Year in Review

Photo by Andrew Metcalf

Most Unlikely Political Victor

Like clockwork, local gadfly Robin Ficker has been running unsuccessfully for office since the dawn of the new millennium, losing nine times over the past 16 years. But Ficker, once a nationally known oddity for his loud heckling at Washington Wizards games, has fared better when pushing Montgomery County ballot initiatives. He’s come out on top twice—in a 2008 vote to make it harder for the county council to raise taxes, and this past November, in a vote to impose a three-term limit on the county executive and council.

Ficker pushed term limits in 2000 and 2004, as well, when the outcomes were more familiar for him: Well-funded coalitions convinced voters to reject the plans. But there was little organized opposition to Ficker’s latest move, coming in a year of a national anti-incumbent mood and amid a local backlash over a big property tax increase enacted by the council. As a result, there will be at least four new faces on the nine-member council elected in 2018.

Illustration by Jenny Ragone

Most Expensive Silver Medal

If politics were the Olympics, David Trone couldn’t touch Katie Ledecky. The Bethesda swimmer came home from Rio de Janeiro last summer with four gold medals, but Trone, a Potomac resident and co-owner of Total Wine & More, could manage no better than a silver in his first run for elected office. He finished second in last April’s Democratic primary in the 8th Congressional District. Trone nonetheless did earn a spot in the political record books: He spent the most money ($13.4 million of his personal fortune) of any self-funded candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. That kind of money could have made for a silver medal with a lot of gold plating. If Trone had invested in commodities instead of votes, his campaign war chest would have translated, at recent prices, into more than 11,000 ounces of gold.       

Most Unusual Plea for Votes

In 1970, when Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell was criticized as a lackluster jurist, Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska offered a memorable, if highly unusual, defense. “Even if he were mediocre,” Hruska said of Carswell, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?” Early last year, Chris Mason, seeking the Republican congressional nomination in Maryland’s 6th District, picked up where Hruska left off nearly a half-century earlier. “They keep telling us that the best and brightest are the ones to lead this nation. …If we keep electing the best and brightest and the somebodies, we won’t have a nation left,” Mason, a security consultant, declared during a candidate debate in Gaithersburg. “It’s time to do something different: Elect somebody who’s a nobody. I’m a nobody.” Hruska’s argument failed to win confirmation to the high court for Carswell, and the similar sales pitch didn’t succeed in sending Mason to Capitol Hill: He finished sixth in an eight-person primary.

Photo by Joe Zimmerman

Red Scare Redux Award  

It’s been nearly three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, and nearly twice that long since the height of the McCarthy era, when baseless charges of Communist affiliations were often lobbed against political candidates. But that didn’t deter Republican attorney Dan Cox in his long-shot bid against Democratic state Sen. Jamie Raskin in the 8th Congressional District. “I am not endorsed by the Communist Party USA…as my friend the senator is,” Cox declared during a candidate forum at Montgomery College. A mildly startled Raskin responded, “I’m not aware the Communist Party even existed anymore,” before quickly adding, “I disavow their endorsement.” As it turned out, Raskin had little to disavow. The Communist Party USA website—to which Cox later referred reporters—noted, “The Communist Party does not endorse candidates from other parties.”

Biggest Political Duh

Interstate 270 is one of the most congested highways in the state, but proposed solutions have been slow to come. In September, a coalition of elected officials from Montgomery and Frederick counties formed Fix270Now, a campaign aimed at reducing traffic on the roadway. The plan includes express toll lanes connecting the Capital Beltway with Frederick, bus-rapid-transit (BRT) linking major communities and employment centers, and the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), a local BRT service that would include stops in Clarksburg and at the Shady Grove Metro. Gov. Larry Hogan had promised $100 million for innovative solutions to I-270 traffic. Meanwhile he trimmed spending on the CCT because of reduced revenue from the state gasoline tax. He said in October that he hoped to restore the money in six months. Let’s all hope so.

Worst News for Foodies

Our restaurant scene suffered a blow in 2016 with the closure of Food Wine & Co. in Bethesda and Jackie’s in Silver Spring, two beloved neighborhood establishments. Jackie’s was the first to go in March, when owner Jackie Greenbaum decided not to renew her lease after a successful 11-year run. Instead, she said she wanted to focus on her new Italian restaurant, Little Coco’s, which opened in D.C. in September.
Greenbaum, the force behind popular restaurants such as Quarry House Tavern and Bar Charley, went out with a bang, throwing a big party with former staff and longtime customers. Food Wine & Co., on the other hand, closed quietly after six years in May with an announcement on its Facebook page. The news came soon after Carr Properties, which owns the building that housed the restaurant, announced a plan to demolish it and build a 935,000-square-foot office and housing project at the site. We’ll miss them both.

