In the days of civil rights activism, Roy L. Chambers was a George Wallace devotee. He headed Wallace's American Party in Prince George's County in the late '60s and he ran for office as a Wallace Democrat, sometimes for a seat in Congress, at other times for the Senate.
He never won a primary but he gained name recognition. People knew what Chambers stood for: He opposed gun control and busing for desegregation. He favored increases in Social Security benefits and a reduction in property taxes.
In his 1976 campaign for the Democratic nomination for the Senate, Chambers launched 1,000 helium-filled ballons at a Bladensburg shopping center, attached dollar bills to some and invited the press to come and watch it all. He spoke then against "our national give-away programs," such as foreign aid and "a welfare system that enables able-bodied people to make a living off welfare without working." He said that property taxes were too high, a point he had been making since 1971.
Chambers is almost 60 now, a Prince Georgian since he moved here in 1939 from Tennesse, and he wants to become the Howard Jarvis of Maryland. He has started the Maryland Resolution "13" Committee out of his Oxon Hill home, in the hopes of reducing property taxes in Maryland the same way Proposition 13 cut taxes in California.
In Maryland, however, Chambers can only ask for signatures on petitions to pressure the General Assembly. He cannot force a statewide vote on the issue Jarvis and Paul Gann did in California. The petition asks the General Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment that would freeze assessments on houses until they are sold and would forbid any house to have property taxes higher than 1 percent of its assessed value. This means, generally, that a $100,000 home would not be taxed more than $1,000. In addition, the amendment Chambers had proposed would require that the combined local, county and state property, tax bill not be more than $1.000.
Chambers, who has made the news most often for his far-right opinions (opinions that frightened his son Robert into running against his father to protect the Democrat Party, is now mainstream.
His petition has been signed by Larry Hogan, the Republican candidate for Prince George's county executive, and by State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, the biggest vote-getter among Maryland Democrats.
Why did they sign Chambers' petition?" Because I've always maintained that individual homes should be assessed at fair market value and then not reassessed until the home is sold," said Goldstein.
"Because I believe in what it says," echoed Hogan. "Politicians haven't had the guts to cut down on spending. This will put the spine in their backs."
Chambers, known by many as a "fringe politician," which is translated into "a nut," is pressuring all the candidates to "stand on one side or the other on this issue."
"We've contacted about 250 candidates and about 80 percent have said they would support us," Chambers claims. He said he will not reveal the names of the politicians in support of his "Maryland 13" petition until the hears from them all.
"I asked them to say 'yes' or 'no'. We gave them no leeway."
Chambers in not alone in this venture. He is chairman of an executive board that has nine members. Frank Farkas is treasurer of the group. Farkas is angry about taxes, especially federal income taxes, and he has a reputation around the state as "the man who can go after those crooks (IRS agents)."
There are farmers, small businessmen, homemakers and retired military officers taking up the other board positions. They say they have gathered 60,000 signatures on tehir petitions and their goal is 1 million.
"It's hard to tell what to make of this," admitted a Prince George's County Democrat, a mainstream politician who is practical, a member of the county's machine.
"You never know when the nuts are on the right side. I've known the Chambers family for years and I'd hate to say anything against them.But this is the first time I've taken Roy seriously."
Chambers can sense this. He feels his time has come. "I only live one life . . . and I know this is my issue and it's not going away. We aren't going to forget that we pay high taxes. The politicians aren't going to forget."