THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY TERM LIMIT PETITION – CITIZENS WORKING TOGETHER CAN SUCCEED!

Recent e-mail I received on the status of the Term Limit Petition which will revitalize the MoCo County Council and County Executive if passed this November 2016 by the voters.  The professional politicians are getting nervous!

Dear Concerned Voter:

Thank you for signing the non-partisan term limits petition for Montgomery County.

We did it!  You and nearly 18,000 registered voters in Montgomery County signed the term limits petition (only 10,000 signatures were required).  The signatures were submitted on August 8, which means you’ll be able to vote on the term limits question on the November 2018 general election ballot.   When passed — and we need your vote to pass the measure — it will limit County Council members and the County Executive to serving no more than three consecutive terms, or 12 years.

One week from today, on Wednesday, August 24, you will have an opportunity to support term limits at a Montgomery County Charter Commission hearing.

Here is information about the hearing: http://www2.montgomerycountymd.gov/mcgportalapps/Press_Detail.aspx?Item_ID=16281

In order to testify, you must notify the commission in advance by e-mailing them at: charterreview.commission@montgomerycountymd.gov

If you can’t attend, but still want to convey your support for the term limits petition; email the commission at the same e-mail address in the previous sentence.

If you don’t want to speak out publicly on the 24th, please come to the hearing and stand with your neighbors in support of term limits for the County Council and County Executive.

If you want to know how you can help or need more information, let us know.

Thank you,

Montgomery County Citizens group in support of Term Limits   sohenc@gmail.com

*****

The gmail account above belongs to Sharon Cohen, a member of the Montgomery County Republican Party’s Central Committee.  This reinforces the central role played by both Help Save Maryland and the Republicans in pushing Robin Ficker’s terms limits charter amendment.

The state’s election law requires groups advocating on ballot questions to register with the State Board of Elections and file campaign finance reports.  According to the state’s summary guide on campaign finance laws, “Once the petition process to place a question on the ballot is completed, a ballot issue committee must be formed before money is collected or spent to promote the success or defeat of the ballot issue.”

So far, no committee on Montgomery County term limits has registered with the state.  Hopefully, any group advocating on the issue will obey the law, file reports and show their funding.  Voters may find that information useful as they consider whether to support term limits.

Targeting Navarro


By Adam Pagnucco.

It was the spring of 2008.  Five-term County Council Member Marilyn Praisner, who had represented District 4 since 1990, had passed away and eight candidates were running for her seat.  One of them was a woman.  One of them was a person of color born in another country.

Her name was Nancy Navarro.

At that time, District 4 included most of US-29 north of Downtown Silver Spring to the Howard County border and the areas south of Olney, east of Rockville and north of Wheaton.  It had little in the way of restaurants or shopping.  There was the aging, emptying business district in Burtonsville.  There was the decrepit, asphalt-covered shopping center in Glenmont.  Here and there, small and mid-size retail strips clung to the sides of New Hampshire Avenue and other major roads.  A tiny colony of fast food and lowbrow restaurants had just sprung up on US-29 at Tech Road.  Walkable urban shopping was nowhere to be found.  If residents wanted that, they would have to drive to Downtown Silver Spring to get it.

None of this was an accident.  For years and years, the civic leaders and activists who dominated the district’s politics had worked hard to keep development out.  Mrs. Praisner was their champion.  They regarded development as a bad thing, attracting both traffic and “undesirables.”  But newer residents, including people of color, wanted the restaurants, jobs and shopping that most other people around the county had.  Colesville resident Nancy Navarro was one of them, and soon she became their champion.

Navarro stood out during the 2008 special election, and not just because of her gender and heritage.  The other seven candidates running for Mrs. Praisner’s seat, including her husband Don, adhered to her vision of little or no growth.  (Don Praisner’s campaign slogan was literally “Fulfilling the Vision.”)  Navarro instead talked about the benefits of economic development, such as creating jobs for residents and giving them amenities that they had not previously had.  Navarro was also supported by many in the business and real estate communities and the public employee unions.  None of this sat well with the old guard, who regarded developers as evil and unions as tax-happy.  Navarro quickly became a target.

The March debate at the Aspen Hill library typified the direction of the campaign: nearly every other candidate concentrated their fire on Navarro.  Their attacks centered on the allegation that she was allegedly a “tool” of developers and unions.  (It didn’t help that MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast invited union leaders to his house to get them to endorse Navarro.)  But there was more to it than that.  To Navarro’s supporters, the implication of this “tool” argument was that women and people of color were supposedly not intelligent or strong enough to make up their own minds, and that when they made common cause with others, they would inevitably fall under their “control.”  Furthermore, while Don Praisner’s supporters criticized Navarro for taking contributions from developers and businesses, Mrs. Praisner had done the exact same thing for years.  Later, it was revealed that Don Praisner himself accepted money from a property owner in the district seeking redevelopment.

Much of this is par for the course in the rocky world of political campaigns.  After all, opposition to change frequently arises in politics and outrage can be selective.  But with Navarro on the ballot, it mutated into something far darker: a toxic stew of racism and xenophobia.  Don Praisner defeated Navarro in the 2008 Democratic primary and would serve on the council for less than a year before he passed away.  When Navarro returned to run again in the 2009 special election, the forces of extremism were prepared.

First came the illegal anonymous robocalls, a repeat of a tactic used against Navarro in 2008.  Then came rumors circulated both on-line and off linking Navarro (who was born in Venezuela) to the Hugo Chavez regime.  Help Save Maryland, labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “nativist extremist group,” began targeting Navarro for her alleged support of “illegal aliens.”  Their challenge to Navarro was posted on a racist website equating President Obama to Satan.

Most bizarre of all was an email sent to Navarro’s campaign asking about her immigration status.  The author wrote, “I am informally involved with a group of Independents and we are trying to identify a candidate that we feel comfortable endorsing. It would be great if you could put the rumors to rest and provide information as to when (what year) and where, which state, Ms. Navarro received her naturalization or citizenship. Thank you.”  In fact, the author – who used a fake name – was a GOP activist who wrote for the party and had testified against drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.

Robin Ficker was involved too.  The 2008 GOP nominee, Mark Fennel, was a Ficker protégé, had spread the Hugo Chavez rumors and threatened to unleash “the Dogs of War” on Navarro.  In 2009, Ficker “moved” to District 4 to run for the seat and promptly began sending out illegal flyers.  During a televised campaign debate, Ficker waved a set of decade-old tax liens against Navarro and her husband in his opponent’s face.  Ficker did not use Help Save Maryland’s race-baiting tactics directly, but he did not repudiate them either.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that Help Save Maryland’s participation in Ficker’s term limits initiative was spurred in part by a desire to knock off Navarro.  The group has never made its peace with Navarro’s election and has sent out numerous emails slamming her over the years.  Supporters of term limits have many motivations, but Help Save Maryland is quite clear about theirs: they want to slam the county’s gates shut to “illegal aliens.”

Will any of this make a difference in the current debate over term limits?  Probably not.  Few voters have heard of Help Save Maryland and understand what the group believes.  Even Ficker is less infamous now that his NBA heckling days are mostly over.  In any event, voters are more likely to see term limits through the prism of their own perceived self-interest rather than how they impact specific elected officials.

But make no mistake: the treatment of Nancy Navarro during the 2009 special election is a shameful blot on the county’s political history.  It must not be forgotten.  It must not be repeated.  And hopefully, her successors will be treated with the honor and respect that all upstanding candidates deserve.

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?