Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett said yesterday that he will step down shortly after next week's elections, vacating the job just as the party formally launches its drive to unseat Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Leggett confirmed that he will leave soon to give the party time to build momentum for the effort to retake the governorship, which it lost in 2002 for the first time in a generation.
"This has been a very, very time-consuming, involved job," Leggett said. "I have been to every corner of this state. I put in a lot of time and effort. But at this point, it's clear to me that I'm going to be stepping down at the end of the year, after this cycle of campaigning is over."
The former Montgomery County Council chairman would not comment on widespread speculation that he is leaving to prepare to run for county executive.
Party leaders said Leggett took over the organization at one of the most challenging times in its history, after a 2002 campaign for governor that left the Democratic leadership deeply divided.
Leggett, known as a consensus builder on a contentious County Council, was well suited to the task of bringing disparate factions of the party together, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
"He took a party that was on its heels and started putting it back together," Busch said.
Leggett said even he underestimated what that task would involve, as conservative Democrats sparred openly with the party's progressive wing and House leaders tussled with the Senate over slot machine gambling.
"People don't understand how devastating it was to lose the governorship," Leggett said. "To get everybody back to the fold, give people some hope and rebuild party unity, it was, and still is, a significant effort."
His tenure has not been uniformly praised. There has been persistent grumbling that he has not attacked Ehrlich more aggressively and that his laid-back style has allowed the party to slide too far to the left.
Leggett noted that he pulled the party out of debt after that election and helped add to its sizable advantage in the ranks of registered voters. But his success in the job will largely be judged on Maryland's showing next week and whether it can come close to matching the 17-point advantage it gave to Al Gore in 2000.
Leggett's announcement was not a surprise to party insiders, who said they are well aware of his interest in Montgomery's top job and who were becoming increasingly convinced that a peacemaker is no longer what the party needs in a chairman.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said what is now needed most "is a business person -- a person that can recognize that, during the last election cycle, Bob Ehrlich raised more money than Kathleen Kennedy Townsend."
More than a dozen leading Democrats have expressed interest or been recommended as possible replacements, including former congressional candidate Terry Lierman, former Montgomery delegates Mark Shriver and Cheryl Kagan, Baltimore lawyer Daniel Clements, former Prince George's delegate Rushern L. Baker III and former House speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
Miller said he is favoring two other contenders: the state party's treasurer, Gary Gensler, and a former party chairman, developer Nathan Landow.
Gensler, 47, of Chevy Chase, is a former U.S. Treasury official under President Bill Clinton who was also co-head of finance at Goldman Sachs and one of the youngest partners in the history of the firm. He raised money for the first congressional bid of U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and collected $700,000 for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential bid at a June event.
"It's flattering to hear such speculation," Gensler said. "But I think first we've got to get through Nov. 2."
Landow, 72, a Bethesda multimillionaire, was once considered one of the nation's top Democratic fundraisers. He ran the state party in 1989.
"I've heard that the need is there," Landow said yesterday. "It's a very tough job to do well. It demands a great deal of time and lots of effort. I was pleased I had the time during my last term as chairman. I'm flattered that I would be considered again."