Mr. Leggett's Principles

Sunday, August 13, 2006

MUCH HAS BEEN made of the contrasts between the two main candidates running for county executive in Montgomery County. It's a good story line. Isiah "Ike" Leggett -- Vietnam veteran, up-from-poverty Southerner, law school professor -- has the sort of emollient public persona and compelling personal history that inspires respect. Steven A. Silverman -- baby boomer, policy wonk, kinetic dealmaker -- has become a force in county politics by virtue of his passion and energy.

In fact Mr. Leggett and Mr. Silverman, who between them have 24 years of experience as members of the County Council, have much more in common than divides them. Liberal Democrats, they have, despite their divergent political styles, generally agreed on the moderately pro-growth policies that have sustained Montgomery's prosperity, fine public schools and dynamic job growth. Each has been a first-rate lawmaker on the council; each is a credible candidate for county executive. Given the county's heavily Democratic electorate, whoever wins the party primary Sept. 12 is a cinch to take the general election.

We favor Ike Leggett . He is the right choice for a county facing a demographic makeover, the prospect of tightening budgets and the strain of impassioned debates over growth, development and traffic. He has the judgment, temperament and integrity to make a solid leader of a county whose population will reach 1 million during the next county executive's term.

The first African American elected to the council, Mr. Leggett served 16 years before stepping aside to become chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party in 2002. On the council he was among the most admired figures in local politics -- calm, steady, forthright and astute. He has that rare knack in public service for fashioning compromise while at the same time sticking to core principles. Those principles included a commitment to responsible fiscal policy, top-notch public education, sensible growth, affordable housing, and clean air and water.

Mr. Leggett's deliberative, nonconfrontational approach is sometimes interpreted as indecisiveness or passivity. It's a bad rap. He has taken the lead on an array of initiatives, for example leading the fight to ban smoking in county bars and restaurants in the face of stiff opposition from owners of those businesses. In a county whose leadership has sometimes had trouble saying no, Mr. Leggett is a better bet to exercise the fiscal and budgetary discipline that will be required in the face of tighter property tax revenue as the local housing market softens.

He will need to be resolute in a fast-changing political climate. The public schools will need a vigorous advocate -- especially in budget season -- if they are to continue to make progress in boosting test scores for African American and Latino pupils. That is particularly critical as the county ages; most households have no children in the public schools and no personal stake in their success. And he will need to be an insistent lobbyist in Annapolis for state funding to improve the county's choked transportation networks. In particular, we hope he will press hard for the Purple Line -- the east-west light-rail that would connect two Metro lines -- despite having opposed it some years ago.

As for Mr. Silverman, no one doubts his commitment and creative passion for crafting policy; he has been a leader on the council in finding ways to build roads, affordable housing and new job venues. Although he has been criticized for coziness with developers and for embracing what some regard as excessive growth, he was part of a consensus on the council -- one that included Mr. Leggett. What Mr. Silverman lacks is Mr. Leggett's divining rod for common ground and gift for consensus-building. It does not diminish his achievements; it simply makes Mr. Leggett the better choice.


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