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Doug Duncan’s entry in Montgomery race should spur debate on county’s future

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Given the generally positive reputation that Doug Duncan enjoyed during 12 years as Montgomery County’s top leader, it’s surprising how many influential people say today that they would not like to see him return as county executive.

Since Nov. 27, when Duncan jumped into the race for the 2014 Democratic nomination, a string of top county politicians and other experienced observers have faulted him in interviews as the wrong man for the times.

He presided over a damaging spending binge in his final years in office, they said. He’s out of touch with the new Montgomery, in which non-whites have become a majority of residents.

Many predicted that Duncan would lose to his successor, County Executive Ike Leggett (D), if the latter decides to seek reelection.

“If the incumbent wants a third term, I acknowledge that his chances of winning would be high,” said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). He said he plans to be a candidate himself, regardless.

Leggett had been saying he wouldn’t run, but he is reconsidering. That’s partly because Leggett, according to numerous credible sources, is annoyed at the idea that Duncan might return to power just as the economy is recovering and would benefit from tough budget choices that the incumbent made during the recession.

Despite the criticisms of Duncan, I’m glad he’s attempting a comeback. That doesn’t mean I necessarily see him as the most attractive candidate. I like his entry because it should help trigger a spirited public debate in Montgomery over some big questions that the county has been complacently ignoring.

For instance, why does Montgomery have no major, fully funded project underway to add transit or road capacity to reduce traffic? Northern Virginia has tapped the private sector to help build the Silver Line to Dulles and add toll lanes to the Beltway. Montgomery politicians are doing little except blame the state for failing to raise the gasoline tax.

Also, why does Montgomery continue to create significantly fewer new jobs than Fairfax? Over the two years ended in spring, federal data show Montgomery added 11,000 jobs (a 2.5 percent gain), compared with 22,000 (up 3.9 percent) in Fairfax.

Montgomery says Northern Virginia does better because it has the Pentagon and Dulles Airport. But the Maryland county has had decades to find a way to compensate.

Finally, what is the plan to deal with the growing economic divide within Montgomery between its upscale west (Potomac, Bethesda, Chevy Chase) and struggling, working-class communities in the east (swaths of Wheaton, Silver Spring and Germantown)?

Duncan’s entry helps ensure that these challenges will get attention. He likes to shake up the status quo, sometimes with good results. Even critics give him credit for revitalizing downtown Silver Spring and Rockville and for building the Strathmore Arts Center.

“There will be a debate about big ideas. This will not be a small election,” said an adviser to Duncan. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because Duncan’s current policy is not to comment on the campaign. The adviser also disputed criticisms of Duncan, such as that he allowed county spending to spin out of control in his last term, from 2002 to 2006.

Leggett, by contrast, has been low-key and conciliatory in his six years in office. He makes no apologies, saying it was the right approach in a time of austerity. Without directly attacking Duncan, he stressed that he had to shrink the budget by $2.7 billion over five years.

“It’s not that I haven’t tackled substantive issues,” Leggett said. “We have repositioned the county in a subtle, diplomatic, intelligent way.”

If Leggett does seek reelection, however, he’s going to have to speak more compellingly than he has about where the county needs to go and how it’s going to achieve its objectives. He said he’ll be talking to supporters in the new year about whether to run.

It could be a crowded field. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) is already in the race, stressing his prudent, past opposition to overspending. Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County) is actively considering getting in. A number of others could enter, especially if Leggett bows out.

What’s most important is using this election to prod Montgomery to air a serious discussion about the big issues it faces. The debate is overdue.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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