ANNAPOLIS – It’s difficult enough to be a converted Republican in a Democratic district, but as Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, faces his first race as a newly minted Democrat, he has a world-class heckler as an opponent.
Robin Ficker, the GOP challenger, is a party-switcher, too, but he’s better known as the former harasser-in-chief of the National Basketball Association Wizards and sponsor of property tax limitation amendments.
Ficker has made a name for himself, but it remains to be seen if that will translate into votes.
The infamous heckler of the Washington Bullets, before they were renamed the Wizards, gained local and possibly regional attention for his outrageous antics. He would taunt players, hold up rubber chickens and was even booted out of his seats. The NBA said they moved his seats to comply with disability standards, but Ficker said they just wanted to move his away from the sidelines.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that he is the better known candidate, but I don’t think he is held in higher regard,” said Hogan. “My opponent is known for not getting any bills passed.”
Three of Ficker’s proposed amendments made it to the ballot — to allow the county to make regional telephone calls without long-distance charges, which was later overturned; a prohibition on operating garbage dumps in residential zones, and a halt to sewage sludge trenching in residential areas — and were passed by voters.
However, Ficker, a former state lawmaker, lawyer and West Point graduate, is known more for his referendums that did not make it.
A proposed amendment to the Montgomery County charter to place term limits on County Council members and the executive was rejected by 54 percent of voters in 2000.
A 1994 petition to cut property taxes failed by less than one percentage point.
Hogan, a computer consultant, and Ficker do share one thing in common: a rejection of their political parties. Hogan switched his party affiliation midterm in early 2001 and Ficker became a Republican in 1975.
The Democratic Party was becoming too powerful and he said they didn’t need him, Ficker said of his switch.
As for Hogan: “The Democrats are thrilled to have a man of this substance on our side. I think he switched because the Republican Party left him behind and became too right winged,” said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.
Hogan, a former legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, reformed the transportation Trust Fund and which allotted $14 million a year for the county. He also sponsored a bill to provide statewide funding for the county’s mass transit system he said.
His most significant achievements have been the establishment of the University of Maryland at Shady Grove and establishment of the Maryland prepaid college tuition program, Hogan said.
Ficker is a character of the grass roots.
Knocking on doors and waving to voters from busy intersections with his banner displaying the web site www.endMDgridlock.com is how Ficker reaches out to his district, and he likes to say that his opponent is campaigning from his back porch.
In District 39, campaign issues revolve around an important topic: transportation.
Montgomery County has one of the worst transportation problems in the state.
Three major projects have been touted as solutions: the Inter-county Connector linking Interstate 270 to Interstate 95, the proposed Metrorail Purple Line to connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and extending the Red Line to Germantown.
“Last month, I used 1,700 minutes and I only use my cell phone in my car. This proves that gridlock is the main problem in Montgomery County,” said Ficker, an ICC backer.
Hogan has unfinished business in office and his priorities are set on transportation, specifically the ICC, and education, he said.
“Over the last eight years I have a record of working with other legislators and delivering for my district and county. I’ve also had many bills passed and gotten money for our schools and transportation,” Hogan said.
Hogan has not done enough to help Montgomery County’s transportation problem and the district needs fresh ideas, Ficker said.
“I think his reputation (Hogan) is what’s in question. He should be called `Do-nothing’ — do nothing for education, do nothing for the ICC and do nothing for a Potomac bridge.”
District 39 is slightly more Democratic and many Republicans were moved out when Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s redistricting plans took effect in February, according to the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
“This couldn’t be a more perfect race for this Democrat,” said Paulson.
Montgomery Village, Derwood, North Potomac, unincorporated Gaithersburg and parts of Germantown constitute the district. Voter registrations list 25,282 Democrats, 16,057 Republicans and 11,340 independents as of Wednesday, according to the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
“I think Robin’s chances are good because voters don’t know P.J. Hogan anymore than they know Robin Ficker. It all comes down to who touches the most voters,” said State GOP Executive Director Paul Ellington.
Hogan has held the Senate seat for eight years while Ficker is a former delegate and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, in 2000.
“These two candidates both have political liabilities,” said WTOP political analyst Blair Lee. “P.J.’s liability is that he did the hardest thing in American politics, and Ficker’s liability is that he is Ficker,” Lee said. “In any other race Hogan would have a difficult time after his switch to Democrat, but this race isn’t even close.”