State Democratic Party chairman to step down after Nov. 2 election

Leggett says he fulfilled his 2-year commitment

October 28, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett is stepping down next month, leaving the state's Democrats with the tricky task of picking a successor who can unite the party's disparate factions for a run against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006.

Democrats say the post is more important than it has been in decades. For more than 30 years, Democratic governors set the direction for the party and had the power to keep it unified.

But with two Democratic heavy hitters - Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - considering a challenge to Ehrlich, and with the party's liberal and moderate wings at odds over major issues such as legalizing slot machines, party loyalists say that having an effective, visible chairman is essential.

"We need someone who is still a consensus builder, because there continue to be problems out there you need to resolve," Leggett said.

Leggett, 58, said yesterday he has decided to leave as chairman after next week's election. He said he has fulfilled his commitment to stay in the post for two years and believes the party is in good shape.

Leggett, a former Montgomery County councilman, is seen as a possible candidate to succeed Duncan as county executive. He said Democrats have talked to him about running for office locally or statewide but that he hasn't decided.

Democrats praised his tenure as party chairman, lauding him for eliminating the $400,000 of debt the party amassed in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign and holding together the party's factions while traveling the state to build a base of grass-roots volunteers.

Despite the power switch in Annapolis and the stirrings of a two-party state, no major Democrats have defected.

"That's the good news," said Gary Gensler, the state party treasurer, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Leggett. "The challenge is, you can't rely on the historical pattern of having the governor as the spokesman for the Democratic agenda. You have, in fact, [several] strong and successful leaders being spokespeople."

The most visible example of that phenomenon has been the debate over whether to legalize slot machines. Some Democrats have engaged in hand-wringing about whether slots opponents have hurt the party and given an issue to Ehrlich for 2006. Others think the party needs to more clearly stand in opposition to Ehrlich.

Prominent Democrats are divided over how central a role they envision the next party chairman playing in shaping the party's message and marshaling its opposition to Ehrlich.

Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County said Leggett's roots as a progressive county councilman were important in developing ."a clear message for the party."

But Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County said he sees the chairman's job as more managerial.

The chairman needs to be prominent and well-connected so that he can raise the money the party will need to take on Ehrlich, Ruppersberger said.

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