Duncan Leaves a Powerful Imprint on Montgomery
County Executive Major Force During Period of Growth

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.

"He's very hands-on but not a meddler," said Saralee Todd, one of Duncan's four top assistants. "We needed aggressive leadership, and he was definitely the right guy at the right time."

For years, the county had struggled to find the right formula for transforming the heart of Silver Spring, at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. After seizing on the American Dream mall concept, with its indoor wave pool and roller coaster, Duncan ditched the idea in the face of intense community opposition and shaky financing.

Gene Lynch, who was Potter's chief administrative officer, said he worried that Duncan would follow the advice of consultants who cast doubt on the viability of a smaller-scale center of neighborhood stores that citizens were demanding.

"The experts said, 'This can never work.' They were all wrong, and Doug had the good sense to recognize that," Lynch said. "He didn't take the rigid, it-must-be-my-way position, which some accuse him of."

The strength of Duncan's decisiveness, however, was viewed by his critics as a weakness. When a historic preservation commission gave the go-ahead to demolish a 71-year-old armory that stood in the way of plans for a Silver Spring parking garage, the administration started demolition before opponents had decided whether to appeal.

Wayne Goldstein, who led the effort to save the armory in 1998, praised Duncan's "we've got to do it yesterday" approach at the time of the dump fire. In the case of the armory, he said, "I believe it showed a willingness to cut corners, to operate without rules."

Duncan's grand plans for the county were not without cost. The budget has more than doubled since 1994, to nearly $4 billion, and the population has surged by about 20 percent. The county has spent $187 million to make over Silver Spring. The concert hall at Strathmore Hall Arts Center, which had extensive overruns, cost the county $48 million for its portion. The state and county kicked in millions in tax credits, grants and loans to lure Discovery Communications to Silver Spring.

When the economy soured and revenue dipped in 2003, Duncan and the council imposed large tax increases, delayed negotiated salary increases for employees and cut department budgets to balance the books.

In many cases, though, the hefty public investment has paid off. Ten years ago, Silver Spring had the highest office vacancy rate in the Washington area at 39 percent, according to Gary Stith, director of the Silver Spring Regional Center. It is now 3 percent. The business incubator Duncan created in 1999 to encourage small start-ups has cultivated about 40 companies that employ 1,400 people.

Whether it was Duncan's shyness that colleagues said made him an unnatural schmoozer or his strong desire not to be viewed as just another council member, he got off to a rocky start with the nine-member body. He used the council as a foil, prompting members to hire a spokesman accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of Capitol Hill.

"There could have been greater collaboration and conversation," said council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who has served since 1990.

Just as he used the bully pulpit in Rockville, Duncan was a force in Annapolis. He trolled the hallways without handlers and testified at hearings. When legislators were concerned about ensuring the county's share of school funding, Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said, "Doug's presence and clear message gave people validation or the courage they needed to take a firm stand."

The elevation of Montgomery's profile in the state capital was good for Duncan, but his aspirations to be governor faded in June when he pulled out of the Democratic primary and announced he was seeking treatment for depression.

Duncan had been trailing in the polls and in fundraising. And he was on the defensive after the disclosure that he had accepted $20,000 in campaign money from businesses linked to convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served on the board of a private school in Montgomery that leased two former public schools from the county.

Soon after his announcement, Duncan told a gathering of mental health advocates, "it didn't take any courage to stand up and say, 'Here's my problem.' The courage it took for me was to admit I have a problem, to admit that I needed help and to seek that help," he said. "That was, I think, one of the most courageous things I've ever done, to say I can't do this on my own anymore, I can't fight through it, although I had for a long time."

Duncan, 51, has been circumspect about his exit, according to colleagues, and taken aback by Leggett's decision to purge nearly half of his 40 top aides. But at the final meeting of the county's leadership series for employees just before Thanksgiving, Duncan seemed to be coming to terms with his departure.

After several county workers rose to thank him for his long service, a participant said Duncan told the audience, " 'A couple weeks ago, I might not have been able to handle hearing that. Thank goodness I can.' "

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