The Majestic apartments are part of the Watkins Mill area, where an I-270 interchange wll be added. Photo courtesy Peter Henry.

Best Move By The State Legislature (For Montgomery County)

Amid perennial complaints that Montgomery County does not take home its fair share from Annapolis, 2016 turned out to be a pretty good year for roads and schools. After the Hogan administration tried to detour the long-planned Watkins Mill Interchange off Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg, the county’s Senate delegation achieved passage of a bill to compel the state to move ahead with it. The ploy helped bring state officials to the table, and work is now slated to begin this summer on a nearly $130 million project to relieve traffic-clogged I-270 and attract several large employers. Meanwhile, a statewide program created in 2015 to help fast-growing school districts build new facilities saw its funding double in 2016 to $40 million. About one-third of the money is being funneled to Montgomery County, where the school population has been growing by about 2,500 students annually.

A county liquor warehouse. Photo by Andrew Metcalf

Worst Move By The State Legislature (For Montgomery County)

Last call came early for even incremental efforts to reform the county’s Prohibition-era system of beer, wine and liquor sales and distribution. Despite support among restaurant owners and business groups, a “local bill” calling for a referendum on privatizing the Department of Liquor Control didn’t even get a vote in the county’s 24-member House delegation—in large part because of opposition from County Executive Ike Leggett and the county council. The council did embrace a more modest plan to allow private distributors to sell “special order” products, but that didn’t fare any better in Annapolis after Leggett yanked his support. The legislative delegation and Leggett did agree to another study, which ultimately failed to yield a consensus on how to transform the much-criticized status quo.

Highest-Paid Mailman

Shortly after taking the helm of Montgomery County Public Schools on July 1, Superintendent Jack Smith set out to visit every school in the county. But rather than driving to them himself, he decided to hitch rides on the school system’s delivery trucks, tagging along on their daily 5 a.m. runs until he made it to all 204 schools. He said the unannounced visits gave him an opportunity to talk with teachers and staff in many of the schools. He also helped deliver the mail.

Best News for Dog Lovers

Opened in June in downtown Silver Spring, the Ellsworth Dog Park is the county’s first dog park inside the beltway. Featuring separate areas for large and small dogs, water fountains and Mutt Mitts (bags for disposing of dog waste), the half-acre park cost $256,000. Its opening marked the beginning of a countywide effort to offer more amenities for dogs and their owners. The county parks department is planning to build 11 more dog parks by 2022.

Sticker-Shock Award

When it hit the market for $18 million last April, 5517 Pembroke Road in Bethesda became the most expensive home for sale in Montgomery County. Not far from the intersection of Bradley Boulevard and Goldsboro Road, the home has six bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, a hunt room with taxidermy, an exercise room that overlooks an indoor basketball court, a heated swimming pool, a wine cellar, eight garages with parking for 11 cars and a separate apartment for guests. How long will it take to find a buyer willing to spend $18 million? As of press time, we still don’t have an answer.

Photo by Andrew Metcalf

Making Happy Hour Happier

There’s a new way to avoid the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control’s delivery issues—self-distribute your company’s alcohol. Under a Maryland law that went into effect in October, small craft distilleries can now distribute their whiskeys, rums, vodkas and other liquor products directly to restaurants. The change could result in more Maryland-made hard alcohol being served in local restaurants, according to distillery owners in the state. We’ll drink to that.

State Del. Ben Kramer (left) with Gino Renne, president of a local food and commercial workers union. Photo by Andrew Metcalf

Biggest Unforced Error

When state Del. Ben Kramer (D-Wheaton) publicly supported and aided efforts to maintain Montgomery County’s liquor monopoly, he failed to mention an important detail: He benefits financially from the Department of Liquor Control (DLC). Kramer, the son of former Montgomery County Executive Sid Kramer, and his sister, former state Sen. Rona Kramer, own a building in the Cloverly section of Silver Spring that houses a county liquor store. Public records show that Kramer and his sister received $2.56 million in lease payments from the DLC through 2015, and will collect $2.7 million more through September 2025.


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