Q&A With County Executive Candidate Robin Ficker
This is the second in a series of interviews with the three contenders
The increase in the real estate transfer tax was intended to yield about $200 million over six years, with $125 million directed to school construction needs. Given your opposition to that increase, what alternative would you have proposed to deal with a rapidly expanding school population?
I had a question on the ballot some years ago that said the county couldn’t finance capital improvement projects that state law required the state to fund. It didn’t pass, but the point there was that we’re not getting our fair share in Annapolis. For the last 10 years, we have had 18 percent of the state’s students. We have had 40 percent recently of the state’s new students, and we have gotten 12 percent of the state’s school construction money. [Editor’s note: Based on data provided by the county’s General Assembly delegation, Montgomery’s share of state school construction aid in 2017 was a little more than 15 percent.]
In 2013, the Montgomery County delegation voted for a special piece of legislation to increase Baltimore city’s school construction funds $20 million a year for each of the next 30 years. Where were Floreen and Elrich saying, “Why aren’t you doing that for Montgomery County?” I haven’t read where they have really spoken out to jump start or give a pep talk to our legislative delegation, which is falling way short in bringing back a fair share of school construction funds here.
Putting aside 2013—when school construction funding for Baltimore was part of a broader deal that yielded a major infusion of transportation funding for Montgomery, including the Purple Line—there are intense demands from just about every local jurisdiction for state school construction aid. What can you do as county executive to prod the delegation to increase the county’s share?
Well, I give them a pep talk. They’ve got to start doing their jobs. And I think I’ll be able to work much better with Gov. [Larry] Hogan than [my opponents] ever will. He’s not friends with them. And I think I’ll be able to work and bring home a fair share from the state that they haven’t been able to do—and I might add that I have some experience in the state, because I’m the only one of the three that has served in the state legislature.
Has Gov. Hogan endorsed you?
Well, you talk about endorsements … . You use terms of art. He and I are friends. I was friends with his dad; I’ve known him for a very long time. On many times when he’s into the county … I [have been] there talking with him about the future of the county. [Editor’s note: Hogan has not made any endorsement in the Montgomery County executive race, according to a spokesman for the Hogan campaign.]
You noted your term in the legislature. Prior to this year, you’ve made 19 runs for elected office. Eight of these were efforts to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Given the current open seat in the 6th District—where you’ve made three previous bids—what made you decide to run for county executive this year rather than Congress?
This is a technique that Bethesda Beat has insisted on using—that I’ve run for office and haven’t won the office. That’s like talking about the Washington Capitals; the Washington Capitals didn’t win in 2003. They didn’t win in 2004. They didn’t get into the playoffs in 2002. If I wanted to talk to you about the Capitals, that’s what you would start off by saying. I would say that the Washington Capitals are the Stanley Cup champions.
I won the Stanley Cup—with term limits [in 2016]. I won [the referendum] with 70 percent of the vote, majorities in 253 of 257 precincts—over not only the opposition of our opponents in this race, but over their frivolous lawsuit. That was a vote for change, which they can’t possibly say they represent because they’ve been there 16 years and 12 years. I represent change, because I haven’t been there—and things have gotten worse while they’ve been there.
I have counted up the number of times I’ve put tax questions on the ballot; it’s over 10. And finally, in 2008, it passed—and you know what, that was like the Super Bowl. That was a sea change. That stopped property tax increases cold from 2009 to 2015. So, when you bring about the two biggest changes in county government since the year 2000, why wouldn’t you want to run for county executive?
As you just pointed out, Ms. Floreen and Mr. Elrich have 16 and 12 years, respectively, on the County Council. You are the one of the three who has not held office at the county level. What experience do you have that would assist you in managing a government structure with a $5.5 billion annual budget?
