Ready to Rumble

Ready to Rumble

Expect the incumbent Ike Leggett and former office-holder Doug Duncan to come out swinging as they vie for Montgomery County's top job

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Just six men have been elected Montgomery County executive since the post was created more than 40 years ago. And for two of the past four decades, the job has been the province of two individuals with vastly different personalities and governing styles: Douglas “Doug” Duncan and Isiah “Ike” Leggett.

Now 58, Duncan was in his mid-20s when he first won a seat on the city council in Rockville, where he grew up. He served as mayor for six years, then held a record three terms as county executive from 1994 to 2006—a tenure marked by several highly visible initiatives, notably the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring and the creation of North Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore.

By contrast, Leggett, now 68, arrived in Montgomery County in 1970 after being transferred here as an Army officer. In 1986 he captured an at-large seat on the county council, becoming the first African-American elected to that body. After 16 years on the council, including three stints as president—two of which overlapped with Duncan as executive—Leggett spent two years as chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. He won the first of his two terms as county executive in 2006, a tenure dominated by the fiscal challenges of the Great Recession.

Now, after a monthslong political pirouette, the two men find themselves on a collision course in the 2014 Democratic primary next June as both seek the $180,250-a-year post running the state’s largest county.  

It has been nearly a quarter century since a sitting county executive faced a serious challenge for re-election, and with more than six months to go until primary day, the tone of the race is growing increasingly contentious.

“You can expect that Duncan will come out firing away,” says former Councilmember Gail Ewing, who served with both men and describes Duncan’s style as “confrontational and aggressive.” Duncan “needs to point out the differences and why you shouldn’t elect the incumbent.”

Meanwhile, Leggett “is a force to reckon with beyond what Duncan has ever seen before,” Ewing says.

“I expect [this contest] not to be very nice,” she says, notwithstanding the civility the Montgomery County electorate has come to expect of local elections. “And that’s too bad.”

For Duncan, post-county government life has been both personally and professionally challenging. There was the depression diagnosis that ended a short-lived bid for governor in 2006; the brief, somewhat tempestuous stint as a vice president at the University of Maryland; the collapse of a start-up consulting firm with which he was involved. Little wonder that his appetite for a return to public life was whetted when he contemplated a run for the redrawn 6th Congressional District a couple of years ago, though he ultimately decided that particular position wasn’t a good fit.

Duncan first told a private meeting of supporters in late 2012 that he intended to recapture his old job. At the time, Leggett told Duncan that he had “no plans” to seek another term, not that Duncan would have been deterred if Leggett had said otherwise. “I made the decision to run for county executive based on what I can contribute to this county,” he says. “And if there’s no one else running, or 10 other people running, that’s their decision.”

Leggett said in 2011 that he would not seek re-election. But last June he announced he would run again after all. He cites “a pretty steady drumbeat of supporters” urging him to reconsider. And there are several initiatives he hopes to see to fruition over the next four years, after two terms of economic triage on the county’s finances.

Leggett denies widespread speculation that Duncan’s decision played a role in changing his mind.

“People who really know me realize that’s the farthest thing from my mind,” Leggett says with a faint smile as he sits at the conference table in his second-floor office at the county’s Executive Office Building in Rockville. “I’m not one about vendettas or political scoring or who’s up or who’s down. You’re not going to see me engaged in any kind of attacks on people and all that kind of stuff. That’s not me.”

Yet some sniping already has begun on both sides. Duncan has characterized the county government as “off-course” and Leggett as a “very passive” leader. And Leggett has said that Duncan’s fiscal policies “undermined our sustainability,” leaving the county ill-prepared when the recession hit.

Adding to the fray is a third contender in the June primary, veteran county Councilmember Phil Andrews, who slams both Duncan and Leggett on several issues, including what Andrews characterizes as overly generous agreements with the county’s labor unions. Andrews lacks the visibility of his two rivals, but many political insiders think he has an outside chance of pulling an upset.

In the midst of the early crossfire, no single issue has yet emerged to clearly define the candidates among the electorate.

“In past local elections, there tends to be one overriding, burning litmus test issue,” says Bethesda-based political consultant Keith Haller, citing topics that range from education to transportation and the pace of development. “Right now, I do not see one dominant local issue…that might impact or shift people’s vote in a dramatic way.”

And that could be a problem for Duncan, says former Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Gus Bauman. “Unless there’s some overarching issue that animates a large bloc of votes,” he says, “it’s very hard to dislodge an incumbent.”

To see why Leggett is widely considered the early favorite, consider this tale of two picnics.

On a Sunday in May, Duncan hosted a picnic for some 300 supporters at Gaithersburg’s Smokey Glen Farm. An enthusiastic crowd cheered as Duncan recounted some of the highlights of his 12 years in office. “When I was county executive, we were known for getting things done,” Duncan told the gathering, reprising a motif of his campaign over the past year.

Notably absent from the crowd were elected officials lending their support. Only U.S. Rep. John Delaney, who garnered Duncan’s endorsement for the newly drawn 6th District in 2012, stopped by to repay the favor. And though there were African-American and Latino faces in the crowd, the assembled supporters lunching on pulled pork were mostly white and older—members of the informal organization that helped keep Duncan in the county executive’s office for 12 years.

Two months later, Leggett held his own picnic elsewhere in the 90-plus-acre Smokey Glen Farm. Ticket sales reportedly exceeded 1,000, with more than 20 elected officials from the state, county and local levels attending. Applauding Leggett’s remarks was a multiracial, multiethnic crowd—a fact Leggett highlighted.

