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.
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.