Montgomery's `voice of reason'

Council president Leggett a powerful influence in county

June 07, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- He is not the most well-known politician in Montgomery County, but he holds the keys to power there.

County Council President Isiah Leggett powwows with Johnnie Cochran, brokers deals with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and rides herd on a sweeping, $2.6 billion legislative agenda.

The self-proclaimed mayor of Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, is better known throughout the state. But those who play politics inside and outside Montgomery's borders know the soft-spoken, four-term council member has become the go-to guy this year. Even Duncan has to win Leggett's support to get anything done.

Complicating Duncan's gubernatorial aspirations, politicians from the vote-rich Washington suburbs say Leggett would be an attractive running mate in the 2002 campaign: decorated Vietnam veteran, Howard University law professor and highest-ranking black official in the state's most populous county.

Leggett, of Burtonsville, says he is not interested.

"Is that subject to change? I doubt it," he says. "It would be a very difficult job to convince me."

Leggett's triumphs this spring have fueled speculation.

Among his accomplishments: He engineered unanimous passage of the county budget; gathered the votes to pass the region's toughest anti-smoking law; persuaded the governor to save a highway bypass for a small town; and revived Duncan's ambitious recycling plan when the executive gave up.

His leadership is no surprise to Glendening, a former Prince George's County executive who says that during the past 20 years, he has come to rely on Leggett.

"We have a saying in Prince George's County -- it's a street term -- `I've got your back,' " says Glendening. "That's the one thing I know about Ike. I don't have to be around. He's got my back and watches out for my interests politically and personally, and you can't always say that about everyone."

Cool, patient and consensus-building, the 54-year-old Leggett is most comfortable out of the spotlight. At a recent Annapolis news conference filled with long, self-congratulatory speeches by Montgomery politicians, Leggett said 10 words, two of them "thank you."

"He is the voice of reason," says Duncan, who relies on Leggett to deliver votes. "From the day he was sworn into office, he has been a leader on the council."

Lucille Harrigan, the council's spokeswoman for 21 years until her retirement last year, believes Leggett is successful because "he makes it easy to compromise."

"He doesn't demonize people," she says. "He builds his opponents a golden bridge on which to retreat."

When a local lawyer, Walter Blair, and Cochran threatened to file suit against the county in April after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black motorist, Leggett picked up the phone and invited them to his office to talk settlement.

"He laid out the case and gave us our marching orders," Blair says of his former teacher at Howard, whom he still calls "Dean Leggett." "He was in charge."

Leggett has always responded to challenges and can tap a deep well of inner strength, say those who know him well.

Friends attempted to dissuade him when he decided to run for the council in 1985, noting that African-Americans were then 8 percent of the county's population.

"They told me, `Even if you got three times that number and Mayor Daley of Chicago counted the votes, you still wouldn't win,' " Leggett recalls.

He ran a campaign that kept him faceless for the first several months. Literature noted his qualifications and positions -- nothing more.

"I waited to have my campaign kickoff until late. When my picture appeared in the [newspaper], for some it was the first time they had seen my face," he says. "To my pleasant surprise, race became a nonissue."

Embracing academics

The seventh of 12 children, Leggett grew up in central Louisiana in a three-room house. His mother, Mary, was a domestic cook, and Leggett became a high school quarterback with bad grades.

After his graduation, Leggett's mother urged him to try to get into a work-study program at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Leggett showed up unannounced at the program's office only to be turned away. He came back three more times that day until the director gave in and told him to report to the grounds crew.

Cutting grass in the heat of summer made Leggett realize he had to embrace academics to advance in life. Four years later, in 1967, he graduated as class president with a commission as a lieutenant in the Army.

A year later, he was stationed with the 199th Infantry Brigade south of Saigon. Leggett did a one-year tour of duty, was promoted to captain and won three Bronze Stars.

His decorations, he says simply, were for "leadership under fire."

Out of the Army, he rushed through six years of schooling: master's degree, law degree from Howard (first in his class) and an advanced law degree from George Washington University.

Leggett became assistant dean at Howard, where he met and taught family law to the woman who would become his second wife.

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