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A Tax Rebel Triumphs With Low-Profile Tactics
Ficker's Amendment Win Stuns Montgomery

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.

"There was no campaign against it," Davis said. "The political leadership of Montgomery County should be embarrassed. They took him for granted."

County Executive Isiah Leggett defended his own efforts, which included funding a sample ballot warning against the measure and recording a robo-call that went out just before the election. But he admitted that more should have been done.

"The effort was not as vigorous as it should have been," Leggett (D) said. "Some people did not think this was that big a deal, maybe because this was Ficker and because he had been defeated in the past."

The amendment would require a unanimous vote of the County Council's nine members to exceed the limit on property tax revenue, rather than the current requirement of seven. Several voters, and even politicians, said they weren't even aware of the amendment before they saw the ballot, a departure from Ficker's usual high-volume approach.

"Where were all the yard signs?" Davis asked. "The most dangerous place to be on the planet is between Robin Ficker and a headline. Keeping his name out of it had to be calculated."

It was. Ficker, known more for bludgeoning his opponents than out-maneuvering them, employed some uncharacteristic dodging and weaving. He played down the yard signs and focused his door-to-door campaigning on areas that have been more Ficker-friendly in past elections. He passed out 60,000 fliers (with a "Vote Yes" message on one side and an ad for his realty firm on the other) in Germantown, Damascus, Poolesville and other up-county neighborhoods.

"I wanted to keep a lower profile," Ficker said.

It might have been the most subtle tactic in Ficker's career, during which he has more typically played the bull who sees the world as his china shop.

His legal life has included spats with the Maryland bar over his aggressive advertising and two formal suspensions for sloppy case-handling (the latest could be lifted next month). He's been a defendant at least 17 times, according to court records, in cases ranging from speeding to battery. (A 1996 battery charge, in which Flicker was accused of striking a pregnant woman during a traffic altercation, was dropped after a jury deadlocked in Ficker's favor.)

His personal life includes a divorce in which his then-wife sought, and then dropped, a protective order against him for "abusive and threatening behavior." And he was notorious at Washington Bullets games for his history of screaming nonstop abuse from his seat behind the opposing team's bench. When the team moved to the MCI Center and became the Wizards, Ficker's seats were moved far from the bench. He stopped attending.

Ficker attributes that striking résumé of scrapes and run-ins to his full-speed approach to all things.

"I'm always doing something, not just being a couch potato," he said. "Sometimes things don't go smoothly, but I'm out there. I'm competing in the arena."

In person, Ficker is polite, attentive, even possessed of a kind of high-tension charm. He is close to his three grown children, including a daughter who is a professional triathlete. He travels often to her meets and flew to see every one of his son's wrestling matches during six years at a California university.

Otherwise, his life is more about promoting (tirelessly) his business and causes and exercising than in being social. When asked to suggest a non-political acquaintance to be interviewed for this article, Ficker seemed stumped.

"Hmmm. I'll have to think about that," he said. "Who would say nice things. Hmm."

He suggested a local businessman who was big supporter of his tax-cut amendments.

"Oh, non-political? Phew. Let's see. Who's my best friend? Well, my dog doesn't talk."

It was the next day when Ficker provided the name of Amy Ginther, a University of Maryland administrator he met during workouts at Cole Field House.

Ginther said Ficker is known as a good-natured coach among the fitness crowd at the field house and credits him with improving her workout regimen. The Takoma Park resident said she didn't pay attention to Ficker Amendments in previous years but voted for it this month in part because she admires Ficker's exhausting persistence.

"He just goes at it," she said. "It might be easier on him to build coalitions, but I think it's hard for him to find people who can keep up."

Ficker said he hasn't firmed up any plans for the next Ficker Amendment, but he assumes there will be one.

"One thing I'm very interested in," he said, "is term limits."

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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