Nice guy finishes first in Rockville

Ike Leggett rides trajectory to top

December 25, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

ROCKVILLE -- Isiah "Ike" Leggett's boyhood home, a shotgun shack in the Jim Crow South, could practically fit inside the modest suite of downtown offices he moved into this month after taking the oath of office as Montgomery County executive.

To call where he started "humble" is to engage in understatement. To call where he has ended up "historic" is not hyperbole.

Leggett, who 20 years ago first ran for office without putting his face on his literature for fear he would be discriminated against for being African-American, became the first black person to lead a majority-white jurisdiction in Maryland.

He won that distinction decisively, beating his primary opponent in this heavily Democratic county by more than 25 percentage points and doing even better in the general election.

What is striking, even decades removed from a childhood in segregated Louisiana, is that race - which seems to always be an issue - wasn't one in his victory.

"I oftentimes say the real story about race is that it wasn't a story," Leggett said recently. "They [the voters, his opponents] didn't allow it to become a story."

The story of his life is a compelling one, often marked by successfully overcoming prejudice. It's a story that never became a central part of his campaign, something he brought up only when pushed.

But it's an inspirational tale of a man who as a child never saw an African-American professional beyond a teacher or a minister. He had no idea what a black man could accomplish.

"Most people who start where he started don't get anywhere near where he's arrived," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

From his beginnings as one of 12 children in a house where there sometimes wasn't enough to eat, he talked his way into Southern University in Baton Rouge.

There he rose to become a civil rights leader as president of the student government and a commander in the school's ROTC program. He would go on to become a decorated captain in the Army serving a tour of duty in Vietnam.

He went on to teach law at Howard University and serve as a four-term county councilman and chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Now Leggett, 61, embarks on a new chapter, succeeding Doug Duncan's 12 years as county executive in this rapidly growing county of nearly a million residents - known as one of the best-educated, wealthiest and progressive jurisdictions in the nation.

Leggett's priorities aren't much different than his predecessor's. He wants to create more reasonably priced housing so that county police officers, firefighters and teachers can afford to live where they work. He wants to keep improving the county's high-quality schools. He wants to relieve the county's infamous traffic congestion.

Issue of growth

But one of the first things the new County Council elected alongside Leggett will tackle is growth.

The council hopes to rewrite land-use rules that Leggett and others think are too lenient and that allow new development without road improvements needed to get to and from the new houses.

While reworking land-use rules, the council is expected to halt new building permits for six months. Leggett, who ran on a platform of slowing down growth, supports the temporary moratorium.

Leggett is a reserved man not prone to hasty verdicts. He will wait years to get his way. Some have criticized his style, saying it amounts to indecisiveness.

"He is not going to be a bomb-thrower in trying to change everything," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a longtime Leggett friend and supporter. "Being a thoughtful and deliberate person, being quiet and taking time to make a decision is not the same as being indecisive. Politicians would do better ... to pause and then make decisions."

"He is the ultimate nice-guy politician," said Blair Lee IV, a political commentator from Montgomery County and son of a former governor and lieutenant governor. "He didn't get to where he is today by pushing people around. He got where he is today by getting along with people."

But, Lee went on, "you don't survive his childhood, you don't survive Vietnam, you don't survive the classroom at Howard ... by being a patsy. Political graveyards are full of people who have misinterpreted his nice-guy demeanor as political weakness. That's the mistake his opponents make."

When Leggett was on the County Council in the early 1990s, he was the only member pushing for a smoking ban in bars and restaurants, which was not the mainstream idea it is today.

Duncan made it clear he would veto such a measure, but it hardly mattered. The legislation had no chance of passing.

By 1998, Leggett recalled, there were five votes for the ban on the council. Still, six were needed to override a veto. The smoking ban seemed to be dead.

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