Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said Tuesday evening that he will seek a third term in 2014, citing goals in transportation and job creation that remain in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

“Under very difficult circumstances, we achieved a great deal,” Leggett, 68, said in an interview in his Rockville office. “But there are things we didn’t do as much of that I wanted to do.”

His bid for a third act sets up a June 2014 Democratic primary against at least two challengers: the man he replaced in 2006, former county executive Doug Duncan, and County Council member Phil Andrews (D-
Rockville-Gaithersburg). The announcement also culminates a gradual change of heart by Leggett, who was leaning strongly against another term as recently as last summer.

Leggett said he was originally inclined not to run again because his wife, Catherine, wanted him to step down. But over the past six or seven months, Leggett said, her sentiments changed. “I think she sort of embraced the idea of unfinished business,” he said.

Another major factor, he said, was what he heard from constituents, who said they were enthusiastic about a third term.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Leggett will make his case to voters as a steady hand who was willing to make difficult financial decisions to steer the county through the recession. Faced with budget gaps totaling $2.7 billion over the past seven years, he eliminated more than a thousand county jobs (some through attrition) and froze
raises and cost-of-living in­creases for government employees.

He generated new revenues by pushing through an ambulance service fee and an increase in taxes on business and residential energy use. He is likely to remind residents that on his watch the county has retained its Triple-A bond rating, which keeps borrowing costs low and expands the reach of the capital improvements program.

Aided by an improving economy, Leggett has slowly restored some of the recession-era cuts. This spring, he negotiated pay increases averaging 7 to 10 percent with the county’s police, fire and nonuniformed unions. Library hours and other services have been gradually expanded.

With passage of a gas tax increase this year by the Maryland legislature, the county will have access to hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years to underwrite new transportation projects, such as the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway and the Watkins Mill Road interchange on I-270.

Leggett said he wants to see these projects successfully launched. He also wants to take advantage of the economic recovery to enhance the county as a destination for employers.

Leggett faces at least two opponents who will contend that the county has lost its edge in the past eight years.

Duncan, 57, held the office from 1994 to 2006, the year he cited depression in ending his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Duncan said the county is struggling to attract jobs, to recover its fair share of funding from Annapolis and solve vexing problems such as traffic congestion. He said Leggett’s “very passive” style has contributed to a civic malaise sapping the county of its will to address difficult issues.

“Too many people, especially among our leaders, are giving up,” he said in a recent television interview. He described the mind-set as “Woe is me, we can’t do anything, let’s just sit on our hands, let’s study something.”

Duncan cited cost overruns and construction problems at the Silver Spring Transit Center as an example of Leggett’s weak grasp. The $120 million train-and-bus hub, envisioned as an integral element in the Silver Spring revitalization Duncan helped to lead, is now what he calls “a laughingstock.”

Leggett’s campaign is likely to depict Duncan, whose name has not appeared on a ballot since 2002, as a profligate-spending politician whose time in a rapidly changing county has come and gone. While not calling out Duncan by name, Leggett referred in his February State of the County address to “long-standing deficiencies in county finances” that faced him when he entered office and the “years of living beyond our means even during the good times.”

Andrews also will challenge Leggett’s effectiveness in Annapolis and his claims to fiscal prudence, citing union contracts that he says are excessive and not sustainable.

“The need to make county government more cost-effective remains pressing,” said Andrews, a former executive director of Common Cause of Maryland who has served on the council since 1998. He said he will continue his long-standing practice of refusing contributions from political action committees and development interests.

Leggett’s decision caps a year-long period of uncertainty about his future that until Tuesday had effectively frozen the county executive’s race in place.

Duncan said in an interview that over lunch last summer in Rockville, Leggett said that he had no plans to run and joked that if he did he “had to have a new wife.” While Leggett cautioned that his plans could change, Duncan said, he told his predecessor to “go ahead and form a [candidate] committee.”

But Leggett soon began to waver. Word circulated that he resented Duncan’s message — that the county needed to be re-energized — and that his competitive juices had started to flow again. Others said he was concerned that no desirable successor was available.

For his part, Leggett said Duncan’s message was not a factor.

Two members of the County Council, George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County), who have made no secret of their interest in Leggett’s job, were left to read months of often contradictory hints.

“Ike likes to leave things vague,” said Leventhal.

In the end, he said, he believes Leggett just isn’t ready to retire. “I think he likes his job and gets more fun out of it now that the recession is over,” Leventhal said. He added that there is a high level of voter comfort with Leggett that will make him a formidable opponent for challengers.

“If I thought there was a constituency for blasting Ike Leggett every day, I’d run. But I don’t think there is,” Leventhal said. “Voters don’t want to hear that. My sense is voters are going to be pretty receptive to Ike’s message.”