Jean Cavanaugh is a Silver Spring Democrat and environmental activist who says she respects the tough decisions elected officials in Maryland’s largest county must often make.
That places her about as far as possible, politically and temperamentally, from Robin Ficker, a Republican who has hammered the Montgomery County Council for years on taxes and spending and is the driving force behind a term-limits proposal on the ballot this November.
But Cavanaugh, too, has grown weary of the same old faces on the council — a manifestation, perhaps, of the anti-establishment sentiment that has swept the country this year, fueling the campaigns of outsider presidential candidates as starkly different as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Cavanaugh, 56, is ready to vote for Question B, which would place a three-term cap on council members and the county executive.
“It’s the only way we’re going to get new people in office,” she said. “It just becomes incestuous to have the same people in office for so long.”
She has joined an unlikely coalition that appears poised to do something unprecedented in the left-leaning county, a place filled with people who like government — including many make their living from it at the federal level — and expect much from it at the local level.
Unhappiness with a recent run of council decisions has reached a kind of critical mass among a swath of voters that includes union members, real estate developers, business leaders, members of neighborhood associations, and liberals and conservatives.
Many are reacting to a record property-tax increase this spring, a hike in the recordation tax for property sales, cuts in raises negotiated in collective bargaining agreements and — on the political right — the county’s protective policies toward undocumented immigrants.
And just about no one liked the vote to raise council members’ salaries to more than $130,000 by the end of 2017.
“If there was ever a time that the actions of the council would drive a term-limits initiative, this is probably the year,” said Steve Silverman, a former council member and county economic development director who describes the breadth of support for Question B as a “convergence of strange bedfellows.”
The proposal has put some elected officials on edge. Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), a four-term incumbent, predicted that Question B would lose next month. But she sounded exasperated and defensive in a short debate with Ficker that was broadcast Friday on NewsChannel 8.
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t we have a rule against people running for office too frequently?” Floreen asked, a not-so-subtle reference to Ficker’s many runs — at least six since 2000 — for local or national office.
“We’re getting personal now,” Ficker said, laughing.
“How is this not personal?” Floreen asked. “I’ve been elected four times successfully.”
Some term-limits opponents say the stars seem aligned this time around, 16 years after voters rejected, 53.7 percent to 46.2 percent, a Ficker-driven proposal for a two-term limit. (A 2004 measure establishing a three-term cap lost by just four percentage points.)
“I think, unfortunately, it’s going to pass overwhelmingly,” said Jeffrey Slavin, the mayor of the town of Somerset, near the District boundary, and a vice chair of the state Democratic Party.
Third-term council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said, “The political environment today being so hostile to government makes term limits more appealing to people, even though I don’t think it accomplishes its fundamental goals.”
In the 1990s, 66 states and localities, including Montgomery’s neighbor Prince George’s County, imposed some ceiling on tenure in office. Prince George’s voters have rejected repeated repeal efforts, and this year they will decide whether to add two at-large council seats that could be held by members who have served their permitted two terms as representatives of a district. Seven other Maryland counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard and St. Mary’s — also have term limits.
But the benefits projected by champions of term limits — more electoral competition and candidate diversity, increased voter turnout, less legislative gridlock, and diminished influence of special interests — have never fully materialized.
Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have dropped limits, either by law or because of court rulings. Over the past decade, the number of term-limits initiatives adopted by voters has slowed to a trickle. There are none on statewide ballots in 2016, according to Josh Altic, ballot measures project director at Ballotpedia.
When term limits were on the ballot in Montgomery in 2000 and 2004, a high-profile, bipartisan coalition of labor, business and community leaders came together in opposition, led by then-County Executive Doug Duncan (D). Tens of thousands of dollars were raised to convince voters that they alone should be the ones to decide when a particular politician should leave office.
In 2016, the opposition seems far less urgent and substantial. A “No on B” committee, headed by former Rockville City Council member Tom Moore (D), is lightly supported, with much of its funding coming from council incumbents.
Business groups and unions seem ambivalent — frustrated by the council but also reluctant to weigh in too heavily, aware that regardless of the outcome, they must do business with this set of incumbents until the end of 2018.
“I think the members have wanted to stay away from it,” said Jennifer Russel, vice president of government and economic development for the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve taken no official position,” said Ed Krauze, vice president for policy at the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. “Maybe it’s fear of the council. There’s probably some of that.”
Police, fire and non-uniform government employee unions were furious this year when the council voted to reduce pay increases they had negotiated with County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994, which represents about 5,000 county workers, spoke seriously about supporting Question B. But passions have given way to pragmatic politics.
“We’re going to keep our powder dry,” Renne said, speaking for other union leaders as well. At the same time, he said, “I have a membership population that quite frankly has no use for this council. There is a significant percentage of our members that will vote for it.”
Term limits have some influential opponents. The county Democratic Central Committee is recommending “no” on the 240,000 sample ballots it will drop on doorsteps and hand out on Election Day, after its advisory panel on ballot issues cautioned about the risks of taking no position. The Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 12,000 classroom teachers, educators and support staff, also endorsed a “no” vote — despite having teacher raises pared from an average of 8 percent to 4.5 percent. The union will carry that recommendation on its Apple Ballot, which is mailed to Democratic voters and distributed at the polls.
Whether or not term-limits are approved, there will be significant turnover in county government in 2018. Leggett has said he will not seek a fourth term. Of the five council members who would be barred from seeking reelection if Question B passes, four are likely either to run for Leggett’s job or to move on: Berliner, Marc Elrich (D-At Large), Floreen and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).
The future of the fifth, Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) could hinge on what constitutes a “term.” Ficker’s Question B defines it as a complete four-year period or any portion of one, which would disqualify Navarro — who served a one-year partial term before being elected to two full terms — from running again.
A separate ballot measure sponsored by the council, Question C, would define a term as two years or more. If Questions B and C are both passed, it could be up to the courts to decide how long an elected official can serve.
But Navarro said she is confident that it will not come to that.
“We have very sophisticated voters in Montgomery County,” she said. “The idea of term limits is one that voters have rejected, because every election is considered an opportunity for term limits.”
Correction: Initial versions of this story incorrectly reported that the county’s Democratic Central Committee opposed the term-limits measure even though an advisory panel cautioned against the risks of taking a position. The panel cautioned against the risks of taking no position. The article has been corrected.