Former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin remembers many times when County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett summoned her to his office to urge she tone down her left-wing rhetoric. Although the conversations between the two Democrats were “not always pleasant,” she said, she came to appreciate the “soft approach” of the man who is about to step down after 12 years in the top job in the state’s largest county.
“I did not always get along with him, but I do respect and admire him,” said Ervin, who clashed with Leggett over issues that included the minimum wage and affordable housing. She praised him for winning support for the light-rail Purple Line and mentoring younger black politicians, including herself, and other minority leaders.
“You get more with honey than with vinegar,” Ervin said. “He was able to build this incredibly large, diverse bloc of support across the county.”
Ervin’s assessment is widely shared. Left or right, business or labor, white or black, people in Montgomery praise Leggett, 74, for fostering consensus while ably leading the county through the 2008 recession and historic demographic change.
To the extent Leggett draws criticism, it is mostly for promoting harmony even when a more confrontational public stance may have been needed. County observers — few of whom were willing to be quoted by name — said he could have spoken up more forcefully on the scandal over shoddy construction and cost overruns at the Silver Spring transit center and done more to help Montgomery attract investment and create jobs.
In an unfortunate coincidence of timing, Leggett is leaving office three weeks after Montgomery saw a cross-river rival, Arlington, win the much-publicized contest to host a new Amazon.com headquarters. The defeat underlined what many critics see as Montgomery’s failure to compete successfully with Northern Virginia. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Leggett — who planned to retire even before county voters approved term limits for local politicians in 2016 — is assured a place in history as Montgomery’s first African American county executive. He was also its first black County Council member and the first person of color to win elective office other than to the school board in what is now a majority-minority jurisdiction.
When Leggett first ran for council in 1986, his campaign intentionally omitted his photograph from campaign literature until he had been campaigning for six months. While canvassing at the Friendship Heights Metro station, which is on the border with the District, a white voter mistakenly assumed Leggett was a candidate for a D.C. office.
Decades later, during the 2014 campaign, a U.S. Park Police officer confronted Leggett at 11 p.m. as he was preparing to put up a campaign sign in Silver Spring. The officer’s partner recognized the county executive and intervened.
“She immediately walks up and throws the tall guy under the bus: ‘He didn’t know who you were, and besides, he’s from Howard County,’” Leggett recalled.
Leggett and others said he usually makes a point of not calling attention to his race, in favor of letting his work speak for itself.
“Ultimately, you want people not to notice,” Leggett said. “It just becomes common that we have someone who is competent, who is capable of doing the job, who just happens to be whatever minority, whatever race they happen to be.”
Still, Leggett gets credit from blacks, Latinos, Asians and other groups for ensuring they got a voice in county decisions, a share of appointments and attention to their needs. Council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), who represents many Latinos, praised Leggett for investments to spruce up downtown Wheaton and build a science and biotech center in White Oak.
“This was an area of the county that didn’t have those revitalization projects that other parts of the county had,” Navarro said. “Ike has led the country through a transformational demographic shift . . . while keeping everybody, as he says, ‘at the table.’ ”
Navarro’s only criticism: “Sometimes I felt he wasn’t visible enough” on such matters as the Silver Spring transit center.
County Executive-elect Marc Elrich (D) said as he has met with different groups around Montgomery, he has been struck by Leggett’s impact.
“They all wanted to be assured that his work would continue,” Elrich said.
Elrich, Navarro and others agreed with Leggett’s assessment that his most noteworthy accomplishment was protecting the county’s long-term finances after the 2008 national economic slump. Elrich recalled a 2009 retreat at the Rockville Library at which Leggett persuaded council members to give up hopes of additional money for pet projects, saying it was more important to build up reserves and protect the county’s Triple-A bond rating.
“Ike kind of set a marker and said, ‘Guys, this is serious, and don’t go mucking this up,’ ” Elrich said.
Leggett eliminated more than 1,200 jobs — about 10 percent of the county workforce — curbed increases in pay and benefits and required furloughs of county employees.
“I even furloughed myself” for five days, he recalled.
He leaves Elrich a financial reserve of $514 million in fiscal 2018, or 8 percent of revenue, up from $114 million, or about 2 percent, in 2010.
Ironically, the biggest criticism of Leggett also has to do with his economic record. A study issued in April by Empower Montgomery, a business advocacy group, faulted the county for sluggish job growth, rising debt and high office-vacancy rates. It noted that in the decade before 2016, the county added just 210 jobs, while Fairfax County added 6,030.
Leggett has not ignored the problem. He promoted the Purple Line — which should encourage development from Bethesda to Silver Spring and into Prince George’s County. He moved county facilities to pave the way for a burst of development in Shady Grove and launched what he says are nearly 60 major public infrastructure projects during his 12 years in office. He also converted the county’s economic development entity from a public department to one led by the private sector.
“His legacy in economic development was his willingness to establish the public-private partnership,” said Bob Buchanan, whom Leggett named to chair the new Montgomery Economic Development Corp. The previous entity “wasn’t getting the private-sector sense of urgency, and sense of how the market was, and what the perception of the county was,” Buchanan said.
Critics say Leggett should have acted earlier. They also said the county has been slow to build bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, finish developing White Flint and respond to Silver Spring’s loss of Discovery Communications’ corporate headquarters.
“We certainly would have liked to see additional movement on [BRT] routes during his last term,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “There’s a great plan for White Flint, but perhaps we’ve not been moving fast enough on infrastructure improvements to support it.”
Schwartz added he had “the highest respect” for Leggett. “Everyone recognizes his leadership in bringing the county through the recession,” he said.
Leggett concedes Montgomery could have done better in some ways, but puts much of the blame on the County Council. He noted that he initially vetoed a proposal to raise the minimum wage, fearing it would hurt small business, and sought a lower property tax increase than the council wanted.
He called criticisms in the Empower Montgomery report “a little bit overstated.”
“If you look at the decisions I made, they’re probably consistent with things that people are arguing for in the report,” he said. “We were at odds, myself and the council.”
In retirement, Leggett plans to write a memoir. Raised in what he called “abject poverty” as one of 13 children in rural Louisiana, he went on to serve as an Army captain in Vietnam, a White House fellow and a law professor at Howard University.
Through it all, he cultivated the same unassuming style that once prompted political blogger David Lublin to refer to Leggett’s speeches and actions as “political oatmeal: reasonably satisfying and nothing that upsets the stomach.”
Leggett said the comment “was about half true.” But Lublin had “forgotten” some of his fights, Leggett said, such as with the county’s labor unions.
“He’s right in the sense that I do not come across as putting down people in a personal way, attacking people,” Leggett said. “I will present what I consider to be some very controversial and difficult ideas, but on a civil platter.”
He said he learned this approach from a football coach at Peabody Magnet High School in Alexandria, La., who chided a loudmouthed quarterback.
“You don’t have to bring attention to yourself, because the ball is in your hand,” Leggett recalled the coach saying. “All you have to do is go out on the field and perform well.”
Leggett listened, and ended up with the quarterback job himself.