Monday, May 18, 2009

What is at Stake on Tuesday

It is only one County Council seat in a low turnout special election, right? How much does that really mean? A lot, actually. What is at stake is the future of the Montgomery County Republican Party and the broader direction of the county as a whole.

Historically, Montgomery’s GOP has been comprised of three factions who have barely coexisted, much less worked together effectively.

1. Moderates

Montgomery has a long tradition of socially liberal and (relatively) fiscally conservative Republicans. Prominent examples include James P. Gleason, the county’s first Executive; former eight-term Congresswoman Connie Morella; former Delegate Jean Cryor (D-15); and former County Council Members Howie Denis (R-1), Betty Ann Krahnke (R-1) and Nancy Dacek (R-2).

This branch of the GOP established a niche in county politics by advocating a similar, but more modest, agenda of liberal government than the Democrats. But since Montgomery’s voters are so attuned to national politics, moderate rank-and-file Republicans were mostly driven out of the party by Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Some Republicans, like Delegate Luiz Simmons (D-17) and former Senator P.J. Hogan (D-39), joined the Democratic Party. Denis and Cryor stayed in office as long as they could until they were defeated by Democrats in a very bad year for the GOP (2006).

Another factor in this branch’s decline is that (relative) fiscal conservatism has found a home in part of the Democratic Party. It’s worth noting that in 2006, Denis and Cryor appeared on the Apple Ballot while Democratic County Council Members Nancy Floreen, Phil Andrews and Marilyn Praisner did not.

2. Social Conservatives

This wing of the party has been around for awhile but has never achieved the prominence of the moderates. The two foremost social conservative organizations in the county are the anti-GLBT group Citizens for a Responsible Government and the anti-illegal-immigration group Help Save Maryland. Both groups are tiny but very loud. Neither of them will ever win a majority of county voters over to their agenda. But both have received some attention from the GOP. Witness Republican Central Committee Member Adol Owen-Williams’ cry of “Heil Hitler” after the County Council’s passage of the transgender protection law and the appearance of several elected GOP leaders at a Help Save Maryland rally.

3. Anti-Tax Activists

Say what you will about Robin Ficker, but he is no ordinary politician. He is a sincere and highly-motivated advocate of one of the core principles of modern conservatism: tax restraint. His theatrics and repeated runs for office have caused many to underestimate him but the victory of his tax-limiting charter amendment should be a wake-up call to the Democrats.

Consider the following facts:

1. In the 2008 general election, 440,774 Montgomery voters cast cards. That is the highest number of votes cast in the history of the county. The turnout rate was 79%. This was the electorate that approved the Ficker Amendment.

2. The Ficker Amendment carried the county’s precincts located in Congressional Districts 4 and 6, State Districts 14, 15, 17, 19 and 39 and Council Districts 2, 3, and 4.

3. The Ficker Amendment passed by double digits in precincts located in Darnestown, Laytonsville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Sandy Spring, Dickerson, Poolesville and Germantown. It also passed in Derwood, North Potomac, Potomac, Gaithersburg, Olney, Burtonsville, Montgomery Village and (by 58 votes) Rockville.

Nothing in Montgomery associated with the Republican Party or right-of-center politics has approached the success of the Ficker Amendment since Connie Morella was last elected in 2000.

Anti-tax activism has a chance in Montgomery County in part because of our disadvantaged fiscal relationship with the state. The county’s relatively high nominal household incomes guarantee that it will be hit disproportionately hard by the state’s income tax. But the county’s high housing costs lead to high mortgage costs and a calculation by the state’s wealth formula, which is based partly on property values, that we are “too wealthy” to receive much state aid. As a result, we are third from the bottom in state aid per capita among Maryland’s counties even though we are first in mortgage costs and gasoline prices and second in foreclosures. All of this makes it harder for the county to maintain the quality of its schools and public services, without which Montgomery is merely a high-cost place to live and create jobs.

Robin Ficker’s answer is to limit local tax increases. He would follow the example of Prince George’s County, which passed its TRIM amendment over thirty years ago and has seen a relentless decline in its schools and police service ever since. Montgomery County is not as far away from going down that road as many Democrats may think. This represents perhaps the only viable return to relevance for the Montgomery GOP.

Beating Ficker on Tuesday will be one step off that path. But making the case that good government is worth paying for is essential to preventing a rebirth of the Montgomery County GOP, a surge in single-issue anti-tax activism and a resulting decline in the county’s fortunes.