Isiah Leggett, Doug Duncan expected to dominate Montgomery executive race


Doug Duncan. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
December 28, 2013

The last time someone not named Doug Duncan or Isiah Leggett held the office of Montgomery county executive, Bill Clinton was a first-term president, “Forrest Gump” was the year’s top-grossing film and Netscape Navigator was the consumer favorite for browsing something called the Web.

It was 1994 when the Duncan-Leggett lock on the job began, and now the two Democrats are seeking — each in his own way — to extend the streak beyond 2014. After signaling that he would retire, Leggett is running for a third term, and Duncan, who held the office from 1994 to 2006, is trying to make a comeback.

At this point, four-term County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) appears to be the only newbie who will compete in June’s Democratic primary.

Elections are about the future, or so the truism goes. Montgomery voters will want to know how each candidate would address the economic and social challenges of a rapidly transforming county. Once a traditional, white-dominated bedroom suburb, Montgomery is now an increasingly diverse majority-minority county with significant urban centers.

But the lengthy records of all three men in county government make the past a major factor in this campaign. Although the race won’t begin in earnest until early next year, those legacy narratives have already taken shape.

Leggett, 69, an avuncular former law professor, is focusing on what he characterizes as his unflinching management of county finances during the Great Recession. He asserts that he has earned the right to govern in an improving economy by virtue of the painful but essential cuts to personnel and programs he made in the down years, decisions that he says have positioned Montgomery to emerge vibrant and strong. Drawing on the compelling personal story of his rise from poverty in rural Louisiana and Army service in Vietnam, Leggett tells audiences that he is a proven leader in “live-fire situations.”

Duncan, 58, the hard-charging former mayor of Rockville, argues that Montgomery was on the move during his three terms as executive, as evidenced by such signature achievements as the redevelopment of Silver Spring and the opening of the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. But the county, he contends, has lost its edge as its political culture and has been overtaken by passivity, indecision and lax management under Leggett. His Exhibit A is the delayed and over-budget Silver Spring Transit Center.

“Who’s accountable for this fiasco?” Duncan asked at a gathering of Democratic activists last month.

Andrews, 54, the former director of Common Cause Maryland, casts himself as the reform alternative, despite holding office for 16 years as the County Council’s District 3 representative. He touts a legislative record that includes the smoking ban in restaurants, a “living wage” above the legal minimum for employees of county contractors and tighter regulation of the disability-retirement system.

Andrews has been a consistent critic of government spending under both of his opponents. He calls new labor contracts negotiated by Leggett and approved by the council irresponsible and unsustainable.

“They’re traditional interest group politicians,” Andrews said of Duncan and Leggett, describing them as beholden to unions and real estate developers. Andrews takes no campaign contributions from those groups.

Also in the mix is the lone declared candidate for the Republican nomination: lawyer James Shalleck, 67, a former assistant district attorney in the Bronx and Justice Department antitrust attorney. Shalleck has said he wants to see “a police presence” in every school and an end to the nickel tax on plastic and paper shopping bags. If elected, he said, he will ask the U.S. attorney to empanel a grand jury to investigate possible criminal activity in the construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Shalleck, who has run unsuccessfully for state’s attorney and Circuit Court judge, is hoping a contentious Democratic primary will weaken his eventual opponent. But he is also a realist, running in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-to-1 ratio. It was 1974, and Gerald Ford was in the White House the last time a Republican was elected county executive.

The candidates all aspire to what political scientists would call a “weak” executive office. Under Montgomery’s charter, the nine-member County Council has more clout. Each year, the county executive submits a balanced operating budget, but the council has the last word, and it can make “special appropriations” at any time. Council members also vote to confirm the county executive’s department heads and other appointments.

But the occupant of the executive’s office, which will pay $190,000 a year starting next December (ticking up to $207,000 by 2017), is the face and voice of a jurisdiction of nearly 1 million people. That visibility can be used to persuade, cajole or even bully council members into voting for legislation.

