Q&A With County Executive Candidate Robin Ficker
This is the second in a series of interviews with the three contenders
Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat political writer Louis Peck sat down with the candidates for Montgomery County executive to discuss the issues and their visions for the county. This week, Bethesda Beat is running each candidate’s Q&A interview, in alphabetical order of the candidates’ names. For more information on the candidates, check out our 2018 General Election Voters’ Guide.
Wednesday: Marc Elrich
Thursday: Robin Ficker
Friday: Nancy Floreen
Age: 75 (born April 5, 1943, Takoma Park)
Home: Boyds; divorced, three children
Education: bachelor’s degree, Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University), Cleveland, Ohio, 1965; law degree, University of Baltimore School of Law, Baltimore, Maryland, 1970; master’s degree in public administration, American University, Washington, D.C., 1970
Professional background: attorney (private practice, Bethesda, 1982-2016, College Park, 2016-present), real estate broker (2008-present)
Political experience: Maryland House of Delegates, District 15 (1978-1982); ran for U.S. Senate (2000); ran for U.S. House of Representatives in District 6 (1984, 2012, 2016), in District 8 (1972, 1974, 1975, 1980, 2004); ran for Maryland Senate in District 15 (1986, 2014), in District 39 (2002); ran for Maryland House of Delegates in District 15 (1982, 1994); ran for Montgomery County executive (2006); ran for Montgomery County Council in District 2 (2010), in District 4 (2009); ran for Montgomery County Board of Education (1988)
Placed 17 voter referendums on the Montgomery County ballot between 1974 and 2016; five were approved, most recently limiting property tax increases to the rate of inflation unless the County Council unanimously votes otherwise (2008) and limiting the county executive and members of the County Council to three consecutive four-year terms (2016). Other approved referenda include: forbidding the county from operating or constructing garbage dumps in residential zones (1978); forbidding the county from trenching sewage sludge in residential zones (1980); and forbidding the county to contract with C&P Telephone Co. (now part of Verizon) if C&P charged upper-county residents long-distance rates to call Prince George’s County and Northern Virginia (1982).
What do you feel differentiates you most from your two opponents?
I drew a map, and I looked up the addresses of my two opponents [Democrat Marc Elrich of Takoma Park and independent Nancy Floreen of Garrett Park] and the addresses of the four at-large council members. And they all live—I plotted them very accurately—in the Takoma Park trapezoid, which is 4.1 percent of Montgomery County’s land area.
I think we need some geographic diversity in the county government, and I certainly give that—because I’m the only one who drives down I-270 every day; I live in Boyds … [Elrich and Floreen] are alike. The only way they’ve been a little different is in development. They’re two very liberal Democrats, and I’m the only alternative to them in this race … . We need someone who thinks like the general election voters, as I do.
What issues do you most have in mind when you say that?
The reason I say I do is because of the [referendum] vote on property tax limits in 2008, which they all opposed. In 2006, they increased the county budget 11 percent. Marc came on the council after the 2006 budget. In 2007, they increased the county budget by 11 percent; in 2008, they both voted to increase the county budget 14 percent in one year.
Rather than just sit there and take it, I put a question on the ballot in 2008 to require a unanimous vote of the council to increase property taxes more than the rate of inflation. And it passed, despite opposition from The Washington Post, all the elected officials, the teachers union, and the League of Women Voters. But they weren’t in touch with the view of the people.
But they figured out a way to get around it in 2016, when Nancy was the chairman of the council and Marc was her look-alike voter, and they were the two deciding votes—because it took all nine votes. If they had voted the other way, the maximum property tax increase would have been 1.8 percent, which was the rate of inflation. So they gave us a property tax increase [an average of 8.7 percent] five times the rate of inflation.
Both Mr. Elrich and Ms. Floreen, along with the other seven members of the council, have defended their votes for that as necessary to produce additional revenues to meet the increasing challenges faced by the county’s school system. Do you feel that investment in the school system was unnecessary?
I think you have to live within your means, and if you can count on tax increases, you’ll keep exceeding your means. Believe me, if either one of those folks is elected, it’s guaranteed that we’re going to get big property tax increases. They did it back in 2008, and they would have done it each and every year up until 2016 if it hadn’t have been for my amendment, because, prior to my amendment, it didn’t take a unanimous vote. And then that changed: Every vote became essential.
When they say that they’re not going to raise property taxes, that’s completely disingenuous. In 2010, they held a hearing on the county energy tax. The subject of the hearing was, “Should we raise the county energy tax 30 percent?” I testified; I said, “Oh no, that’s much too much.” They ended up approving a 156 percent increase in the county residential energy tax. And they said it was going to sunset in two years. It didn’t; they didn’t tell the truth. And they’re not telling the truth now when they say they’re not going to increase taxes, because that’s the first thing they’re going to do.
You indicate you would have opposed—and thereby blocked—the 2016 increase had you been on the council. Do you feel the “achievement gap” in the county schools, at which that increase was in large part aimed, is a significant problem that needs to be addressed with more spending?
I think the achievement gap is very important, and I’ve got some ideas on how to close the achievement gap that don’t include increasing property taxes. My dad was a Rhodes scholar, he worked in the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service for 40 years. He used to bring me home six books a week. I’m a bibliophile; I was there for the opening of a lot of these libraries, not just the recent one in Silver Spring. And I know that children who spend time in the library and read at an early age are going to be successes in life. The problem is that other kids aren’t going into the library. We need to teach our kids to love to be in the library, to love to read, and if we do that, that achievement gap is going to be closed.
Take them there at a young age—and our schools aren’t doing that. We have these beautiful libraries and they’re underutilized, and the kids are under-experiencing the thrill. It’s an attitude that needs to be pervasive in the school system. It comes from the top—and I don’t see it. I think there needs to be some education about going to the library, and it should be a very simple thing. A kid who spends an hour in the library is going to come out with some books. He’s going to take them home and read them, more than likely.
Both of your opponents have spoken favorably about increasing pre-kindergarten education as a means of kindling this type of interest. What’s your feeling about that kind of approach?
You know, they talk about doing things by raising taxes for schools. I also attended the hearing [in 2016] for the 30 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax—where both of them said, “Well, we’re using that money for schools, and we need it for school construction.” They both voted for that, and then, what did they do? They used $5 million of that to pay lawyers up to $550 an hour to defend the malfunctions at the Silver Spring transit center. It’s always spending more money. If we were bringing in jobs, fine—then we’d have more to spend. But we weren’t at that time.