E. Brooke Lee's Montgomery County

The Colonel: All politics was local, and foresighted, when he was the man to see in Washington suburbs.

Marylanders Of The Century

August 05, 1999

EVERYONE called him "The Colonel." Some thought of him as "The Boss." But Edward Brooke Lee was acknowledged as the Founding Father of modern Montgomery County.

A man of energy and vision, Lee was Mr. Democrat in Montgomery when its governmental structure was built and refined. One of the county's principal cities, Silver Spring, took its name from his family's farm.

His lineage included two signers of the Declaration of Independence: Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. The Robert E. Lees of Virginia also were part of the family.

Lee's father, Blair, was Maryland's first popularly elected U.S. senator -- helped into office by the son's shrewd campaigning.

Brooke Lee left Princeton University without a diploma but got a law degree at George Washington University. When he returned from World War I with a chest full of decorations, the handsome war hero was recruited by Gov. Albert C. Ritchie.

As part of Ritchie's ticket in 1919, Lee was elected state comptroller. Four years later, the governor named him secretary of state. In the next election, he won a House of Delegates seat, then rose rapidly to House speaker in 1927.

All the while he broadened his base in Montgomery, attending to the county's needs in Annapolis and turning out votes as efficiently as any Baltimore ward boss.

His club, Montgomery Democracy, ruled the county with such authority that foes called him a "pint-sized Huey Long." Since Lee stood 6 feet 5 inches, the reference clearly was to Long's demagogic style.

He recognized the importance of helping friends with patronage, his own money and public projects. He even founded his own newspaper, the Maryland News, and used it as a platform. Yet Lee proved an unusually prescient political boss.

Realizing his bucolic precincts would be coveted homesites, Lee put in place the county's first zoning and land-use plans. He helped form the Maryland National Parks and Planning Commission and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission -- key factors in the orderly growth of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

In addition, the colonel established a championship herd of polled (hornless) Hereford cattle. When his financial fortunes tumbled in the 1940s, he refused to declare bankruptcy, eventually making good on all his debts.

His grip on such a wide swath of Montgomery life did not please everyone. A home-rule charter initiative begun in the 1940s was aimed at ousting him from power, as well as modernizing county government. He defeated the insurgents in 1942 -- but his political star was heading downward. He lost his own bid for a seat in Congress that year.

Lee continued to fight the charter because it shifted decision making from Annapolis, where he retained influence, to the county seat in Rockville. Finally, in 1946, Montgomery voters approved a toned-down revision.

Lee proteges stayed in various public offices into the 1960s. Even in his dotage, the colonel's blessing was sought by aspiring Montgomery candidates. Brooke Lee, who died in 1984 at 91, lived to see his son, Blair Lee III, became lieutenant governor and acting governor.

The colonel built a county of great appeal to the coming generation of suburbanites -- including Montgomery's wing of reformers who ironically had made him one of their first targets.

Questions of conflict of interest arose when roads were built, but since Lee was one of the county's largest landholders, new streets and highways inevitably came near his property.

His real estate business was built on what remained of 1,000 acres purchased in the 1800s by his great grandfather as a summer home at the end of Georgia Avenue. This land is now being developed by a closed family corporation.

E. Brooke Lee was in charge when the county school system was constructed and nurtured. Teacher salaries were set and maintained at the highest level in the state; schools were constructed with the coming growth spurt in mind.

A system of public education that became the best in Maryland, a transportation network, even government reform became part of this patrician boss' proud legacy.

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