“When I look around this audience, I see the present of Montgomery County and the future of Montgomery County—one that is large, diverse, enthusiastic, well-educated and committed…to working in a collaborative spirit,” he declared. “Only in a few places in America could you look out and see an audience like this.”

It was an African-American official’s pointed reminder that the county’s demographics are trending toward minorities, even though Leggett has never sought to position himself as a minority candidate. The 2010 census showed only 49 percent of Montgomery County’s population as non-Hispanic white. In 2000, two years before Duncan’s name last appeared on the ballot, the countywide population was approaching 60 percent non-Hispanic white.

Duncan dismisses suggestions that this change presents a hurdle for his campaign. “It’s the same challenges that were there when I was county executive,” he says. “We were shifting to that. We became a majority-minority school district when I was in office.”

But the contrast in the gatherings served to underscore that Duncan, who dominated the county political scene for more than a decade, is now the outsider, while the incumbent Leggett is drawing support from much of the political establishment.

“Any kind of criticism of Ike is pretty much around the edges,” says at-large county Councilmember Nancy Floreen, who first came into office on the 2002 “End Gridlock” ticket spearheaded by Duncan, but who has endorsed Leggett this year.

Several observers say Leggett has buttressed his position through extensive outreach. “He is quite focused on connecting with the community,” says Floreen, chuckling. “I can’t keep up with Ike in terms of the community activities he is at—and I’m pretty good at it.”

Bauman contrasts the current political situation to 1990, the last time a sitting county executive faced a serious primary challenge. The incumbent at the time, Sidney Kramer, was narrowly ousted by then-county Councilmember Neal Potter after some in political and civic circles complained of being cut out of the action by his administration. The Kramer campaign was also widely regarded as complacent, a perception that Kramer—who backed Duncan in 1994 and Leggett both in 2006 and the forthcoming election—does not dispute.

“In 1990, there was a great anger, especially among primary voters, about the incumbent’s administration,” Bauman observes. “And I can detect no such anger about [this] incumbent administration.”

Ewing, who served on the county council from 1990 to 1998, agrees. “This time, I don’t see that same citizens-rising-up approach, and I don’t feel it,” she says. “And I don’t see an executive who is taking for granted that he will be re-elected.”

Indeed, Leggett may be widely known as “low-key” and “laid back,” but he appears to be taking little for granted.

Last March, for the first time in more than three years, he delivered a “State of the County” speech—cataloging not only what he sees as his accomplishments but his aspirations for the future. The address, which seemed in part an effort to rebut some of Duncan’s earlier gibes, highlighted economic development initiatives that Leggett said could add 100,000 new jobs in the coming years, along with increased investment in affordable housing in the county.

County Councilmember Marc Elrich, a Leggett supporter, thinks the county executive wants to move beyond the fiscal challenges he has faced.

“I think that’s probably one of the frustrations that he feels,” Elrich says. “You know: What will my legacy be? That I managed the place better than other people did? These [next] four years might be the opportunity to actually start doing some things.”

If Leggett’s time in office gives him the advantage, it also leaves him vulnerable to some powerful constituencies that aligned with Duncan during the latter’s time in office.

Gino Renne, president of the county’s 8,000-member chapter of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO), says his union enjoyed a “much better relationship” with Duncan, even as he acknowledges that Duncan ran the county during “a different time and different economy.” MCGEO endorsed Duncan during each of his campaigns, then backed Leggett in 2006 and 2010.

At the height of the recession, “all we asked for was to hold our members harmless in terms of their take-home pay,” Renne complains. “…And [Leggett], his administration and the county council went beyond that line and imposed take backs from us that I still maintain were totally unnecessary and gratuitous, and that were very painful to the families we represent.”

Leggett remembers that dispute as a tough time. “When you come home and see county employees demonstrating and picketing on your lawn, that’s not a pretty sight,” he says. But “there was no way you could hold people totally harmless. Eighty percent of our costs are in employee costs. You can’t balance the budget in these times [if] you can’t look at 80 percent of the budget.”

It remains unclear what MCGEO and other county unions will do in this contest. Renne acknowledges the politically risky option of taking on an incumbent who is widely perceived as a favorite to win re-election. “As you can imagine, there will be some deep conversations about this,” he says.

Expressions of discontent have emerged from the business community, as well, though many decline to publicly criticize an incumbent, given their reliance on the county’s regulatory process. “The feeling is that we’re in pretty much of a business-unfriendly county,” says one prominent businessman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Yet we’re working so hard to run our businesses, I’m not sure we’re going to have much of an impact [on the election].”

That undercurrent of discontent may explain why Duncan remains upbeat despite the conventional wisdom about incumbents.

“I’m getting people signing up enthusiastically to help me in my campaign,” he asserts. “I’ve been very pleased with the response.” Duncan points to a private poll last year that showed him highly competitive in a head-to-head matchup with Leggett (though the Duncan campaign has not released the precise parameters or results of the poll).

The core of the inner circle that surrounded Duncan during his years in office continues to advise him on an informal basis. And there’s little question that he retains the allegiance of many supporters from past campaigns, some of whom tend to view Duncan—a physically imposing man—as larger than life.

Businessman Keith Funger recalls the former county executive’s leadership during the 2002 sniper killings. Duncan “was on the scene; he was a presence everyone could identify with,” says Funger, a member of the Duncan campaign’s steering committee. “I think that’s the type of executive Montgomery County deserves.”

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