Doug Duncan is determined to regain his bully pulpit in Montgomery County


Former Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan wants to reclaim the job and is competing in the June 24 Democratic primary. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Strathmore Hall, one of Doug Duncan’s signature projects, was in trouble.

The new concert pavilion in North Bethesda needed an additional $3 million to make the acoustics perfect. The Montgomery County Council, which had already sunk $44.5 million into the project, told Duncan that he wasn’t getting another dime. So Duncan, the county executive, threatened to “mothball” the building.

“It’s a very simple choice for the council,” Duncan said during the 2004 standoff. “They either grant the money to finish it, or we stop construction.”

The council eventually approved the money, as a loan to the hall’s private donors.

Politics was a contact sport for Duncan, and bluster was part of his game. Although he held an office that has limited power, he approached it like a big-city mayor during his three terms, from 1994 to 2006.

Now 58, Duncan wants to reclaim the job and is competing in the June 24 Democratic primary against his successor, County Executive Isiah Leggett, and council member Phil Andrews (District 3).

Duncan, a former mayor of Rockville, used the executive’s job as a bully pulpit to drive his agenda for the county. At a burly 6-foot-4, he was restless, impulsive and impatient, sometimes searingly so, with those who weren’t on board. He often described the county’s sleepy political culture as “paralysis by analysis.”

“I don’t think I would call him a dictator, but there has to be a term,” said former council member Gail Ewing (D-At Large). “He’s decisive. He ran the county more like a CEO than an elected official.”

Duncan came to the executive’s post with deep roots in Montgomery and its politics. He grew up in Rockville’s Twinbrook neighborhood, one of 13 children. His mother, Eleanor, was a courthouse clerk and a Democratic activist. After graduating from Columbia University, he worked as field director for Charles Gilchrist’s successful 1978 campaign for county executive. At 26, he was elected to the Rockville City Council.

Buoyed by the roaring 1990s economy, government spending more than doubled during Duncan’s tenure as county executive, while the population grew 20 percent.

Strathmore was part of a broader effort to show that a traditional bedroom suburb could feature more than shopping malls and multiplexes. Under Duncan, the county also invested heavily in the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown, Glen Echo Park, the Olney Theater and the AFI Silver Theatre.

Nearly $200 million in public funds went to leverage the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, and the county helped fund the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.

At the same time, Duncan struggled privately with a deepening depression. The “family curse,” as he called it, had afflicted his father, James, a National Security Agency analyst who was hospitalized frequently for bipolar disorder. Several of Duncan’s siblings have been treated for depression.

He abruptly ended a 2006 gubernatorial campaign by announcing that he needed to seek treatment. Duncan says medication and therapy have restored his health, and he’s made his recovery part of his campaign message.

He is asking voters to abandon the quieter, more consensus-driven approach of Leggett, an avuncular former law professor who prefers to navigate around conflict . Duncan argues that the county has lost its edge in the Leggett years.

“I think people want a hands-on executive,” he said. “We’ve seen what a hands-off executive brings us.”

Duncan is vague when asked what he would have done differently had he been in Leggett’s place during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. He deflects questions about the mix of taxes, cuts and other measures he would have used to balance the county’s finances. Instead, he emphasizes that he would have been “much more aggressive” in securing funding from Maryland’s state government in Annapolis and resisting state efforts to shift financial obligations to the county.

Wheaton, north of Silver Spring along Georgia Avenue, should be the next big revitalization target, Duncan said. There are plans for a mixed-use development near the Metro station. But Duncan said the area needs a more careful rethinking so that the ethnic restaurants and mom-and-pop stores can be supported by a more walkable sidewalk system.

“People ask me why don’t you have an Adams Morgan in Montgomery,” Duncan said. “I say we do. It’s Wheaton. If you were able to get from place to place.”

Duncan said he would push for express lanes for Interstate 270 and gigabit speeds for Internet service. He wants to create an applied sciences and engineering campus, where research could be commercialized and spun off into new companies. With county land and seed money, Duncan said, Montgomery could have something similar to the venture in New York established by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Cornell University.

But Duncan is seeking a return to power in a county significantly different from the one whose top office he left in 2006. It is poorer, older and more diverse. Non-Hispanic whites dropped below 50 percent of the population for the first time, according to the 2010 Census. The worst of the recession is past, but money doesn’t flow as freely.

