Former Montgomery County Council member Isiah Leggett ended months of speculation yesterday and announced that he is running for county executive next year, setting the stage for an intense campaign that could dominate county politics for 20 months.
Leggett, 59, who was on the council from 1986 to 2002, sent a letter to potential supporters yesterday saying he has the vision, experience and character to succeed Douglas M. Duncan (D), who is widely expected to run for governor.
If he won, Leggett would be the first black person to hold the top elective office in Montgomery. The affluent suburb is coping with an increasingly urban set of issues, including affordable housing, immigration and social services.
"In our vibrant, wonderfully diverse county you know that we have long-term critical issues requiring innovative approaches for their resolution," wrote Leggett, who served as council president in 1991, 1998 and 1999.
"I seek the opportunity to exercise my proven ability to help stakeholders with divergent views reach consensus."
Leggett's entry into the race yesterday provoked a barbed response from his only opponent so far for the Democratic nomination, council member Steven A. Silverman (At-Large), who has banked more than $600,000 for his bid.
"I welcome Ike into the race," Silverman said. "I hope he will finally join me in supporting the [intercounty connector] and the inner Purple Line and opposing slots as a tool to fund school construction."
Silverman's comment was a reference to Leggett's council career, during which he never took a formal position on the proposed connector that would link Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He also has sent mixed signals on the proposed Metro Purple Line that would connect Bethesda and New Carrollton via Silver Spring.
Leggett, who recused himself from the highway debate because he owns property along a proposed path, said positions on those issues will be forthcoming.
Silverman, whose aggressive early fundraising pressured Leggett into making his announcement months before he had planned to do so, said he will exploit Leggett's silence on the hot-button transportation issues. "These are the positions anyone running for county executive are going to have to address," Silverman said.
The quickly forming race has elected officials and community activists scrambling to take sides.
Yesterday, Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) announced his support for Leggett.
"I think he is exactly what the county needs," Perez said.
Silverman has strong support from the business community and is hoping to shore up his support among the county's politically active Jewish and minority communities. Former Montgomery congressman Michael D. Barnes, who now heads the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, also has endorsed Silverman.
A former Army captain, Leggett is a lawyer who served as a White House fellow during the Carter administration. For the past 28 years, he has taught law at Howard University.
On the council, Leggett charted a moderate course on the budget and taxes and was a champion for a living-wage law and the ban on smoking in county bars and restaurants.
When he left the council in 2002 after being passed over as a running mate by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Leggett became chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Leggett stepped down late last year, but his tenure could become fodder for the Silverman campaign. Some Democrats said Leggett wasn't assertive enough in challenging the policies of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., including the governor's slots plan.
"I think he was very lethargic and very unimaginative," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), a longtime Silverman ally.
To the contrary, Leggett said, he helped lead the party out of debt and, despite the loss of the governorship in 2002, win every major race in 2004.
"If you look at it closely, that is an outstanding record in a short amount of time," Leggett said.