IT WAS an oddity of Isiah Leggett’s three decades in public service, a career that left him a colossus of Maryland local politics, that his supreme gift for reconciliation — a talent he deployed to resolve countless tussles over growth, transit, labor, education, fiscal and housing policy — even extended to confusion involving the year of his birth. Mr. Leggett, Montgomery’s county executive for a dozen years and a County Council member for 16 years before that (with an interregnum as chairman of the state’s Democratic Party), was born in 1945. Simple enough, except that his lack of a birth certificate, a legacy of his childhood in rural Louisiana, gave rise to an error in his military records, and then his driver’s license, and finally Google, which lists the year as 1944.
No matter. As he nearly always did, Mr. Leggett — politically nimble, strategically savvy and endowed with herculean stores of patience — managed to finesse the problem. “In the family,” he told The Post a few years ago, “we joke about it.”
Mr. Leggett, known as Ike, stepped down Monday as Montgomery County’s top official, a role in which 1 in 6 Marylanders were his constituents. As it happens, they, and their elected representatives on the County Council, are a querulous lot, their liberalism on national issues overshadowed by endless local disputes over land use, budgetary issues, union contracts and much else. It was a tribute to Mr. Leggett’s pragmatism and political legerdemain that he so often emerged from those fights having steered the county in a sensible direction, and with hard feelings having been minimized.
A Vietnam War veteran and law professor, Mr. Leggett first ran for county executive in 2006. At the time, we lauded him for possessing “that rare knack in public service for fashioning compromise while at the same time sticking to core principles.” That knack was severely tested not long after by the recession, which sapped county revenue, forced downsizing and layoffs , and prompted Mr. Leggett to rescind raises to which he had agreed in over-generous contracts with public employees.
That gave rise to bitter disputes, but it was a measure of Mr. Leggett’s emollient, resolutely nonconfrontational style that he also found ways to soften the blows. By means of his cerebral, two-moves-ahead-of-everyone-else approach, he maintained the county on a fiscally sound path.
His preference for temporizing and half-measures prompted some criticism that Mr. Leggett lacked toughness. That’s a bad rap. On the Montgomery council and as county executive, Mr. Leggett tackled tough problems in the face of daunting obstacles. That was true when he led the charge to ban smoking in county bars and restaurants; pushed for more affordable housing; prevailed in seeking approval for the Purple Line light-rail link; and retrenched during the recession.
Mr. Leggett coupled a shrewd sense of the bottom line with a divining rod for common ground and consensus. Those rare traits, along with uncommon decency, are his legacy in the county to which he devoted his career.