Law professor Isiah Leggett, a Democratic candidate for the Montgomery County Council, raised a largely unspoken issue in his campaign a few days ago when he departed from the text of a speech before several hundred of his supporters.
"The pundits say, 'Shame on Montgomery County for not moving more quickly' " to share political power with minority groups, said Leggett, who is black. " 'Here's a chance to correct past inequities,' they say." In the next breath, Leggett rejected such notions, turning his attention instead to a discussion of traffic problems in Rockville and along Rtes. 29 and I-270, the congested north-south corridors in Montgomery.
Later, in an interview, Leggett said he consciously raised the issue of a black candidate making a serious bid for the council precisely because he hopes that the issue will fade.
"I did it purposely," he said. "For some to view my candidacy as affirmative action is a slap in my face."
Yet, in a county that has never elected a black to its legislative arm of government and where some fought just 25 years ago to integrate public places such as the Glen Echo amusement park, Ike Leggett's candidacy has many Democrats in a state of jubilation.
For all of Leggett's protests to the contrary, his race is a bonus for the Democratic politicians who are courting him in this turbulent election year.
Bruce Adams, who wants to run on a ticket with Leggett for the council's two at-large seats, said, "It helps to have a black candidate running, but to have a candidate of this quality is a double blessing for the county. We come from different worlds, but we are absolutely on the same wavelength." Adams, who is 38 and Princeton educated, and Leggett, a 40-year-old faculty member at the Howard University Law School, view themselves as part of a new wave of Maryland politicians, the generation that will carry their county and state into the 21st century.
They embrace many of the traditional tenets of the Democratic Party but say they want to bring "new ideas" to local government through collaboration and coalition building, not the confrontational politics that has been a staple of the council for the past four years.
Leggett, whose strategy is geared toward the creation of a neutral six- or seven-member slate of council candidates, says he is well qualified to lead that coalition.
The Louisiana-born lawyer served as an Army captain in Vietnam in the late 1960s and graduated first in his class at Howard's law school in 1974. A White House fellow in 1977, Leggett has chaired Montgomery's Human Relations Commission and is active in several black leadership groups in the county, notably the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the local branch of the NAACP.
Leggett was instrumental in the formation last year of the Coalition for Equitable Representation in Government, a largely black organization dedicated to the election of minority candidates to public office.
By tapping Montgomery's growing black professional, fraternal and religious network and by building strong ties to the Democratic establishment, Leggett is in a position -- six months before the Democratic primary -- to proclaim himself a consensus candidate. There are early signs that his strategy is working.
Last Friday, for instance, Leggett's first major fund raiser collected $10,000 from 600 supporters at the Silver Spring Armory, a cavernous structure decorated that night with a symbolic rainbow of balloons.
"People ask me, 'Where is the good, authentic, pious candidate?' " said Tony Fisher, the police chief of Takoma Park and a cofounder of the coalition. "I say Ike Leggett, because he will not be carried away by the love and trappings of the office."
Fisher described Leggett as part of a "renaissance of public spirit" in Montgomery's minority community, whose 85,000 members represent more than 14 percent of the county population. In a year when nearly all local officeholders are up for election, the timely political stirrings have produced a record number of black candidates.
From Wendell M. Holloway, a Ford Motor Co. lobbyist who is running for Congress in the 8th District, to Ellsworth Naylor, a candidate for county sheriff, and DeLawrence Beard, who is seeking reelection to his Circuit Court judgeship, blacks are reaching out to increase their share of local political power.
"There's a concerted effort this year to become part of the scene," said Odessa Shannon, an assistant to County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and a Leggett campaign adviser.
Shannon, a former school board member who recently helped charter a local chapter of the National Political Congress of Black Women, said Leggett is "shaping up as everybody's candidate."
Shannon said Leggett "probably suffers from the same thing that a lot of well-qualified black people do: Other people tend to put those qualfications aside and focus on race."
"Ike has more than enough qualifications for the job, and a lot of people feel confident he will win," Shannon said. "It's time we had a voice on that council."