There were few policy differences in evidence Thursday night as the eight Republicans vying for the seat now held by Democratic Rep. John Delaney debated for the third time this year. But the session again served to highlight a split on abortion between the only woman in the field, national security consultant Amie Hoeber of Potomac, and her seven male opponents, as the issue was discussed in starkly personal terms.
The major fireworks of the session, held at the Francis Scott Key American Legion Post in Frederick, were sparked when one of the contenders, attorney Robin Ficker of Boyds, went after Hoeber for failing to vote in several past Republican primaries—prompting Hoeber to accuse Ficker of lying.
The debate, attended by about 150 people, took place less than seven weeks before the April 26 Republican primary for the District 6 seat, to which Delaney was first elected in 2012. Delaney is a heavy favorite to win renomination against a long-shot primary challenge from Democratic Party activist Tony Puca of North Bethesda in a district that extends northwest from Potomac and Gaithersburg to Garrett County on the western edge of the state.
As part of a “lightning round” of questions early in the two-hour debate, moderator Charles “Cully” Stimson, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, asked the candidates, “Liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said she believes the  decision in Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. Was it?”
Hoeber was the sole candidate to reply with a “no.” The seven male candidates all replied in the affirmative, with Del. David Vogt of Frederick County—who has sought to highlight his opposition to abortion during the campaign, responding, “Absolutely.”
(While the answers at Thursday’s session reflected a philosophical opposition to abortion, Ginsburg’s objections to the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling—made in a 2013 speech at the University of Chicago—were grounded more in procedure. “My criticism of Roe is that it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change,” Ginsburg said at the time, saying she would have preferred a more gradual process of securing abortion rights through state legislatures as well as the courts.)
Pressed by Stimson on comments she reportedly made late last year that she was “neither pro-life nor pro-choice,” Hoeber—who has taken heat from some party conservatives on her abortion views—responded, “I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother. I think I understand the preciousness of growing life inside myself better than anyone else at this table.”
She continued, “I would never have an abortion. On the other hand, I believe that the federal government has no right to impose my views on anyone else, or anyone else’s views on me.”
After Washington County Commissioner Terry Baker had voiced his support for the so-called “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”—legislation debated in Congress and adopted by at least a dozen states to limit abortions after 20 weeks—Hoeber interjected.
“I want to make one other comment—it’s really very personal, but let me make it. I lost a child once, and that makes me really understand the preciousness,” she said.
Hoeber did join all of her male colleagues in saying she supports the so-called Hyde amendment, which bars use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. She was more tentative when asked if she would deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood, at the center of a controversy in Congress last year over allegations that it had discussed selling tissue from aborted fetuses for profit.
“Probably,” she said, as the other candidates all said they would definitely vote to cut off support for Planned Parenthood.
Besides Hoeber, Baker, Ficker and Vogt, the candidates at Thursday’s debate included physician/research scientist Scott Cheng of Montgomery Village, businessman Frank Howard of Laytonsville, former Marine and national security consultant Christopher Mason of Frederick County, and accountant Harold Painter of Gaithersburg, an unsuccessful candidate for the District 6 Republican nomination in 2014.
Howard appeared to be taking a harder line stance on abortion than two years ago, when—while seeking a Montgomery County state Senate seat—he said he would not favor seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Noting he was adopted as a young child, Howard termed himself “passionately pro-life,” adding, “I understand about the government not telling people what to do in most areas, but when it comes to extinguishing a life, who speaks for that unborn life? And I believe the government does have the right, and, in fact, the obligation, to step in and prohibit the taking of that life.”
Howard’s campaign has struggled to raise funds as he has sought to remain competitive with Hoeber and Vogt, who are widely regarded as being in the top-tier of candidates in the race. Hoeber’s campaign has been boosted by a “Super PAC,” Maryland USA—funded by Hoeber’s multimillionaire husband, Mark Epstein—that has underwritten more than $480,000 worth of cable and digital ads to boost her campaign.
Howard is hoping for the support of many of the conservative activists from the network assembled in 2014 by Republican nominee Dan Bongino, who came within 3,000 votes of ousting Delaney that year. In a political season that has been good to outsider candidates, Howard at times seemed to be aiming for a Donald Trump-like appeal Thursday, declaring, “I am a businessman. I get things done. We have enough empty suits, we have enough career politicians. I am not a party-goer. I cannot imagine myself hanging out in the salons of Washington, D.C., backslapping, confabbing.”
Ficker—running his fifth race in seven years for federal, state or local office—repeatedly referred to himself as part of the “Trump-Cruz-Ficker” ticket, referring to Trump and fellow Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, as he went on the attack against both Hoeber and Howard over their failure to vote in several recent Republican primaries.
“You want someone who is going to vote the Republican line on Capitol Hill…so you look at the voting records of the people here,” Ficker declared. “Amie Hoeber has voted in three of the eight Republican primaries since she registered to vote as a Republican in [Montgomery County]. And then she lied about it and said she had only missed one election. Frank Howard has voted in only three of nine Republican primaries since he registered to vote in Maryland in 1998.”
Boasted Ficker, “I haven’t missed voting in an election since 1964…I always vote, I always vote the Republican line”—overlooking the fact that he sought the Democratic Party nomination for Congress from neighboring District 8 in 1972, prior to serving one term as a Republican delegate to the General Assembly.
Howard said it was “a revelation to me” that he had voted in only three primaries since registering in Maryland, adding, “I’ll have to check my voting record…but I vote routinely.”
Hoeber, however, pushed back aggressively in response to Ficker’s comments.
“I did not have my voting record in front of me and I misspoke at the last debate—and in fact I thought I had only missed one primary when I had actually missed three. I had a business to run and was out of town a great deal of the time,” Hoeber said.
She added, “I will point out that Mr. Ficker lied when he sent an email to one of my supporters that said Ms. Hoeber only voted in one primary.”
Ficker continued to insist Hoeber had failed to vote in five of eight primaries in which she was eligible, acknowledging his email had incorrectly said she missed six primaries. “I missed it by one, and the reason I did is that I looked at the Montgomery County Board of Election voting record and they made a mistake. Their record was not the same as the state,” he explained.
But Ficker soon found himself on the defensive over his military record, as moderator Stimson noted Ficker’s biography indicated that he left the U.S. Military Academy at West Point after several months. “But you prominently display on your Facebook page your honorable discharge from the Army as a [private first class]. Explain that,” Stimson asked Ficker.
Ficker was expelled from West Point in 1963 for demerits—most of them earned while speaking derisively to hospital personnel while being treated for a broken leg, according to a story first published in People magazine in 1992. That profile was written during Ficker’s heyday as a heckler at Washington Wizards’ basketball games.
“I am the only person here who was appointed to West Point, where I was for 30 months. It was a lot more than a few months,” Ficker told Stimson. “I am the only person sitting here who has an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army.”
And he boasted, “I am the only person sitting here who was king of the pits in hand-to-hand combat at West Point, and I used to throw these Marines and Air Force guys all over the place.”
The assertion was met with scattered boos from the debate audience.