Perennial candidates bring single-issue focus to Maryland governor’s race

Published on: July 06, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: July 11, 2022 at 3:41 pm EDT

From left: Joe Werner, Ralph Jaffe and Robin Ficker.

Just as determined dandelions reemerge in Maryland landscapes each spring, so too do three political candidates’ names reappear on ballots each election season.

Robin Ficker, Ralph Jaffe and Joe Werner have collectively exercised their privilege to seek political office 34 times with little success. Ficker’s 22 tries since 1972 account for the bulk. But this year marks the first they are competing for the same seat — Maryland’s governorship.

Each candidate told The Baltimore Banner they want to help Marylanders, have grown a tight group of loyal supporters and vary in their fiscal approaches to campaigning.

Despite their single-digit poll numbers, each man remains undeterred, resolute and fearless, however unlikely it is their candidacy will bloom past the July 19 primary.

So what motivates these perennial candidates to persevere through yet another daunting campaign season?

Maryland politics professor, Todd Eberly, who is familiar with the three candidates’ fruitless crusades, said it’s possibly more about planting seeds than winning.

“You get your name on a ballot, and instantly you at least have a shot at being interviewed and showing up at forums and debates and people hearing what you have to say,” said Eberly, who teaches political science at St. Mary’s College.

Repeated attempts by activists to gain political office are not unique to Maryland “even though there’s no chance really that they can win,” Eberly said.

He recalled frequent Maryland Democratic candidate and six-time loser George P. Mahoney. Mahoney famously lost to Spiro T. Agnew in the 1966 governor’s race after promoting a racist campaign to deny Black people equal access to housing.

Two of this year’s repeat performers, Ficker and Jaffe — with platforms nothing like Mahoney’s — are also singular in message.

Ficker’s two cents

Ficker’s platform has remained as dependable as seeing his name on the ballot over the last 50 years. The anti-tax Montgomery County Republican wants to lower the state sales tax by 2%, a shift he says will attract businesses to Maryland and save every household $780 per year.

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“We have to give these people relief; their family budgets are hurting,” Ficker said.

Reducing the state sales tax by 2 cents on the dollar would save Maryland households about $600 a year and reduce state revenues around $1.7 billion, according to the state comptroller’s office. Ficker said he would bridge shortfalls with the state’s projected $7.5 billion surplus.

The Maryland Court of Appeals in March disbarred the former attorney after ruling he violated the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct. Ficker has been disciplined for professional misconduct eight times by state and federal courts for violations, including a failure to prepare for clients’ trials and failing to show up to defend them.

Ficker refused to comment on his disbarment, saying voters instead should focus on the thousands of trials at which he has appeared.

He similarly views his political losses with a glass-half-full outlook. The 79-year-old, who calls himself, “Maryland’s Leading Civic Activist,” highlights the positive. He counts the votes he did get rather than the ones he didn’t, and tallies the charter amendments he pushed onto Montgomery County ballots over the years, boasting that his fellow county residents passed two of them. One requires a unanimous vote from the County Council to raise property taxes and the other places term limits on the county executive and County Council members.

During his career, Ficker twice earned a seat at the state political table, representing Montgomery County in Maryland’s House of Delegates from 1979-1982.

For his governor’s run, he loaned himself more than $1 million and has spent over half on direct mailings. His campaign reported $326,000 in cash on hand on his last campaign finance report.

A focus on good deeds

Jaffe, a Democrat and advocate for government reform, called his dogged pursuit of political office a “movement,” similar to the civil rights movement.

“I’m trying to set a new standard that’s more important than getting elected,” the 80-year-old former ninth grade government teacher said.

If elected, he’ll refuse a salary, steer clear of lobbyists and only serve one term. Jaffe’s low-budget operation refuses donations — equating them to bribes — and tells supporters to instead give their money to charity.

“When the citizen gives a politician money, there’s a reason for that. They want something in return,” he said. “And what they might want in return may not be best for the entire constituency.”

The former educator’s campaign platform centers student achievement beyond the classroom. He proposes enlisting a volunteer corps of tutors, which will match teams of three or more adults to a struggling student with the goal of seeing them through high school graduation, college and finding a job.

Since 1993, Jaffe says he’s been in the “mitzvah business,” or the Jewish tradition of doing good deeds. Supporter and Baltimore City resident, Eli Schlossberg, has known Jaffe for over 25 years and has seen him go “out of his way to help people” who needed financial assistance or advice.

“The word for Ralph is sincere. He has a very good heart,” Schlossberg said.

This year will be Jaffe’s seventh attempt since 2002 at the governor’s mansion. In 2012 and 2016, he ran for U.S. Senate. Sticking to his principles made him a winner in every race, he said. “If you lost, but you were ethical and honest and sincere, you’re a winner.”

Jaffe said he’s planning to move to Baltimore City. If he’s not busy governing, he said he will run against Mayor Brandon Scott in the next Democratic primary.

Switching parties

Werner, now a Republican, ran for Harford County executive, Congress and the Maryland House of Representatives in recent years as a Democrat. The 62-year-old family law attorney, who descended from Polish immigrants, said he had always identified as a Democrat until a series of policy positions forced him to switch sides.

The party’s stance on gun control and immigration has slid “too far to the left,” he said. However, the newfound conservative’s own positions continue to straddle party lines.

Werner, who grounds his campaign in public safety rhetoric, agrees to requiring background checks and three-day waiting periods before gun purchases, while also embracing the conservative “good guy with a gun” hypothesis.

“I believe that if law-abiding citizens have weapons, you’d be safer,” he said.

He wants to get illegal guns off the streets, especially in Baltimore City. If elected, he’ll use a Baltimore gun crime task force to execute his plans. The Baltimore Police Department Gun Trace Task Force was disbanded after members were convicted of federal corruption charges for robbing citizens and selling drugs.

Werner holds two competing views on abortion. He wants to restrict abortion access after 15 weeks. “Women should have the choice in the first trimester,” he said. But he also wants to pass a fetal heartbeat bill in Maryland, similar to a Texas law that bans abortion after cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo or fetus. Fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In 2016, Werner ran and won the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District. U.S. Rep Andy Harris beat him that fall.

Werner, who does not see himself as part of the political establishment, said he was inspired to run by system “outsider” Bernie Sanders, and ultimately voted for Donald Trump for the same reason.

“I like that they’re trying to change the system,” he said. “I just couldn’t vote for Hillary.”

Werner, who practices law in Washington, D.C., said he’s looking forward to the primary being over. He’ll finally know who will be weeded out.

“If I win the primary, that’s the next step in life. If I lost, then I know I gotta get back to something else,” he said. “So everything’s on hold until July 19.”

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