“The good old days are gone. It is the real days today,” said Leggett, who often blames Duncan for worsening Montgomery’s descent into the recession with profligate spending.

Leggett was an at-large County Council member during two of Duncan’s three terms as executive, and he was council president in 1998 and 1999. In 1998, the council added $26 million to Duncan’s proposed budget by tapping money Duncan wanted to hold in reserve. And while it is true that spending jumped more than 36 percent during Duncan’s last three years, there was about $350 million in reserves left over. Leggett drew down a chunk of that cash to help balance the books after he took office.

The axis of the political conversation in Montgomery has also shifted since Duncan’s day from “growth-no growth” to a more nuanced conversation about environmental sustainability and “smart growth” around mass transit. By those standards, some of Duncan’s legacy has not worn well.

The $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties— a road he championed — is underused and saddled with pricey tolls needed to retire the massive debt. A new urbanist community in Clarksburg was tarnished by construction flaws and regulatory lapses, fueling criticism that Duncan was too cozy with developers. And while Duncan says the county gained 89,000 jobs during his tenure, federal labor statistics put job growth at 54,677.

Duncan’s abrupt exit from the governor’s race in 2006 also generated questions. In addition to his depression, he was dogged by a scandal.

Shortly before he dropped out, The Washington Post reported that he had received $20,000 in campaign contributions in 1999 from companies in Saipan and Guam with links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Some of the firms were lobbying clients of Abramoff’s.

The money arrived just four weeks before Duncan authorized the lease and potential sale of an abandoned school building to Yeshiva of Greater Washington, where Abramoff was a member of the board. Duncan said he knew nothing about the contributions, and returned the money as soon as he learned about it. He said the money had nothing to do with the leasing deal.

Abramoff, who was in prison when the story broke, said in an e-mail last week that he had no connection to Duncan or the Yeshiva deal.

There is also some unease over how Duncan has spent his eight years off the political stage, when he seemed to scuffle from job to job.

In 2007, he was appointed vice president for administrative affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park. He resigned after 17 months, after he was ordered by an envoy from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) not to appear at a forum with former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

He co-founded CivicUS, a government research and advisory firm that did not survive the recession. Duncan then worked as a consultant, selling his government expertise to clients that included some of the county’s biggest real estate developers.

A 2013 financial disclosure statement filed with the county ethics commission shows that Duncan collected more than $5,000 in fees from at least five companies with a stake in local government decisions.

Among them were two limited partnerships affiliated with the Lerner family, owner of the Washington Nationals and co-owner of White Flint Mall, which is being demolished for a mixed-use development.

Duncan represented the Lerners in an unsuccessful effort to place the planned Prince George’s regional hospital and medical campus at the nearly vacant Landover Mall site, owned by the family company. Prince George’s officials ultimately chose Largo Town Center as the location. Duncan also worked for the Lerners on real estate projects in Greenbelt and College Park.

Another client was Milestone Communications, a Reston firm that works with school systems and other local government agencies to place cellphone towers on their properties. Duncan said that he introduced the company to officials of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which runs the county’s golf courses, but that no business resulted from the contacts.

Duncan approached two Montgomery County departments — liquor control and public information — on behalf of AINS, a Gaithersburg software company. He also provided advice on immigration policy to the Hagedorn Foundation, a Long Island-based philanthropy.

He continues to monitor land-use matters for Gingery Development Group, a company with property along Rockville Pike that could be condemned as part of a planned bus rapid-transit system.

Before 2013, one of Duncan’s clients was Foulger-Pratt, a company that was a major player in Silver Spring’s revitalization and the general contractor on the troubled transit center there. Duncan advised the firm on other Silver Spring-related matters, including Leggett’s unsuccessful attempt to impose a countywide teen curfew.

Before becoming county executive, Duncan was a national accounts manager for AT&T. He is the only one of the three Democratic primary candidates who has worked in the for-profit world (Andrews worked for Common Cause; Leggett, as noted earlier, was a law professor), and he said he is proud of both the bumps and the successes of that part of his life.

“I have a long history with the private sector,” Duncan said. “When you’re elected, you divorce yourself from it.”

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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