Leggett mindful of legacy of black political success

Courtland Milloy
Columnist June 14, 2011

Whenever there’s a scandal involving black elected officials, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett worries foremost about the dashed hopes of the people of color who elected them. He’s old school that way, ever cognizant of their historic struggle for full representation in the political process.

Also troublesome to Leggett (D) is how the wrongdoing by a few is used to denigrate the many.

“A lot of stereotypical attitudes about African American leadership persist: ‘We give them the keys to the treasury, and look what they do,’ ” Leggett told me during a recent visit to his Rockville office. “The ones who do wrong are a small segment, but they get nearly all of the attention, and the majority goes almost unnoticed while doing a good job.”

As Montgomery’s first black executive, Leggett refuses to provide such perverse “I told you so” satisfaction to the naysayers — unlike, say, some black elected officials in Congress, Baltimore, the District and Prince George’s County.

A series of photographs on his office wall illustrates part of the reason why.

“Here’s one of me and Doug,” Leggett said.

He was posing with L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves who, in 1990, became governor of Virginia — the first African American in U.S. history to be elected governor.

In 1985, with help from Wilder, Virginia’s soon-to-be lieutenant governor, Leggett became the first African American elected to the Montgomery County Council.

“That photo represents a legacy of black political achievement, a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of people who made great sacrifices to get us here,” said Leggett, 66.

Not all black elected officials seem to appreciate that.

Another photograph was taken at Howard University’s Charter Day in 2007. Leggett, a graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, was the guest speaker. Among the honorees was another alumnus: then-Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson.

Leggett took a closer look at the group photo and sighed.

Last month, Johnson pleaded guilty to extortion and evidence-tampering while in office. He is scheduled to be sentenced in September. His wife, Leslie, who sits on the County Council, was also charged with evidence-tampering. Her case is pending; the saga is seemingly without end.

“I was at a sorority meeting after the Johnsons were arrested, and I could sense from the women in the room how pained they were,” Leggett said. “Some had children who were aspiring to serve as elected officials but who were now turned off. A lot of the commentary sounded like there was a culture of black leadership that was ethically challenged.”

Another photograph showed a shack of a house in rural, racially segregated Louisiana, where Leggett and 11 siblings were raised by their mother, who worked as a short-order cook.

“She fought to make sure her kids had a strong moral foundation,” he said.

Leggett cut lawns and hauled trash to pay his way through Southern University at Baton Rouge. He became president of the student government association, an officer in the ROTC and a civil rights activist who protested arm in arm with militants such as H. Rap Brown and Kwame Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael.

After graduating, Leggett joined the Army, served in Vietnam and rose to the rank of captain before resigning his commission to attend law school.

At home, he’d learned the meaning of integrity; at Southern, how to take a stand against injustice; in the Army, how to lead; at Howard, how to fight a legal battle; and as Montgomery executive, how to put it all together.

With about a million residents, Montgomery is larger than U.S. six states. It is wealthy and diverse and has one of the best public school systems in the nation. Last year, Leggett was elected to a second term in a landslide, with 65 percent of the vote.

On the day I met with him, he was preparing for a meeting with international representatives from the biotech industry, who were set to bring an estimated 40,000 jobs to the county’s science and technology corridor along Interstate 270.

He was also reviewing the county’s preparations for the U.S. Open golf tournament, which will begin Thursday at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.

“This is a big draw for us,” Leggett said of the tournament. “If something goes wrong, it’ll be ‘Montgomery County’s fault.’ We’ve got to make sure the county shows well.”

He could just as easily have been talking about himself.

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