Robert R. Fustero, Maryland activist and gadfly, dies at 62

Douglas Chevalier/The Washington Post - Robert R. Fustero in 1976 during his first election bid. Fustero, a night stock clerk at Giant Food who stunned Maryland’s political establishment by winning 20 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary for governor in 2002, died Oct. 22 at 62.

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Robert R. Fustero, a night stock clerk at Giant Food who stunned Maryland’s political establishment by winning 20 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002, died Tuesday at his home in Silver Spring. He was 62.

The cause was lung disease, his brother Steve Fustero said.

**CORRECTS LAST NAME TO ROPER ** ** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 4 **Pastor Fred Phelps, right, holds his great-granddaughter, Zion Phelps-Roper, as he sings happy birthday to family members during a gathering at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. April 9, 2006. Phelps and his tight-knit congregation travel the country preaching damnation to a nation of sinners. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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Bob Fustero, as he was known, spent $600 in that campaign against then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. He ran because politics seemed to be dominated by wealthy people, and he knew from experience that living in Montgomery County was becoming so expensive that many people could not do what he had done — earning a degree in psychology from American University while he stocked groceries for $5.50 an hour.

“People in Montgomery talk about how they love the diversity of the county, but the only diversity they really like is the different kinds of people who can afford to live here,” Mr. Fustero later told The Washington Post. “They’re not interested in the people who make $60,000 a year. They’re not interested in the homeless guy. When they see the guy selling flowers on the street corner, they roll up their windows. Buy the flowers, even if you don’t need them, because that guy’s not on welfare, and he’s trying to make it here.”

Mr. Fustero was pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-slots and pro-sprawl; he said it was better to have people commute from greater distances than to shoehorn development into dense urban areas. He was skeptical of big government projects such as the Intercounty Connector and Metro’s proposed Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. He believed workers deserved a guaranteed living wage.

Mr. Fustero wasn’t keen on the culture of affluence and thought developers should steer away from building luxury houses with granite countertops. “There’s nothing wrong with Corian or Formica,” he said.

Without ads, position papers or staffers, Mr. Fustero won 105,000 votes in the gubernatorial primary, 20 percent of the total. He was on disability leave from Giant at the time because of a heart-valve problem and made few campaign appearances.

Townsend won the Democratic nomination but lost to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), then a congressman, in the general election.

Political scientists credited Mr. Fustero with giving voters a way to express their discontent with the more prominent candidate. “Fustero, for a nobody, did remarkably well,” Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, told The Post in 2002.

Robert Raymond Fustero was born June 29, 1951, in Atlantic City and was raised in Washington and Silver Spring. He graduated in 1969 from Northwood High School in Silver Spring and in 1974 from American University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He worked for several years as a counselor of troubled youths in Alexandria.

In addition to his night work at Giant, Mr. Fustero for a time had a day job at a video store in Laurel. He bought the business in the 1980s and ran it for a couple of years, his brother Steve said.

Mr. Fustero never married and had no children. Survivors include two brothers, Steve Fustero of Arlington and Jim Fustero of Silver Spring; and a sister, Debbie Bowles of Silver Spring.

Mr. Fustero, who served as president of his homeowners association, was a strong believer in the average citizen’s right to stand up to power.

In 2008, after he and neighbors in his Silver Spring building received hefty increases in the property tax assessments on their condos, he helped organize a meeting with the county assessor. Mr. Fustero made the case that the building needed repairs and couldn’t be worth what the county had valued it at. Three weeks later, the county lowered his assessment by $25,000.

“If everyone gets together and presents a good case, you never know what can happen,” he said.

Mr. Fustero first ran for elective office in 1976, seeking a congressional seat from Montgomery County. In 1982, he ran unsuccessfully for the Montgomery County Council. In 2006, he ran in the Democratic primary for the nomination to be county executive, going against the eventual winner, Isiah Leggett, and then-council member Steven A. Silverman.

Asked what voters should know about him, Mr. Fustero said, “I was raised to believe that no matter what one’s social status, we are all dependent on each other.”

He had opinions about everything and was an inveterate writer of letters to the editor, in which he praised his dentist for completing procedures without causing much pain, argued that overweight people can be otherwise healthy and admonished another letter writer for using “those who bag our groceries” to signify workers of low stature.

A rumpled, big man who lived alone, he spoke plainly and gave voice to all manner of complaints he heard from his co-workers and neighbors. But he had a contemplative, poetic side, too.

When The Post asked readers to describe the moment they know spring has arrived, Mr. Fustero wrote: “When I am awakened by an indescribable feeling. I jump out of bed, open the patio door and take a deep breath. . . . What is that smell, what is that feeling? I don’t know. All I know is that spring is here, and I feel alive.”

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