Montgomery Executive Isiah Leggett has no party challenger, little GOP threat

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010

With a primary less than two weeks away in Montgomery County, Isiah Leggett has already begun a victory lap.

The elected county executive -- the equivalent of mayor for nearly a million people -- faces no primary opponent, so he's making a series of good-news stops and stacking up plaudits.

So much ground has been broken this week with shiny shovels that it's tough to keep up: On Monday, it was for a library in Silver Spring. On Thursday, for a planned Fillmore concert hall a few blocks away.

On Wednesday, minutes after District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty finished a debate with Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and made a last-minute appeal for voters to save his job, Leggett sat cheerfully under a white tent at the launch of a planned $200 million National Cancer Institute campus in Shady Grove. There, he took in congratulations on the project from Sen. Benjamin Cardin, thanks from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, and warm words from Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Fellow Democrats in the heavily Democratic county consider Leggett unbeatable and couldn't muster even token opposition, leaving Montgomery's dominant political party without a marquee, countywide contest on Sept. 14 primary ballots. Five members of the county's all-Democratic, nine-member council are facing primary challengers, and there's a face-off for an open council seat in a district covering northern and western Montgomery.

Two Republicans, meanwhile, are embroiled in their own fight for the chance to face -- and, if conventional wisdom and decades of political history hold -- be trounced by Leggett come November.

One of the GOP candidates, ghostwriter Daniel Vovak, ran for president in Iowa in 2003 and a bit of 2004 wearing a white colonial wig. He wants to buttress county finances by, in part, finding a way to tap tax revenues from future marijuana use in California. He'd like Montgomery to become home of a future Philip Morris of legalized pot. (Vovak emphasizes that he hasn't wielded the wig as a tool in his current campaign, and also this: "I have never in my life smoked any marijuana. Never.")

Vovak has accused his primary opponent, attorney Douglas E. Rosenfeld, of being a Democrat in disguise with no political experience, accusations Rosenfeld attempts to parry with dismissive jibes of his own, particularly at Vovak's gravitas.

"My Republican opponent has run for U.S. president and U.S. senator and chairman of the Republican Party in Maryland. I don't know what he would do next," Rosenfeld said.

In an interview, Rosenfeld would not say when he registered as a Republican.

But it was April 13, 2010, according to Montgomery County Board of Elections director Margaret Jurgensen. From Sept. 4, 1992 until then he was registered as a Democrat, Jurgensen said. For years before that he was unaffiliated.

Mark Uncapher, chairman of Montgomery's Republican Party committee, offered an optimistic view of his party's chances of taking out Leggett in November.

"There's enthusiasm on the part of a lot of voters who have not voted Republican in the past and really want to send a message this year," he said. "Clearly, it would be an upset. But this is a year for making upsets."

Uncapher turned aside questions about Rosenfeld's party loyalties, saying Rosenfeld's criticisms of the county's leadership, which have centered on financial management, have resonated with Republican voters. He said the GOP has a long tradition of welcoming people from other parties. "Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat," Uncapher said. Anyway, he added, Vovak's pot-as-economic development strategy is hardly "a typical Republican position."

In a final bit of political jujitsu, Uncapher posited that Leggett's strength among Democrats could end up hurting him. "Because he hasn't had a primary, I have to say Leggett's campaign so far has been somewhat lethargic," he said.

Democrats say not to worry.

"Ike Leggett is right in the mainstream of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. He's popular with liberals and moderates, blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians," said Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large), who has at times parted with the county executive on policy matters. "He'll win in a landslide. This county is not going to elect a Republican county executive, not in 2010."

The last time the county did was in 1970.

Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) weighed a primary challenge against Leggett, but decided that he'd prefer to leave public office instead and launch a biotech-related company.

"I don't think he was untouchable," Knapp said. "This is a very bizarre kind of year in Montgomery County."

In much of the nation, "if you're an incumbent, you can expect a challenger, if not two or three. And here, half of the county council is running unopposed," Knapp said. He said he's been baffled by it, but thinks it's because people are more focused on their jobs, on the economy, and national issues.

Or, as Leggett's supporters would have it, it's because he has done a good job. At the groundbreaking for the new cancer research center, which will rise in an area he has championed for future biotech development, Leggett looked ahead.

"Look at what you see happening now," Leggett said, "and you are going to see wave after wave of successes coming."

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