Twice in the past 15 years, voters in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction have had a chance to limit the amount of time county leaders can spend in office. Twice, they have refused.
Republican activist Robin Ficker, a perennial political candidate best known for having heckled visiting players at Washington Bullets games, is hoping that the third time’s the charm.
He is once again collecting signatures to place a term-limits question on the Montgomery County ballot, convinced that the entrenched longevity of several county incumbents, combined with the growing appeal of political outsiders nationwide, has created the right political climate for the measure to succeed.
“It’s time for fresh ideas in the county government,” said Ficker, whose proposal would limit council members and the county executive to three consecutive four-year terms. Right now, he added, “you have a small group of people well-connected to special interests who control the show.”
Ficker must collect 10,000 valid signatures from registered voters by August to secure a spot for the question on the November 2016 ballot. He says he has 8,000 so far and will aim for far more by the summer, as a cushion in case some signatures are ruled invalid.
He got a term-limits question on the ballot in 2004, when it was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent. Four years earlier, it went down by 54 percent to 45 percent.
In 2016, Ficker is counting on a wave of voter discontent in response to what County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has said is likely to be a major property tax increase in the spring. He notes that incumbents on the nine-member Montgomery County Council are rarely defeated. Two members, Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Marc Elrich (D-At Large) are serving their third terms. Another two, Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) are in their fourth. The two freshmen elected last year, Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County), filled open seats created by departures.
Fifteen states and at least eight major cities — Houston, Dallas, New York, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix — limit city officials to either eight or 12 years in office. Governors in 36 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have term limits.
But interest in the idea has ebbed since peaking in the late 1990s, when 21 state legislatures had term limits.
In 1994, D.C. voters placed a two-term cap on the mayor, council members and members of what was then the school board. The council repealed the measure in 2001.
Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have also dropped limits either by law or court ruling.
The Maryland counties of Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard and St. Mary’s have some form of term limits. Voters in Prince George’s have been asked three times to rescind or loosen the restrictions, which were established in 1992. Each time, they refused — but the margin of defeat has grown much narrower. A proposal last year to extend term limits from two terms to three, which was enthusiastically endorsed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, failed by 2 percentage points.
Term limits are supposed to create more competitive races, energized by a more diverse pool of candidates. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said research shows that term limits have not, for example, lifted more women into office.
“In theory, it makes sense. In reality, that’s not necessarily what we’ve seen around the country,” Walsh said. In some states, popular women have been forced from office because of term limits, while poor candidate recruiting practices — and what Walsh described as greater reluctance to run among women — have slowed the rise of new female contenders. Opponents also say that term limits for legislators breed inexperience and expand the influence on government of unelected lobbyists and special interest groups.
“We are always starting over,” Prince George’s Council member Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale) said last year, asserting that limits there hamper the council’s ability to pursue long-term ideas.
All four Montgomery lawmakers who would have to step down in 2018 if Ficker’s measure succeeds — Berliner, Elrich, Leventhal and Floreen — say they think term limits are a bad idea.
“Montgomery voters have shown that they want to be able to rehire elected officials who they think are doing a good job, and are not shy about getting rid of officials they don’t think are doing a good job,” Leventhal said.
He noted three at-large lawmakers ousted in the past 13 years: Blair Ewing in 2002, Michael Subin in 2006 and Duchy Trachtenberg in 2010.
Said Floreen: “We have term limits, and they are every four years.”
Leggett said he is not opposed to term limits — even though he would be affected if he decided to run for a fourth term in 2018. (So far, he says he is not interested in a fourth term.)
Over the past 40 years, Ficker, 72, has placed about two dozen questions on the county ballot by signature — many of them attempts to roll back or limit spending or to change the composition of the council. Most were defeated. The most prominent exception was in 2008, when voters passed a measure requiring a unanimous council vote in order to exceed the legal cap on the amount of tax revenue the county can collect in a given year.
As he has many times before, Ficker has been seeking signatures in supermarkets and shopping malls. When he’s not working on petitions, he is pursuing his Republican primary campaign to challenge incumbent Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) in November’s general election.
“Term limits will be my running mate,” Ficker said.