How effective is Robin Ficker’s populism?

His booming heckler voice is unmistakable. He persistently stands up for the people – as in he won’t sit down, even when instructed to. He has bred a family of runners, and thinks that he, at age 75, can outrun me, age 30 (I guarantee you. He can’t. That is a fact). Oh, and he’s never met a Montgomery Countyan he doesn’t like. 

Robin Ficker has three strong talking points he’ll work into any answer to virtually any question. His Three Big T’s: Taxes, Term Limits, and the “Takoma Park Trapezoid” are his fallback lines when he runs out of relevant content, which usually doesn’t take too long.

I’ll be fair. These three talking points are pretty good points to make, at least for a start. The recent nearly nine percent property tax increase – although those who are more informed about County revenue point out that this increase was intended to make up for not having raised property taxes at all during the recession – hit some middle class long-time homeowners pretty hard. Optics-wise, it was ugly. Although an increase in revenue was urgent and a property tax increase of some order was likely necessary, a better argument could be made that a more meticulous restructuring of County government and painstaking look at the budget probably could have merited a less drastic increase at this time – but what do I know?

The Term Limits ballot initiative – which Ficker always capitalizes on social media – did pass overwhelmingly, and presents a fair argument for a desire for change. The flaw in Ficker’s argument here, however, is that voters loathe ALL current councilmembers equally. The Democratic Primary results say otherwise. Two thirds of voters chose a candidate with current or former local government experience. Marc Elrich won more than the other two council members, Roger Berliner and George Leventhal, combined, indicating that he is at the very least perceived differently than the others. And even if voters resoundingly DO resent the current County Council, forty years of failed runs for office suggest that the Term Limits vote was not a vote for Ficker.

Ficker’s “Takoma Park Trapezoid” refers to the geographic location of where the current Democratic nominees for Council reside, whose pinpoints form a connect-the-dots trapezoid anchored in the inner circle of hedonistic leftist hellscape, Takoma Park. The point serves as a hyperbolic reference to the relative lack of Upcounty representation in County government, which he, residing on a farm in Boyds, would refreshingly provide.

Each of Ficker’s Three T’s, despite their flaws, could suffice for solid populist talking points.

And yet… that’s where his political prowess ends. There’s a reason why Ficker hasn’t been elected in 40 years, even when running in more “red” districts.

Let’s take his “ace” point, taxes. Let’s also give him a huge benefit of the doubt, and let him make his case as a budget hawk, a principled fiscal conservative, or a tax wonk. (Spoiler: He’s none of the above). At Monday night’s Sentinel debate, Ficker was asked a moderately in-the-weeds question about tax deductions. Would Ficker support legislation aimed at decoupling federal income tax from state income tax, which would benefit the majority of taxpayers who itemize their deductions? This, in turn, would add back at state level the taxes affected by the Trump tax cuts, which eliminated the deductions which would have helped Montgomery County residents.

Ficker first mentioned fiscal notes attachment which he proposed, but this was not relevant to the question. Moderator Brian Karem reiterated that the Trump tax cuts resulted in a windfall at the state level, but harmed those who benefited from making deductions. Ficker then restated some of his positions on broad-strokes tax relief, pointing to the bag tax, and other “Regressive taxes” passed by the Council. Ficker then promised “no new taxes” a la HW Bush, and made another reference to the  Takoma Park Trapezoid.

Marc Elrich came a little closer to actually answering the question, saying that we wouldn’t have the votes in Annapolis to make changes that would benefit the County and promised efforts to remain tax neutral for the middle class.

Ficker had the chance to shine. If he wanted to appeal to the single-issue tax voter, he went out with a major swing in the miss. He only needed to prove the slightest bit of depth in his position on taxes, to just show he sort of knew what he was talking about – and he didn’t.

So how would Mr. Ficker go about bringing in revenue, given his position on taxes? Why, Amazon, of course! Our magic bullet. In August, Robin Ficker made a visit to Seattle to Amazon HQ1, which even one of Marc Elrich’s harshest critics, Steve Silverman, stated he  imagines this couldn’t have been with anyone of any decision-making role. 

Aside from Mr. Ficker Goes To Amazon to become BFF’s with Bezos (you had to be at one of the other debates to get this reference), he said in his closing statement that he would make Montgomery County so business-friendly that Bezos would decide to move HQ1 there as well.

I caught Elrich and Floreen trying REALLY hard to keep straight faces.

Onto another topic, which Ficker apparently knows even less about: public safety and the police. Without giving much context at all, Ficker said that he would hire a new police cheif – Jae Hwang. This was his way to ensure that we would be “Not shooting at any unarmed people – I guarantee that.” Ficker neither explained how a new police chief would guarantee this promise, nor did he speak of having talked to current police chief Tom Manger. Instead, Ficker repeated that he has “Never met a Montgomery Countyan I don’t like,” and then something about the regressive energy tax.

Ficker is also no stranger to schoolyard insults. Beyond “Tax increase specialists,” a recent favorite epithet of Ficker’s is “Couch potato.” In the debate, he felt the need to emphasize that he is “Not a foodie” – this coming after digs at Elrich’s weight on my personal Facebook page. (And, I might add, an awkward approval of my physique when addressing physical fitness during an interview with him last spring). Ficker has made points that, if isolated or in relevant context, I would agree with – that it would be useful for students to run a mile every school day, or to spend more time in libraries. But these points were not remotely relevant to the questions asked.

Robin Ficker’s populist rhetoric is an awkward mix of his three “ace” talking points, some various catch phrases that are too overused to be funny, some other points that are true but not at all relevant, and occasional non-profane, but juvenile, personal attacks.

In a normal circumstance, this kind of candidate shouldn’t have much a of a chance in Montgomery County. The electorate tends to be more educated) and would prioritize experience or at least competence in their electeds, and would never be inclined to electing a court jester as County Executive. Ficker could have a decent chance in a more Trump-friendly district where populist red meat is enough of a crowd pleaser to win votes, but alas,  Trump won 19% of the vote in MoCo. 

 

And yet… it is entirely possible that this is not a normal circumstance. I can’t really gauge this myself, but we may experience a perfect storm: general distrust of the council, the fact that both “Marc & Nancy” are current council members, the property tax hike, the term limits vote, and the lack of adequate local news media causing people to not properly distinguish between Marc Elrich and the unpopular development votes, which he opposed. Add to this Nancy Floreen’s arrogance and hubris in her campaign ad regarding Ficker’s chances.

I still think it’s probably not going to happen – but it is in the realm of possibility that this perfect storm could brew enough to reach a tipping point by November. It depends on how many fed up, pissed off, and simultaneously under-informed and/or nihilistic voters there are out there, and whether they collectively form a sleeping giant that Nancy’s arrogant remarks may have poked just enough to cause a roar. We’ll see, and lord help us if that’s what happens.

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