Updated – 4:30 p.m. – Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro believes political activist Robin Ficker has partnered with a controversial group that has been described by two organizations as anti-immigrant in order to pursue term limits in Montgomery County.
She wrote in a Facebook post Monday that Ficker’s proposed ballot question is targeting her. If the proposed question is added to the November ballot it would be up to voters to decide if council members and the county executive should be limited to three consecutive terms.
“As the first immigrant woman ever to serve on the Montgomery County Council, I think it’s appalling that Robin Ficker, perennial Republican candidate, and Brad Botwin the leader of ‘Help Save Maryland,’ an organization designated as a hate group by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have made sure that their ‘Term Limit’ ballot measure specifically targets me,” Navarro wrote in a Facebook post Monday. “On top of that, they blatantly lie to the press about it. Well, I guess the Trump factor is in full-effect in Montgomery County.”
Ficker, a Republican who runs for local office in seemingly every election, lost to Navarro by more than 3,000 votes in a special County Council race in 2009. Since then he has lost elections to Democrats including County Council member Craig Rice and State Senator Brian Feldman as well as the Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.
On Monday, when Ficker submitted the petition for the term limits question, he said council members were attempting to confuse voters by adding a second question that would define a partial term as more than two years. He also described it as a “self-serving” measure designed to give Navarro a special exception to run for a third full term.
The council added the language for the second ballot question last week. If the question is approved by voters it would enable Navarro to remain on the council for a third full term if she wins in 2018, even though she served a partial term from 2009 to 2010.
A full term on the council is four years, but currently the county’s charter does not define a partial term. Ficker’s ballot question, however, would limit council members from serving three consecutive full or partial terms, which would keep Navarro from running in 2018. She joined the council after winning the 2009 special election against Ficker and later went on to win two full terms in 2010 and 2014.
In a phone interview with Bethesda Beat Tuesday, Navarro said the council attorney thought it was important to define a partial term so there’s no ambiguity. She also said it was important for voters to understand that Ficker has associated himself with a questionable local political group—Help Save Maryland—to obtain signatures for the petition.
Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Marlyand, which brands itself as a watchdog group that provides information about illegal aliens living in Maryland, was among seven volunteers who recruited individuals to sign the term limit petition during a canvassing event near Bethesda Row in June. Botwin said in an email to Bethesda Beat Tuesday afternoon that he has been volunteering with other citizens to collect signatures for the petition all over the county for nearly nine months. He said Help Save Maryland is not a hate group.
"For the record my 501c3 organization, Help Save Maryland, has never been and is not now a hate group," Botwin said. "Years ago I confronted the [Southern Poverty Law Center] about the 'listing.' They had no info or justification for it and immediately pulled it down." He added that the county will survive without the current members of the council. "New energetic leaders interested in listening to their constituents will take their places in 2018," Botwin said, noting that his support for term limits was mostly driven by measures passed over the past few years by the council such as "out of control" county budgets, increasing density for development in Westbard and raising property taxes as well as an inability to address ongoing issues at the Department of Liquor Control.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated Help Save Maryland as part of the “nativist extremist movement,” which it says is made up of groups that confront suspected undocumented immigrants or businesses that hire them. However, the law center did not designate Help Save Maryland as a hate group, according to its website. In 2008, the Anti-Defamation League described the group’s efforts as anti-immigrant, “including empowering local law enforcement to initiate deportation proceedings, closing day labor centers and removing benefits to undocumented immigrants.”
“When I ran in 2009, this particular group was very active in harassing me,” said Navarro, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela and has lived in Montgomery County for the past two decades. “They were calling for things like my naturalization certificate and questioning my ability to run as an immigrant.”
She said the group’s efforts are similar to those of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has made negative comments against Muslims and Mexicans. Navarro represents District 4 in the county, which includes Wheaton, Glenmont, Aspen Hill and Olney.
The term limits proposal would prohibit four other County Council members—Roger Berliner, George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Marc Elrich— from running for re-election in 2018but at that point all four would have served three or more full terms.
“The immigrant, the Latina woman, only gets to serve 9.5 years?” Navarro asked. “I find that disingenuous.”
She added that she doesn’t see the purpose of term limits.
“I personally believe every single election is an opportunity for term limits,” Navarro said. “We’ve seen incidents where incumbents have their lost their seats in re-election bids.”
This is Ficker’s fourth attempt to petition to add term limits to the Montgomery County charter. Voters narrowly defeated term limit questions in 2000 and 2004, and Ficker didn’t reach the required number of signatures to place a question on the ballot in 2010.
Leventhal also criticized Ficker in a series of Twitter posts in June, calling him a “perennial loser” and comparing his petition effort to Great Britain’s Brexit vote by calling it “a dumb, unnecessary protest gesture.” Last week, council president Nancy Floreen said all nine council members, who are all Democrats, are against Ficker’s term limit proposal.
The political maneuvering is taking place even before the county’s Board of Elections reviews the 18,000 signatures Ficker estimated he turned in with the petition. The board must make sure at least 10,000 of them match up with local voter registration rolls in order to add the term limit question to the ballot. It has until the end of August to do so.