After an embarrassing defeat in the Maryland governor's race, state Democrats last night elected Isiah Leggett as their new leader in hopes that the former Montgomery County Council member can consolidate the party's liberal base while reaching out to conservatives in suburban and rural areas.

Unlike past party chairmen, who were handpicked by Democratic governors, Leggett was chosen by the party's central committee in an election held in Annapolis, according to party officials.

The election was a necessary move -- because there will be no new Democratic governor for the first time in three decades -- and an important gesture of openness after many Democrats were disillusioned by the selection of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as the party's gubernatorial nominee.

Townsend was uncontested in the Democratic primary after Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and several prominent county executives were pressured to stay out of the race.

"Right now we need a consensus, not an anointed leader," said U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who insisted that the decision to open the process had nothing to do with Townsend's defeat. "We need someone who will work in a broad way, who will make sure that, regardless of philosophical views, regardless of Zip code, you're going to feel welcome in the Democratic Party."

Leggett, an African American who is known as a moderate and a consummate politician, was consistently among the top vote-getters in Montgomery County, the state's largest -- and arguably most liberal -- jurisdiction. This year, Leggett chaired the party's coordinated campaign on behalf of all Democrats running statewide.

"Ike is a very successful Democrat in Montgomery County. He's well liked, and I think he'll do a great job," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a key political power broker.

The party also chose former delegate Sue Hecht of Frederick as first vice chair. In November, Hecht lost her bid to replace Republican Alexander X. Mooney in the Maryland Senate.

Other officers include Baltimore City Council member Kieffer Mitchell, second vice chair; Kerren Pope-Onwukwe of Prince George's County, secretary; and former Clinton administration treasury official Gary Gensler of Baltimore County, treasurer.

Leggett will succeed Annapolis businessman Wayne L. Rogers, who decided this week not to seek a second four-year term as party chairman.

Some Democratic lawmakers had criticized Rogers recently for acting as an adviser to an out-of-state casino company that seeks legalized slot machine gambling. Rogers said he wanted to spend more time with his family and to get involved in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, a role that would have been difficult for him as state party chairman.