Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike"Leggett poses for a portrait in his office in Rockville, Md., on Thursday, May 20, 2014. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

As a college student in Baton Rouge in the 1960s, Isiah Leggett had two distinct identities: civil rights activist and brigade commander in the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Other students at historically black Southern University, including H. Rap Brown, were expelled for political activity. Leggett pressed school administrators for better services and facilities but also committed to four years in the Army after graduation, including infantry duty in South Vietnam.

“When you grow up in a large family and you struggle, you have to balance a lot,” said Leggett, the seventh of 13 children raised in central Louisiana. He yearned for racial justice but also saw the military as one of the few institutions that offered blacks opportunities for advancement.

Now running in the June 24 Democratic primary for a third term as Montgomery county executive, Leggett, 68, says he still feels as if he’s “constantly balancing things.”

Friends and supporters from his three decades in county politics point to Leggett’s gift for navigating conflict and trying to embrace the best of both sides, even in the most polarizing circumstances, as his signature trait.

Detractors — led by County Council member Phil Andrews (Gaithersburg-Rockville) and former county executive Doug Duncan, who are his Democratic primary challengers — call it passivity, a split-the-difference expedience that has hindered Montgomery’s progress.

“I’ve been disappointed with Ike’s governing approach,” said Andrews, who backed Leggett’s campaign for a first term in 2006. “He’s been all over the place.”

The county executive oversees a bureaucracy of 9,000 employees, appointing department heads, negotiating labor contracts and submitting a proposed operating budget each spring. Although the council has the last word on the budget and land-use matters, the executive is the face and voice of the county in dealing with the state and federal governments.

Leggett is asking voters to reelect him based on his management of county finances during the recession and his ideas for how to govern in better times.

He tried to spread the pain as declining tax revenue tore the bottom from the county’s finances and produced yawning deficits, opting out of costly labor contracts and generating new revenue by pushing through a $100 million increase in the energy tax. After voters rejected a fee on ambulance service, he revived it and secured council passage.

At the same time, Leggett — and the council — protected public schools from the worst of the austerity measures. He added police officers but defeated a union-backed ballot measure to repeal restrictions on collective bargaining by police. He expanded affordable housing and, after several years of lobbying the General Assembly, helped secure an increase in the state gasoline tax to fund long-planned mass-transit projects, such as the Purple Line light rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton and the Corridor Cities Transitway up the Interstate 270 corridor.

The county retained its Triple A bond rating, allowing it to continue to borrow money at the most favorable interest rates, saving taxpayers tens of millions.

Now Leggett wants to see through unfinished business: securing major funding for school construction , which died in the General Assembly this year, and shepherding “smart growth” projects in White Flint, Shady Grove and Wheaton.

He enjoys a commanding financial advantage over Duncan and Andrews, according campaign reports filed Tuesday, with $1 million in cash on hand. And his personal story — son of a sawmill laborer, passage from the Jim Crow South to a law professorship at Howard University and election as Montgomery’s first African American council member and county executive — is compelling.

Leggett was chairman of Montgomery’s Human Relations Commission when he was urged to run for a council seat in the mid-1980s. The county was 85 percent white, and Leggett proceeded with trademark caution: His early campaign literature did not include a photograph. He served four terms on the council and chaired the Maryland Democratic Party before running for county executive.

“It really is a remarkable story,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “A story, for the most part, that would only happen in America.”

There is nothing strident or smash-mouth about Leggett’s governing approach. If the county’s politics were placed across the FM radio band, Leggett would be the smooth-jazz station. “Emollient” is the word one editorialist used to describe his style: an ability to soften virtually any conflict.

“He’s very astute at avoiding getting people mad at him,” said supporter and Council Vice President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).

More often than not, those who sit down with Leggett end up convinced that they have an ally. One senior county official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a private conversation, said Leggett’s first advice after appointing him was “always take the meeting.”

He pledges to support growth in urban centers but not to overwhelm the rest of the county in the process. “I still want to see a very strong rural community and a very strong suburban community,” he said. “We’re going to limit where we grow.”

While attempting to reach out to all sides, Leggett has sometimes overreached in describing his accomplishments.

He has told audiences that despite the economic downturn, Montgomery’s job growth outpaced Fairfax County’s and the District’s on his watch. But that boast is not born out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the source most state and local governments use to help measure economic activity.

The reason? Montgomery employs a private consulting firm that counts groups usually excluded by the federal survey, such as active-duty military and certain federal workers. The firm also includes a group called “extended proprietors” — counting twice those with full-time jobs and self-employed gigs on the side that generate money.

Leggett promises that public-private ventures, such as the White Oak Science Gateway, will bring “100,000 new jobs” to the county. That is a highly speculative figure, derived by using the maximum square footage allowed under zoning laws. Many projects never reach those final “build-outs.”

Too often, Leggett’s opponents say, he temporizes when he should lead, compromises when he should hold firm and massages when he should be knocking heads. They note that some of the expensive labor agreements Leggett was forced to cancel during the recession were pacts that he himself negotiated earlier.

Exhibit A for Leggett’s critics is the Silver Spring Transit Center.

It was April 2010 — the final months of Leggett’s first term — when a plan reviewer for the Department of Permitting Services raised concerns about the potential for serious cracking in the concrete, according to county documents. Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering firm, had designed the three-level bus and train hub without slip joints — fixtures that relieve pressure and allow concrete slabs to move slightly.

Leggett and his staff accepted the firm’s assurances that the design was sound. But before the end of the year, serious cracks appeared. Steel supports broke through concrete that had not been poured to a sufficient thickness. Months of studies, finger-pointing and stalemates followed.

It was June 2012 before the county hired KCE Structural Engineers to study the building’s design and construction.

Metro, which will operate the center, agreed this month to work with the county on a repair plan. But while Leggett asserts that county taxpayers will not be on the hook for additional costs, officials say they will have to go to court to recover millions of dollars in repair costs from contractors, litigation likely to take years.

Leggett concedes that oversight could have been better. But, he adds, “even now, people differ” on whether the center needs all of the repairs.

In other disputes, Leggett generated confusion and resentment by weighing in on thorny issues at the eleventh hour. He questioned what was perhaps the council’s signal legislative achievement last year: establishment of a county minimum wage, which will rise from $7.25 to $11.50 an hour by 2017.

Leggett initially favored deferring to the state legislature on the matter. Then in mid-November, he announced that he supported the bill sponsored by County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). But on the eve of the scheduled vote, Leggett tried to amend the bill by slowing the rate of increase. Leggett said he was concerned that Elrich’s bill would not command a big enough majority. The original proposal prevailed, 8 to 1.

Council members were infuriated in October when Leggett announced that he might veto a bill awarding raises to the next county executive and council. After staying silent during the council’s deliberations, he called the raises — which were recommended by an independent panel and would boost council pay to $136,258 and executive pay to $207,000 by 2017 — “inappropriate.”

“This is another Ike Leggett profile in courage,” said then-County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), noting that Leggett voted for pay increases three times during his time on the council and signed a pay bill into law in 2009. “He put his finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.”

Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said the raises Leggett supported as a council member were somewhat smaller — between 16 percent and 18 percent over four years. “And those were much better times,” he said.

In the end, Leggett signed the 2013 bill.

This is the first of three articles on the Democratic candidates for Montgomery county executive in the June 24 primary.