James P. Gleason, 86; Force for Change in Montgomery County

James P. Gleason, who was instrumental in extending Metrorail to the northern suburbs, was Montgomery's only Republican county executive.
James P. Gleason, who was instrumental in extending Metrorail to the northern suburbs, was Montgomery's only Republican county executive. (1974 Photo By Charles Del Vecchio -- The Washington Post)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

James P. Gleason, 86, the first elected county executive in Montgomery County, who during a colorful eight-year tenure forced the completion of Metrorail into the northern suburbs, died Sept. 14 of complications from prostate cancer at his home in Rockville.

Mr. Gleason, a combative and idealistic man who was the county's top official for two four-year terms in the 1970s, was willing to figuratively throw himself under a Metro train for a cause he believed in.

In 1977, he withheld $32 million in county payments on the Metrorail system, risking the future of the system he helped promote, until he won a federal commitment to complete the full 100 miles of subway -- especially the Red Line from Silver Spring to Glenmont.

The stance earned him the ire of federal officials, the County Council and editorialists, and the lasting approval of commuters in the congested Wheaton area.

Those commuters also appreciated the Ride On bus system, which Mr. Gleason launched. The county's commissions on human rights, women and consumer affairs also began under his watch.

Mr. Gleason, however, was nearly fed up with elective office. A man of mercurial moods who was frustrated with seemingly endless meetings, constant compromises and the need for patience with bureaucracy, he buried his head in his hands during a 1974 session and moaned, "I just don't think I can take much more of this crap."

The plain-spoken comment was typical. As he prepared to leave office in 1978, he told reporters, "No elected official, individually, can make a difference. . . . To me, government is like the theater of the absurd. There is a lot of activity, some meaning, but nobody knows what it is."

The only Republican to be county executive in Montgomery, Mr. Gleason turned down an opportunity to run in the Republican primary for Maryland governor in 1978.

Instead, he turned to teaching politics at Harvard University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He retired from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1998 as deputy chief administrative judge.

Born in Cleveland, James Patrick Gleason dropped out of high school during the Depression for a job on a railroad. He joined the Army during World War II and served as a staff sergeant in Iran. After the war, he enrolled at Georgetown University and finished an undergraduate degree and a law degree in an accelerated program.

Aiming for a Senate seat, he worked as a legislative assistant to Sen. Richard M. Nixon (R-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland (R-Calif.). After Knowland's retirement in 1959, Mr. Gleason entered the private practice of law and by the early 1960s had become assistant administrator of NASA.

He lost two races for a U.S. Senate seat from Maryland and in 1968 was appointed to the County Council. After two years on the council, he was elected county executive in an extremely close race, winning by about 420 votes out of 154,000 cast. Four years later, his victory was much more decisive.

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