Mr. Duncan's Legacy
DOUGLAS M. Duncan, who after 12 years as Montgomery County executive leaves office next week, is easily the most accomplished of the five men who have held the job since it was created in 1970. Somber, hard-driving, thin-skinned and occasionally ruthless, he was not always universally beloved. But he did earn unrivaled respect as a doer and decision maker in a county that by his oft-repeated diagnosis is afflicted with "paralysis by analysis."
Even as Montgomery County was being reshaped by immigration, shifting demographics, swift development and rising prosperity, Mr. Duncan was instrumental in maintaining and improving the assets that have made it one of the nation's choicest (and most expensive) places to live: vibrant neighborhoods, excellent social services, efficient government and first-class amenities. Look around at what has made Montgomery dynamic -- terrific schools, the revival of downtown Silver Spring, the glittery new Strathmore arts center -- and you will see Mr. Duncan's fingerprints. It is an enviable record.
What is sometimes lost is how critical Mr. Duncan's flexibility and ferocious persistence were to his achievements. Facing creeping urban decay in downtown Silver Spring, he pushed hard at the outset of his first term for a revival plan whose centerpiece involved a $500 million mega-mall featuring an indoor roller coaster and wave pools for 3,000 swimmers. It didn't work. Displaying agile leadership and shrewd judgment, Mr. Duncan then shifted gears and vigorously pursued a blueprint whose success is evident today -- a vibrant new downtown anchored by the American Film Institute, a transplant from the Kennedy Center, and the Discovery Channel, which he helped relocate from Bethesda. What might have been an area of unstanchable blight has been remade into a thriving business center and a lively evening destination for arts and entertainment.
Over the years Mr. Duncan, a former mayor of Rockville, showed that he had grown in office in other ways as well. After an early tendency to make political enemies somewhat gratuitously, he grew skilled at forging key alliances, including in the local business community and among state lawmakers in Annapolis. During the sniper crisis four years ago, he provided a steady, calming presence for a traumatized citizenry. He was a critical voice in favor of building the intercounty connector, on which construction is likely to begin soon.
Mr. Duncan had hoped his success in Montgomery County would provide a springboard for his ambitions to run for governor this year. Practically everyone in Maryland, including his opponents, seemed to agree that he would make an able governor. But his campaign never really gained traction in the Democratic primary race against the younger, more charismatic mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley. And Mr. Duncan was dogged by reports in The Post that in return for past campaign donations, he had catered to the interests of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, a religious school whose well-connected advocates once included Jack Abramoff, the disgraced and convicted former lobbyist. In the end, Mr. Duncan, who has a family history of depression, disclosed that he was suffering from the illness and bowed out of the race.
That most recent chapter of his public life may not be his last, for Mr. Duncan's skills as an administrator and leader are likely to remain in demand. Whatever his next move, be it in the public or private sector, Mr. Duncan's formidable legacy will live on in Montgomery County.