Josh Kurtz: The Ficker Finger of Fate

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Whatever happened to the Good Old Days in Montgomery County, when Robin Ficker, consistently, was Public Enemy No. 1?

Year after year, Ficker, the gadfly extraordinaire, the chronic candidate who lucked into a seat in the House of Delegates from 1979 to 1982 and has been trying to claw his way back to respectability ever since, has won the enmity of the Montgomery County political establishment by doing the things that gadflies do. 

Specifically, Ficker would advance a ballot question – usually to lower or limit taxes or to impose term limits on county officials – and watch with glee as the establishment scurried to defeat him.

Predictably, there would be a unity news conference – or a series of them – featuring Democrats and Republicans, business and labor and civic leaders and environmentalists, coming together to say why Ficker’s prescription (or sometimes just Ficker himself) was plain wrong, a threat to the way the county traditionally conducts its business and indeed to the county’s cherished way of life.

Ficker has enjoyed a couple of successes here and there – most notably, he narrowly passed a ballot initiative in 2010 that requires the Montgomery County Council to vote unanimously to raise property tax revenues above the local limit. But more often than not, the empire has struck back.

So here we go again in 2016. Ficker is back, pushing a measure to limit county executives and council members to three terms in office. His two previous efforts to impose two-term limits in Montgomery County, in 2000 and in 2004, fell short.

But so far there has been very little outcry about it from the usual suspects. There have been no unity news conferences. No tales of doom and gloom. No efforts to impugn Ficker’s character. 

Sure, some individual elected officials and civic leaders have spoken out against the term limits initiative. To the extent that there is an organized effort to defeat it, it is being led by former Rockville city councilman Tom Moore – and that has largely focused thus far on getting the measure thrown off the ballot.

So where is that unified voice of opposition we’ve come to expect?

A lot of the interest groups that have traditionally come together to oppose term limits in the past are now concluding – some more vocally than others – that a change at the top of county government wouldn’t be so bad. After three terms of Ike Leggett as county executive, and with half the council – Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, Marc Elrich, Roger Berliner and possibly Nancy Navarro, depending on how the courts rule – now in their third or fourth terms, a shake-up, these groups believe, is badly needed. Why not let Robin Ficker do the dirty work for groups that have not been able to oust these elected officials before? 

Especially disdainful of this current crop of county officials is Gino Renne, the president of MCGEO, the principal employee union of the Montgomery government, who has seen labor contracts and negotiating terms abrogated over the past several years. And a lot of business groups would be just as glad to see a whole new crop of councilmembers, because they believe, fairly or not, that this council has impeded economic progress.

The councilmembers did themselves no favors, at least with the burgeoning “throw the bums out” constituency, when they approved a 9 percent property tax increase this spring – the highest in seven years. Nobody is sticking up for them and their actions in an organized way. So term limits look a lot likelier to happen than they ever did before.

But it’s not as if Ficker is investing huge resources into his campaign. There is no organized, well-funded effort to pass them. Citizens will go into the voting booth with very little information, and will have to decide for themselves.

The Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee recently voted to oppose the term limit measure, and will note the opposition on sample ballots that will be mailed out to voters and handed out at the polls. That could be significant.

The Washington Post, always an influential voice in Montgomery County politics, is almost certain to editorialize against it, even though it doesn’t think much of the current council – if only to limit the influence of Ficker in county affairs.

But in the most toxic and cacophonous presidential election year in modern history, with several prominent downballot races on tap in Maryland this fall, how closely will voters actually be following the term limits issue? With limited knowledge, will they be more or less likely to vote for it? Montgomery’s neighboring jurisdictions, Prince George’s and Howard counties, have term limits for their elected officials, and there has been no apocalypse.

There’s no doubt that if term limits are imposed, a big shakeup is coming in Montgomery County politics – perhaps the biggest in 30 years.

Every time there is a vacancy for a big office in Maryland, drooling political junkies imagine a multi-candidate race, with myriad dominoes falling farther down the ballot. Yet those delicious scenarios rarely come to pass. In the end, just as there were only two major Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate this year, just as only three Democrats lined up to run for governor in 2014, the field is winnowed before the candidates hit the starting gate.

But couple term limits with Montgomery County’s new public financing law, and it really is conceivable that six candidates could run for county executive in 2018. Because funding will potentially be easier to come by. And what does anyone have to lose?

Similarly, there will be more candidates for council than usual – including, most likely, younger members of the legislature who are antsy about their lack of progress in Annapolis. Term-limited councilmembers, by turn, could wind up seeking legislative seats if they don’t see a path for themselves in the county executive’s race. 

It’s enough to almost root for the Ficker amendment to pass. But give this guy a little more power and credibility and he could become a whole lot more dangerous.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twiiter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.