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.