A Tax Rebel Triumphs With Low-Profile Tactics

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

In November 1974, before there was a show called "Saturday Night Live" or a company called Microsoft, Robin Ficker got his first anti-tax initiative on a Montgomery County ballot. It lost.

After that, they all lost, the parade of tax-related "Ficker Amendments" that appeared almost every two years. In spite of gathering thousands of petition signatures, knocking for decades on doors and hectoring all the pols who have cycled through Rockville in the last 34 years, Ficker was always denied.

Until now.

Ficker's latest effort, which would make it more difficult to raise the limit on property tax revenue, is expected to be officially certified this week as a winner. A Ficker Amendment is going to become law.

And his reaction?

"I'm not sure it's going to do any good," Ficker said with a shrug in his Bethesda office, surrounded by anti-tax yard signs from campaigns gone by. "It sends a signal, but I don't think these leopards are going to change their spots," he said of county lawmakers.

After three decades of effort, Ficker finally found a receptive electorate. In the spring, the County Council raised taxes on average for homeowners by about 13 percent. There was ongoing agony in the housing market. And, an election cycle dominated by the presidential campaign nationally and slots locally gave Ficker a rare hole to dart through, much to the shock of Montgomery's political establishment.

If his legions of political adversaries are bracing for a howl of victory from Robin Ficker Realty on Wisconsin Avenue (which was Ficker Law until his law license was suspended last year), they can relax. He is gloat-free.

But if they expect the 65-year-old former state delegate, long disparaged as a gadfly in the ointment of a free-spending county -- and one of the most irritating fans in professional sports -- to take one win and retire to his farm near Poolesville, they can go back to being tense.

"Oh, I'll never retire," said Ficker, a onetime competitive runner who keeps two bicycles in his office and runs the stairs at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House almost every weekday. For him, beating the streets for signatures and voters every two years is a way to stay active, meet people, promote his business and, maybe, lower taxes. "I enjoy the process. You can't do this in other countries."

Indeed, all the howling is on the other side, as Montgomery Democrats loudly assign blame for allowing one of the most predictable pitches in county politics to zip right over the center of the plate.

"How the [heck] did you let this happen?" is the question longtime Montgomery political observer Lanny Davis said he put to a county official last week. Davis ran against Ficker for Congress in 1972 and has watched one Ficker ballot question after another stopped by a Vote No counter-effort. Not this time.

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