When the misspelling was pointed out, the candidate gave a resigned sigh, then brightened.
“I want everyone to be a Ficker-picker,” he said.
Ficker, a 75-year-old defense lawyer and onetime sports heckler who has made seeking office a second career, is the Republican contender for liberal Montgomery County’s highest elective post.
He is far from being a traditional candidate, but he is a relentless one: This is his 20th attempt for office over a span of more than 40 years. He has name recognition — and money, thanks to Montgomery’s new matching funds system — but lists no endorsements on his website and has little in the way of campaign infrastructure. He arrives at debates and campaign stops unaccompanied by the cadre of supporters that usually trails his competitors.
Any GOP candidate would face an uphill battle in Maryland’s most populous county, where 60 percent of voters are Democrats, registered independents outnumber registered Republicans and voters have not elected a Republican executive since 1974.
“I would look at him as the Energizer Bunny of Montgomery County politics,” Mark Uncapher, the chairman of the county Republican Party, said earlier this year. “He has continued on for now a very long period of time.”
Term limits, tax restrictions
Ficker, who was unopposed in the June 26 primary, raised enough in small donations from county residents to qualify for public financing for his campaign. He has received nearly $241,000 in taxpayer funds so far — and requested an additional $8,370 — which has paid for his oversize green-and-white campaign signs, a two-minute video ad, and the glossy brochures that he handed to the stream of commuters at the Metro station on a recent morning, along with plugs for his candidacy and witty repartee.
“Who’s your competition?” asked one woman who stopped to engage him.
“I’m trying to remember,” he quipped.
His competitors — whom he recalls quite well, of course — are Democrat Marc Elrich and Democrat-turned-independent Nancy Floreen. Both are longtime County Council members who can’t seek reelection, thanks to one of Ficker’s biggest political victories: a term-limits measure voters approved in 2016. (He has placed more than two dozen referendums on the ballot over the years; the other major success was a 2008 measure requiring a unanimous council vote to raise the property tax rate beyond the rate of inflation.)
“These two tax-increase specialists opposed term limits,” Ficker said at a debate hosted by Montgomery Community Media earlier this month. “It won in 253 of 257 precincts. That was a vote for change, not a vote to promote those that have been on the council way too long.”
But Ficker doesn’t have the typical record of accomplishments of most politicians.
During his only stint in public office — voters elected him to the House of Delegates in 1978 — he was chiefly known for asking endless budget questions and attempting to change the state sport from jousting to running. That voters have rejected him repeatedly since then does not faze him.
“I suppose the alternative is not running and just sitting there and taking it,” Ficker said. “To me, it’s like saying the Redskins shouldn’t play this year because they didn’t make the playoffs last year.”
Whether Elrich and Floreen could split the Democratic vote enough to launch Ficker into office is an open question; Elrich says it’s possible, while Floreen dismisses the idea in her campaign literature, which calls Ficker a “fringe candidate” in a county without many Republicans to begin with.
Ficker became nationally infamous for his abrasive and constant heckling of visiting teams as a season-ticket holder for the then-named Washington Bullets, prompting the NBA to institute what became known as the “Ficker rule” — no heckling during timeouts.
He is perhaps Montgomery County’s version of Forrest Gump: running pals with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, appointed general counsel to the National Caucus on the Black Aged by civil rights icon Rosa Parks. In 1972, Ficker signed a letter urging voters in New Hampshire to write in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s name for president in an effort that turned out to have been paid for by Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. (The Senate’s Watergate Committee determined that Ficker knew nothing of the Nixon committee’s backing or vote-siphoning scheme.)
He has been suspended from practicing law twice, in 1998 and 2007, for violations of ethical rules involving competence and diligence in defending clients. In the latter case, the state court of appeals said Ficker’s “cavalier attention to proper office management” left one client who was facing possible jail time “virtually abandoned until the eve of trial.” And he was reprimanded four times, most recently last year, over violations involving competence and client communication.
Ficker dismisses the complaints as sour grapes from competing attorneys upset at him for undercutting their fees, and he said there was “never any allegation of dishonesty or taking someone’s money or whatever.”
“When you have a lot of bright attorneys looking over your shoulder very, very carefully, no one is perfect,” he said. “I’ve completed at least 35,000 cases. There have been problems in a couple handfuls of those.”
Ficker’s mantra as prospective county executive is that he won’t raise property taxes or fees. He says he would work to get more lanes added to Interstate 270, construct the upcounty M-83 highway and replace Police Chief J. Thomas Manger with sheriff candidate Jae Hwang. Ficker also wants to institute “English Saturdays,” language classes to help immigrant students and their families.
Speaking his mind
Prone to over-the-top statements, Ficker drew gasps at one debate by declaring he would “guarantee” there would be no police shootings of unarmed individuals on his watch.
He always stands when he speaks, despite the pleadings of debate moderators, and hammers on points he wants to make, no matter the question. (Asked how to increase low- and moderate-income housing in the county, for example, he spoke mostly about Amazon.com’s search for its next headquarters. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Meanwhile, back to housing,” Elrich said, following him.
Ficker relies on G-rated name-calling that amuses his audience and opponents alike. At a recent debate, he referred to Floreen and Elrich as “couch potatoes,” and denigrated them as coming from the “Takoma Park Trapezoid” — a term he made up after plotting the location of the homes of Floreen, Elrich and the Democratic nominees for the four at-large council seats. (Ficker lives in upcounty Boyds.)
Later that day, Ficker leaned his posters against the Giant supermarket wall next to Leisure World, ready to charm the age-restricted community’s trove of likely voters.
“How are you, young lady?” he asked, sidling up next to an older woman resting with her groceries on a bench.
Marlene Trimble, who lives around the corner from Leisure World, had watched the day’s debate. A lifelong Democrat, she said she didn’t know much about Ficker but supported his push for term limits and liked his stance on taxes.
“We’ve been very unfriendly to business,” she said. “We need fresh ideas, new ideas. All these people from Takoma Park being on the County Council — I don’t even know how that happened.”
Next: Independent Nancy Floreen.