Ficker stories. They are everywhere here. Some people laugh when they tell them, others clench their teeth. But everyone in this town full of tale tellers has a tale to tell about Robin Keith Annesley Ficker.
Ficker is a Montgomery County Republican. Once, he was a Montgomery County Democrat. Once, he was a Montgomery County Independent. He has run for office six times. In 1978 he was elected to the House of Delegates. Three months after taking his seat, he launched a campaign for Congress.
That was after he dressed as Santa Claus to hand out campaign literature in Montgomery Mall. That was after he was convicted of illegally posting campaign signs that said My Friend Ficker. That was after he started a write-in campaign for Edward M. Kennedy in New Hampshire in 1972 only to learn his funding had come from the Nixon White House, which wanted to discredit Edmund Muskie, then considered a threat to Nixon. That was after he was expelled from West Point, largely because of demerits earned for being argumentative about being charged with being argumentative.
Ficker is still argumentative. Many in Montgomery County's legislative delegation bristle at the mention of his name. Others, who are more sympathetic, call him a hard worker whose ideas sometimes make sense. But even friends agree they have never met anyone who lives for publicity the way Ficker does. Because of that and because of some of his unusual bills, like making running the official state sport, Ficker is the gadfly and, in many ways, the joke of the legislature.
"When he was elected he had a chance to wipe the slate clean," said Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery). "But he's come down here and just run amok from the start. He's like one of those fish skeletons you see with everything on the outside that should be inside. We've all got a little Ficker in us, but to survive in society, you have to keep those things inside."
No one has ever argued Ficker's right to be Ficker. People just wish he would be Ficker a bit less. But there is no moderation in Ficker. Everything about him is exaggerated. He doesn't walk, he runs. He doesn't talk, he shouts. He doesn't discuss, he argues.
Ficker is so eager that he could be lovable to his colleagues were it not for his unabashed publicity-seeking. "He lives by a simple credo of legislating," said Montgomery Republican Luiz Simmons. It's called the 'as long as they spell the name right, it's great' method. We all like publicity. But with Robin, it's out of control."
Ficker craves attention. He is much like the 10-year-old who wins a Delegate-for-a-Day contest, and goes berserk trying to get everyone to notice him in 24 hours. Except Ficker has stayed four years.
During that time, he has had one statewide bill passed. His reputation is such that even when a bill of his makes sense to people it is overlooked because people see his name on the bill and laugh.
"Who takes Ficker seriously?" asked Del. Frank Pesci (D-Prince George's). "Mrs. Ficker. Actually, Robin's very bright. A lot of us down here would like to take him seriously. But he's so bizarre he won't let us."
Ficker story: Ficker shares a suite of offices with fellow Montgomery Republicans Constance A. Morella and Simmons. When the three moved in, Morella's name, as the top vote-getter, was on top. Ficker switched the names. Somebody switched them back (Morella says she knows nothing about the incident.) Ficker switched them again. When they were switched one more time, Ficker had the final word--he bought a tube of Krazy Glue and glued his nameplate in on top.
Ficker story: Two years ago Ficker told Del. Charles Smith (D-Frederick), who sat next to him in the House chamber, that he wanted to speak in favor of a bill Smith was supporting. Afraid that Ficker's support might kill the bill, Smith told Ficker not to do it. Ficker spoke anyway. Smith was so furious he petitioned Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin to move Ficker's seat and Cardin complied. On another occasion Ficker wanted to speak in favor of a bill sponsored by Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's). Maloney begged Ficker not to speak. Ficker insisted. So, Maloney broke Ficker's microphone. Cardin sent Maloney a mock bill for $100.
"I would be glad to make a contribution to Robin's campaign," Cardin said. "As long as he runs for the Senate or Congress or anything but the House of Delegates, I stand ready to help."
Recently, a House committee found itself involved in a drawn out debate over a bill. Finally, one committee member said, "Folks, remember, this is a Ficker bill." End of discussion. End of the bill.
This year Ficker has a bill that would require the state ethics committee to produce a directory with pictures of all the state lobbyists in it. Last year, Ficker himself put the directory together, running around the Capitol taking pictures of ducking lobbyists. The book was well-received and the bill passed the committee. Now, though, a number of legislators are tacking on amendments, such as requiring that pictures of reporters also appear in the book, just to kill the bill.
"I'm a Republican in a legislature where Republicans are outnumbered 9 to 1," responds Ficker, "and that doesn't lend itself to getting a lot of bills passed. I know I've upset a lot of people in the hierarchy around here. The Republican leadership just wants to try to get along with the Democratic leadership. I don't think that's the way to get things accomplished.
"The personal insults have never bothered me. I learned in law school that if you are weak on the facts, you argue the law. If you are weak on the law, you argue the facts. If you're weak on both, you get personal."
There is one person who says the personal attacks do bother Ficker: His wife, Annette. "He even tells me it doesn't bother him, but it does," she said. "I can tell when he's upset. Sometimes Friday night around here isn't that pleasant when he's had a tough week in Annapolis. The job is important to him. He worked long and hard to get it."
A former nun, now a pediatrician and mother of three, Annette Ficker was introduced to her husband through a common friend 10 years ago. He asked her out.
"I assumed we would be going out to dinner," she said. "Instead, we went out and put up campaign signs."
But Annette Heiser found the perennial candidate attractive--"boyish"--and interesting. Two years later, they were married. The bridegroom left the reception early to appear on a televised candidates debate. "I understood," the bride said. "But I did leave my wedding reception with my parents."
Ficker's devotion to candidate Ficker is unquestionable. In 1972, according to papers filed with the Federal Election Commission, Ficker contributed $11,807 to his campaign--$2,344 more than his listed earnings for the year.