Nancy Floreen hasn’t been in court as an attorney since 2001. Marc has never been in court as an attorney. I have been in court since 1974. Nancy says we should vote for her because she’s a female, that females aren’t represented. I won the county’s landmark sex discrimination case. We discovered that they were rating all female job applicants for the Montgomery County government by physique and facial features. My federal consent decree stopped that practice. [Editor’s note: The 1973 decree resulted from a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiff, Deborah Drudge, alleged she had been improperly denied employment in the Montgomery County Attorney’s office.]
Environmental policy statements for highways, for Metro [are] a major issue in the county government. I won the landmark case against Metro requiring that they file proper environmental impact statements for any change to the Mass Transit General Plan. [Editor’s note: Ficker represented the North Takoma Citizens Association against Metro in a 1974 federal court case.] Since 2013, I have represented 10 elementary school students who have been suspended from school for frivolous reasons and I got all their suspensions lifted, pro bono. Nancy’s on the council, she has time to do pro bono work. Why hasn’t she done that? She touts her ability as an attorney.
[Current County Executive] Ike Leggett has said that experience in the judicial branch is very useful to someone who’s in the office of county executive. The life of Montgomery County goes through the courthouse—the desires, the strife. In the courthouse you learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, because I am generally arguing against people who are very bright and who have the odds in their favor—because, generally, the prosecution does. I’m standing up for the rights of someone who has been accused of wrongdoing, who oftentimes has no friends. I have never been held in contempt of court. I am always there giving very good arguments.
This time, my client is not going to be an individual who has been charged with some offense he shouldn’t have been charged with; it’s going to be the people of Montgomery County.
Ms. Floreen has publicly noted that, in 1998 and 2007, you were suspended temporarily from law practice in Maryland. A 2007 document from the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission states that your 1998 suspension arose from “the sloppy manner in which he operated his office.” In recommending that you be suspended a second time, the commission said it found no evidence that you had made an effort in the intervening decade to deal with problems in managing your office. Your response?
My response is that I’ll be happy to compare my legal career with Nancy Floreen’s legal career. I have completed 35,000 cases in Maryland courts. Do you know how many Nancy has completed? I think she’s been involved in 50. And you can go back and look at the tape of Nancy Floreen’s debate with me on term limits, which is on my website, and … see how she did there. There, we have two lawyers arguing a subject. Go back and look who won that argument, where she said it wasn’t going to pass.
Notwithstanding your legal experience and how it may or may not compare to Ms. Floreen’s, the question is why was your law license suspended on two occasions—and do you feel it was justified?
I challenged the way of doing things in the legal profession in Maryland. I was doing mailings to people who were arrested. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and I had someone down in the ticket room of Annapolis writing down the names and addresses of all the people who were arrested. And attorneys got very upset about that, because I was sending out mailings and cutting their fees. But it was a public service because it was bringing about lower rates for people who had been arrested and gotten serious traffic offenses.
As a result, I engendered a certain amount of enmity from some members of the Bar. The clerk of the court that allowed me to go in there because I filed the Freedom of Information Act request died. A new clerk came in and said, “What is this person doing in here writing information down from the tickets?” Judge [Robert] Sweeney [first chief judge of Maryland’s district court system, from 1971 to 1996] found out about this, and he called me up and said, “You can’t do this.” I said, “Why not, it’s a public service?” And he said, “Well, I’m going to talk to [Maryland Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller.” And they introduced legislation to prohibit attorney mailings to people who had been arrested. They passed the law. I went to federal court and I overturned the law.
They then passed another law, because there was a case somewhere that said you couldn’t mail to people who had been injured in airplane accidents within 30 days of the accident because they were emotionally distraught. In Maryland, they used that argument by saying you couldn’t mail to people who had been arrested within 30 days. So I went to federal court again, and overturned that. And then, guess who joined in an amicus [curiae] brief on behalf of the state? The Maryland defense attorneys’ association. With lawyers, it’s all about the money—and my mailings were cutting fees. So, there was some pushback, and I had some frivolous complaints filed against me as a result.