Duncan Leaves a Powerful Imprint on Montgomery

Known for his aggressive style, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan worked to spur private investment and growth in Montgomery.
Known for his aggressive style, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan worked to spur private investment and growth in Montgomery. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

In the 12 years he presided over Montgomery County, Douglas M. Duncan recast the role of chief executive through force of will and a desire to leave a monumental imprint on Maryland's largest jurisdiction. As he hands off the job to Isiah "Ike" Leggett tomorrow, he leaves a lasting legacy, from the $96 million concert hall at Strathmore to a thriving and revived downtown Silver Spring.

But the man who was known as the mayor of Montgomery was not naturally gregarious, and despite overcoming his shyness, he is exiting quietly after watching his gubernatorial aspirations slip away, seeking treatment for depression and recovering from hip surgery this fall.

Like his burly 6-foot-4 frame, Duncan (D) did most things big. He became the county's most high-profile executive since the job was created in 1970, supporters and detractors agree.

"He put Montgomery County on the map as a force to be reckoned with," said former County Council member Gail Ewing, who at times clashed with Duncan. "He forced people to meet his expectations and to answer to what he wanted to ask."

A Rockville native, Duncan came to power after more than a decade on the City Council and as the city's mayor. His assertive style was a stark departure from that of his predecessor, Neal Potter, a soft-spoken economist who was often called the 10th member of the County Council.

Duncan grabbed power not by changing the government's guiding rules -- which set up a strong council and weak executive -- but through the bully pulpit and at times the art of the news release. Symbolic of his action-oriented approach, Duncan, in his first week on the job in 1994, dispatched firefighters to snuff out a North Potomac dump fire that had been smoldering for months. He became a de facto member of the county's legislative delegation, fighting for state dollars in Annapolis, and emerged as a calming, stoic father figure during the 2002 sniper crisis.

Unlike his predecessor, Duncan presided over a period of prosperity that made it easier to tap local and state money to spur private investment and growth.

By the end of his tenure, that success had become a drawback in the eyes of residents angered by traffic snarls and school crowding. By choosing Leggett in the Democratic primary over an opponent cast in Duncan's mold -- and by electing three slower-growth council candidates -- voters signaled that they were looking to temper Duncan's pro-growth policies.

If the economy set the stage for Duncan initiatives, he was the nimble yet persistent director with high standards. Not without controversy, he pushed through warring bureaucracies and squabbling citizens groups to help shake loose the stalled intercounty connector, slated to begin construction soon; build a conference center in North Bethesda; and most notably transform a downtrodden Silver Spring into a vibrant urban center of restaurants, theaters and shops.

"All these things sound like they were inevitable. None of them were," said former Planning Board chairman Gus Bauman, who, despite losing to Duncan in the 1994 Democratic primary, now says, "I always thought he'd be a good executive; I was pleased to find out he was excellent."

Duncan declined to be interviewed for this story or to answer written questions about his tenure.

Leaning back in his chair on the second floor of the county's Executive Office Building, Duncan reveled in listening to aides argue various sides of an issue, colleagues said. He had an uncanny memory for minutiae, they said, without getting mired in the details.

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