Grumpy voters angry at the political establishment have played a leading role in the drama of this year’s national election. But it’s not clear whether the ire runs deep enough to affect local governments in our region.
Answers will come Tuesday with results of ballot questions in each of the Washington area’s three largest suburban counties. As voters decide whether to raise taxes (Fairfax), expand the County Council (Prince George’s) or enact term limits (Montgomery), they will signal how much trust they retain in their elected officials.
Robin Ficker, a well-known Montgomery anti-tax activist, said the sour mood was a big help in his latest attempt to force council members and the county executive to step down after three four-year terms (or two full terms and part of a third).
“People just realize that it’s the same old, same old” in government, Ficker said. “They want some fresh ideas. They want something new. That‘s why I think term limits is going to pass this time.”
Thomas E. Dernoga, a former Prince George’s council member, made a similar point about his work against expanding the body from nine to 11 seats. He said he has personally spoken to “at least” 2,000 voters while canvassing and has heard lots of “anti-incumbent, anti-establishment” views.
“These are unhappy people,” Dernoga said.
Across the Potomac River, voicing the establishment perspective, Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) worried that antigovernment sentiment would block adoption of a tax that is intended to bring in revenue to be used to raise teachers’ salaries.
“This is probably the unhappiest, angriest presidential election that I ever remember,” Bulova said. “I hope that doesn’t rub off when people are looking at [local] bond referendums and the question of a meals tax.”
Here’s a look at how public attitudes about government are playing out in each contest.
If Fairfax voters decide to add a 4 percent tax on restaurant meals and prepared foods, it would be the first time in memory that they endorsed a higher tax by direct, popular vote. They rejected a similar meals tax proposal in 1992. They also voted “no” in a 2002 referendum on increasing taxes to improve transportation.
But supporters think residents might break with history because they care so much about protecting the county’s renowned public schools. The measure is projected to raise nearly $100 million a year, with 70 percent legally required to go to education.
If the outcome is “yes,” then the vote would mark another step in Fairfax’s gradual shift to the left — a change that has converted the former Republican stronghold to a Democratic bastion.
“I’m pleased to say that Virginia has become more blue,” said Gloria Rubin, first vice president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. “People are willing to . . . vote for the meals tax to support the schools.”
Opponents express confidence that voters are too sore about tax increases and wasteful spending to go along.
A restaurant executive who has attended four community meetings to discuss the proposal said many people expressed resentment about it.
“In general, they’re upset with the way the county spends money,” said Claude Andersen, a vice president of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns two restaurants in Fairfax. “They look at [the tax] as just another money grab that will go into a big hole somewhere.”
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) faulted the Democratic-dominated board for seeking to raise taxes so soon after adopting a $100 million real estate tax increase, which took effect this year.
“It’s really going to be a test of how many common-sense, fiscally conservative people are left in Fairfax,” Herrity said.
In Prince George’s, most of the political establishment is supporting the proposal to add two at-large seats to the County Council. They say it would improve accountability, by pushing the body to focus more on what’s best for the county as a whole.
The current nine members are often faulted for concerning themselves only with the narrow interests of their own geographic districts.
But opponents of expansion fear it’s a devious effort to do away with term limits, which bar council members from serving more than two four-year terms. A “yes” vote on Question D would mean that current council members could run for the at-large seats when their eight years were up.
The liberal group Progressive Maryland opposes “the self-serving nature of what they’re trying to do, trying to sneak things past the voters,” said Executive Director Larry Stafford, a Prince George’s resident.
Critics also complained that it would cost about $1 million a year to pay for the salaries, staff and offices of two new council members.
These objections disappoint supporters of expansion, who view themselves as reformers trying to improve the quality of Prince George’s government.
They think the council needs a mix of at-large and district representatives, similar to the model used in Montgomery and the District. They said the lack of at-large members gives Prince George’s less clout than its neighbors on regional bodies such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Former state delegate Justin Ross, a supporter, said: “If Question D were to fail, it’s because people are frustrated with county government. The irony is, that’s the same reason people support it.”
While Prince George’s is considering what many see as a way to weaken term limits, Montgomery will vote for the third time since 2000 on a Ficker-inspired proposal on whether to adopt them.
Opponents say term limits are bad public policy, because they prevent voters from retaining effective legislators with institutional memory.
“They strip legislative bodies of their expertise and experience, which end up residing in the staff and lobbyists instead.” said Tom Moore, a former Rockville city council member who chairs the “No on B” committee.
Critics are also trying to taint the bid by linking it to Ficker’s reputation for repeatedly backing highly visible but unsuccessful anti-spending or anti-incumbent measures. They are highlighting Ficker’s support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who is unpopular in Montgomery.
“The message we’ve taken is, we want to keep Trump-Ficker politics out of Montgomery county,” Moore said.
Ficker responded that term limits “has nothing to do” with Trump. He continued: “Term limits is not about me. This is about the 18,000 people that signed our petition” to put it on the ballot.
Ficker said the public has turned against the council because of a nearly 9 percent property-tax increase the past spring, and a vote to raise council members’ salaries to more than $130,000 by the end of 2017.
He accused council members of taking steps to protect incumbents, such as setting primary election dates at inconvenient times to ensure low turnout.
Noting that four of the nine current council members have served three full terms, he joked, “The only turnover I’ve seen in Montgomery County is sold by Pepperidge Farm.”