Last summer, to collect names on petitions, Ficker showed up for 90 straight nights outside a movie theater where the smash-hit "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was playing.
"I've always been fascinated by politics, ever since I was a kid," said Ficker, whose father worked in the Library of Congress. "I can remember sitting on my dad's shoulders during Harry Truman's inaugural parade.
"I really enjoy this job, I thrive on it."
Ficker is 38, a lawyer in those rare moments when he is not campaigning or lobbying. He is an athlete, a dedicated runner who frequently calls local papers from track meets to report his own results.
He is, as his wife says, boyish, with curly brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses and the kind of open face that makes him look like he is always excited.
Watching Ficker bounce around the state Capitol, the joy he derives from his work is readily apparent. Last week, he ran--remember Ficker doesn't walk--from office to office one morning lobbying the Economic Matters Committee to reconsider a bill of his that had been killed.
This was one of those ideas--a bill to protect consumers who get stuck with lemon cars--that many delegates thought made sense. Eighty-three had signed up to cosponsor it, only to see it die in the committee chaired by Del. Frederick C. Rummage (D-Prince George's).
Many of the committee members were almost paternal in dealing with Ficker, treating him like a teacher might treat a problem child who has potential. Enough of them were sympathetic for him to get a rehearing this Thursday.
"Don't let them jerk you around with this one," Del. Frank Conaway (D-Baltimore) told Ficker. "You've got a good bill here."
Ficker was on a high now. He rolled into Del. William Burkhead's office. "I'm with you on this one, Robin," Burkhead said.
"I know what people say about Robin, but I like him," Burkhead said later. "Other guys down here you vote against them on a bill, they don't talk to you for a year. Robin doesn't hold any grudges."
It was a busy day for Ficker. That afternoon he testified before the Environmental Matters Committee on one of his resolutions, this one calling for a revival of the University of Maryland-Navy football rivalry.
"Robin's got some good ideas," said Del. William McCaffery (D-Prince George's), a committee member. "But this one is really silly."
His football speech finished, Ficker raced off to protest the governor's plan for redistricting, which was being considered by his own committee, on constitutional and administrative law.
(When he came to town three years ago, Ficker had hoped to land a better committee assignment. After Minority Leader Raymond Beck explained that freshmen did not start out on prestigious committees, Ficker went over his head to Speaker Cardin. Cardin, who has since been given a "Ficker-Kit" earplugs by his staff, told him Beck's word was law.)
The congressional redistricting plan offered by Gov. Harry Hughes would move Ficker's residence from the 8th Congressional District of liberal Democrat Michael D. Barnes to the 6th District of conservative Democrat Beverly Byron.
"This is a horrendous case of gerrymandering," complained Ficker, who would like to be in Congress.
"Look at the way those lines are drawn," cried Ficker, who already has run four times for Congress, but is not likely to challenge Byron. (Instead, he may run against State Sen. Lawrence Levitan.) "Look at how the 6th District line cuts right past Delegate Ficker's house when it could have stayed in the 8th District. Why did that happen? Because Mike Barnes knew he was on the wrong side of several issues, because . . . ."
"Robin," said vice chairman Gerald J. Curran, "I have some problems with the propriety of a delegate testifying before his own committee to begin with. Could you please try to keep this nonpolitical?"
"It is nonpolitical," retortedFicker. "I haven't said Democrat or Republican."
Depending on the point of view, campaigning is Ficker's strongest or his weakest point. He is a tireless door-knocker. But his tactics have been questioned. In 1980, when he challenged former representative Newton I. Steers for the Republican nomination to Congress (after Steers had helped him get elected to the legislature in 1978), Ficker campaigned as "state representative" Robin Ficker, implying to voters that he was somehow connected with the House of Representatives.
"I am a representative of the people of the state of Maryland," Ficker said.
Ficker also ran an advertisement with his picture and Ronald Reagan's saying, "Vote for these two fine candidates," implying that the two were linked.
Legislative colleagues say Ficker sometimes crosses the line between aggressive and unethical. "Robin has no friends politically because he doesn't want to have any friends politically," said Simmons, who said he likes Ficker personally. "He is the consummate loner because that way he can always do things the way he wants to do them without bending to anyone else."
Ida G. Rubin, head of the Montgomery House delegation, who has at times refused to recognize Ficker in meetings, said her problems with Ficker are based on his thirst for publicity.
"I've tried very hard to be fair with Robin," she said. "But when he stands up to say something strictly for the purpose of getting his name in the paper, I feel an obligation to the rest of the delegation to stop him.
"Robin will do anything for publicity. The first day of the session his wife brought their baby up here. While she sits in the gallery, he has the baby on the House floor feeding it a bottle. Why? To get attention."
Ficker, who may be the world's leader in press releases, says, "I think they're important. That's the way you let your constituents know what you're doing for them."
Final Ficker story: Ficker is a big Redskins fan. He is also a fan of Ken Beatrice, the radio talk-show host. In 1980, during an eight-week period, Ficker was the first caller to get through to Beatrice after every Redskins game. "He must have been dialing a half hour before the game ended," Beatrice said. Finally, concerned people would think Ficker was being given special privileges, Beatrice called Ficker before the show one Sunday. They talked Redskins. In the meantime, Ficker had his wife call the station on another line. When Beatrice picked up on his first caller he heard, "Hi, Ken, Robin Ficker here." Upset, Beatrice had his producer call Ficker and ask him not to call the next week. The first call his producer took that Sunday was from a woman. Beatrice was told his first caller was a woman. He breathed a sigh of relief and picked up the phone. "Hi, Ken, Robin Ficker here."