It wasn’t expected

This is not the way the 2014 race was expected to unfold. After his reelection in 2010, Leggett declared that he would not run again. Duncan has said that Leggett told him over lunch in the summer of 2012 that he had no plans to run again, joking that if he did, he “had to have a new wife,” a reference to the wishes of his wife, Catherine, that he retire. Although Leggett allowed that his plans could change, he told his predecessor to “go ahead and form a [campaign] committee.”

Then Leggett had a change of heart, triggered, some political observers surmise, by Duncan’s criticism of his leadership. Leggett said that Duncan was not a factor and that a desire to pursue unfinished business in such matters as transportation and affordable housing was his motivation.

Leggett’s decision to run again kept as many as three council members — George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County) and Marc Elrich (D-At Large) — out of the race.

The first major indicator of the relative strength of each candidacy could come in mid-January, when the first round of finance reports are due. But for the moment, the consensus within the county’s political class is that Leggett will be difficult to unseat.

“I don’t see anything that suggests he’s overly vulnerable,” said former council member Mike Knapp (D-Upcounty), who is not aligned with any campaign.

“I just think it’s Ike’s race to lose,” said Gus Bauman, a land-use lawyer and former county Planning Board chairman who ran for county executive in 1994.

Privately, Montgomery officeholders and campaign contributors are more blunt. They say Leggett has given voters no compelling reason to fire him. Nor, they say, has Duncan been as visible or aggressive as he needs to be to make his case. Andrews, who is hoping to build a grass-roots campaign on months of intensive door-knocking, is considered a long shot at best.

There are signs of cracks in the conventional wisdom. A poll of 500 likely Democratic primary voters commissioned earlier this year by Ervin suggested that Leggett was far from a lock.

The survey showed Leggett with overwhelming, 95 percent name recognition and solid job-approval rating (64 percent). Among respondents, 68 percent said the county was headed in the “right direction.” But pollster Fred Yang said he found little enthusiasm for returning Leggett to office. A “shockingly low” 23 percent were actually committed to voting for him. Yang described 61 percent of the primary electorate as “persuadable.”

The poll showed Duncan with 89 percent name recognition — unusual for a politician who has not been on a ballot since 2002 — and a personal-favorability score of 61 percent positive and 11 percent negative. His “retrospective” job approval rating was 69 percent, meaning that a significant number of voters still see his performance in office in a positive light.

Andrews trailed significantly in name recognition and support. One of Yang’s trial heats showed Duncan with 35 percent; Leggett, 27 percent; and Andrews, 10 percent.

Drawing distinctions

If Duncan and Andrews are to capture the persuadables, they will have to draw vivid contrasts with Leggett. That may prove difficult to do. The three share common ground on some broad issues, such as the importance of mass-transit projects .

Duncan, a driving force behind the transformation of Silver Spring, has tried to focus voters’ attention on design and construction flaws at the transit center, which sits fenced off and empty off Colesville Road.

But Duncan, who withdrew from the 2006 governor’s race after receiving a diagnosis of depression, may find that he gets limited mileage from the issue. He was a consultant for Foulger-Pratt, the project’s general contractor, and the company has been heavily criticized for its performance. The county also ran up about $40 million in overruns on capital projects in the last years of Duncan’s tenure. Ventures such as Strathmore, AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg were all more expensive than predicted.

Leggett may have difficulty lining up labor support, despite negotiating contracts that awarded significant pay increases after three lean, recession-bound years.

Most police, fire and other unionized employees will receive raises of 7 to 10 percent a year for the next two years. The first-year cost of the contracts is about $31 million. Leggett has said he was concerned that the county would pay more if it went to arbitration. Critics called the contracts an election season down payment to the unions.

But Gino Renne, president of the 5,000-member Montgomery County Government Employees Organization, said memories of layoffs, furloughs and wage freezes in the recession-blighted years have not faded.

“I can say that the distrust and dislike of what Leggett did to our membership over the last several years is so deep and wide that he comes at it in a significant deficit,” Renne said.

Renne also said Duncan brings “a distinctly different leadership style. He brings what I believe to be a truly executive leadership style to the county.”

But if it appears next spring that Leggett is in a commanding position, it may be difficult for Renne and the union’s rank and file to justify throwing in behind anyone else.

Taking aim at the king is only a good idea if you’re certain you won’t miss.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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