By Michael Laris and Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 6, 2010; 10:26 PM
American politics has left behind a list of catchphrases that capture the personalities and dramas of their time. The sign on President Harry S. Truman's desk read: "The Buck Stops Here." President Ronald Reagan had "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Obama relied on "Hope."
In an interview ahead of his inauguration to a second term, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) described his priorities for the next four years and stumbled upon what might be his own low-key but lasting entry: "Budget sustainability, budget sustainability, budget sustainability."
At a scaled-down swearing-in before hundreds of people and 15 potted chrysanthemums lining the stage at Rockville High School on Monday, Leggett and nine members of the County Council took in the ceremony: There was a standing ovation for a soaring rendition of "God Bless America." Leaders grasped hands in prayer. Leggett and his grandchildren gathered for pictures afterward.
But as students packed up the chairs later, the tough reality of what is facing the county and its leadership returned.
One of the nation's wealthiest counties is facing a budget shortfall of more than $300 million - and the prospect of cuts to schools, ambulance service and programs for senior citizens. And that's just to get things rolling. In the coming weeks and months, new waves of residents and county workers are going to feel just what it means when a county accustomed to generous spending is forced to pull back from what many leaders thought was a limitless future.
"I don't know whether we're going to be laying off people before Christmas or after Christmas, but we're certainly going to wind up laying off people," said County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). "What we're about to embark on is actually a reduction of services and people losing jobs."
But Elrich said Leggett struck the right tone in his address, which sought to focus on the county's resilience as a guide. "Everyone's come to grips with the fact that there's no way out," Elrich said. "You can't wallow in your misery. You've got to figure out, 'How do we get to the next place?' "
Leggett spoke of the pain that has hit some in Montgomery.
"Some of those living close to the edge slipped over, while others moved nearer to that line," Leggett said. "There were dreams deferred - and dreams lost. If our county has been spared the worst of these challenges, you know we have not been spared altogether."
But Leggett also sought to move the conversation forward, quoting President John F. Kennedy as saying, " 'Our task is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future.' " Resolving "the unthinkable challenges" of the economy takes a "culture of giving and serving" among those in the community and halls of government alike, he said.
Leggett pointed to individuals who took initiative, among them Seth Goldman, the small-business owner from Montgomery who developed the popular drink Honest Tea, and Sue Miller of Damascus, who rallied residents to help spruce up her town's public buildings.
He also saluted the sacrifices made by county employees who were furloughed this year.
"These employees are the people who are protecting our families and property, inoculating residents against the flu, picking up the trash, filling the potholes, plowing our neighborhoods, running our after-school programs and educating our kids," Leggett said.
Leggett and the majority of new council members began their day listening to a musical, interfaith appeal to preserve the county's tradition of taking care of those in need. The Rockville United Church was alive with a kindergarten choir, a Nigerian immigrant's operatic interpretation of the Lord's Prayer and a saxophone version of John Lennon's "Imagine." Officials bowed their heads as a Buddhist monk, several pastors, an imam and Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of the Shaare Torah Congregation gave them blessings and a reminder of what they believe matters most.
"May you inspire them and make them your partners as we struggle together in these difficult times to feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, supply shelter to those who are homeless and provide healing to those who are ill," Blumenthal prayed.
At the swearing-in at the nearby Rockville High School auditorium, council members maintained a solemn air.
As the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School a cappella choir sang "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper behind the council members on stage, Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) turned in her seat and newly elected member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) smiled slightly and nodded his head to the rhythm. There was little celebration as the rest of the council faced forward.
But other moments captured a sense of inspiration, such as the performance of "God Bless America" by Kimberly Jordan-Gaskins, the first runner-up in the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland competition.
Riemer said he was "undaunted" by the road ahead. The council would be starting Tuesday with a review of mid-year budget cuts and a report on controlling soaring benefits costs.
"We're diving right into it, but that's what the county needs," Riemer said. "There's no honeymoon."
Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said the inauguration left him with an odd sense of nostalgia. When he entered Maryland's House of Delegates four years ago, officials there faced significant budget challenges right away.
"I've, unfortunately, seen this before," Rice said. He said council members would need to work together to develop a sustainable plan - "one that sees beyond next year's budget to five or 10 years down the road."
But Rice said he was optimistic that the county's obstacles could be overcome. "It's a very good team, all of us," he said. "I think we're all on the same page right now. There's a lot to be done. We certainly have to check our egos at the door."
At the end of a ceremony that often focused on the truths of hard times and hard choices, the benediction - delivered by Naseem Mahdi, national vice president and missionary in charge of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community - offered a few final moments of hope and perspective.
Mahdi prayed that God would help the council lead with integrity, justice and honesty. He asked that God "infuse in them the spirit of service." And he gave thanks on behalf of a county that is still comparatively fortunate:
"We know we are still a million times better off than the majority of the population of this planet."