Ap­plause for Leggett’s ‘soft ap­proach’

Mont­gomery’s leader sought con­sen­sus, saw county through re­ces­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ROBERT MC­CART­NEY

For­mer Mont­gomery County Coun­cil mem­ber Va­lerie Ervin re­mem­bers many times when County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah “Ike” Leggett sum­moned her to his of­fice to urge that she tone down her left­wing rhetoric. Al­though the con­ver­sa­tions be­tween the two Democrats were “not al­ways pleas­ant,” she said, she came to ap­pre­ci­ate the “soft ap­proach” of the man who is about to step down af­ter 12 years in the top job in the state’s largest county.

“I did not al­ways get along with him, but I do re­spect and ad­mire him,” said Ervin, who clashed with Leggett over is­sues that in­cluded the min­i­mum wage and af­ford­able hous­ing. She praised him for win­ning sup­port for the light-rail Pur­ple Line and men­tor­ing younger black politi­cians, in­clud­ing her­self, and other mi­nor­ity lead­ers.

“You get more with honey than with vine­gar,” Ervin said. “He was able to build this in­cred­i­bly large, di­verse bloc of sup­port across the county.”

Ervin’s as­sess­ment is widely Snap­shots of a long al­liance: Leggett gives Baker an al­bum. C6 shared. Left or right, busi­ness or la­bor, white or black, peo­ple in Mont­gomery praise Leggett, 74, for fos­ter­ing con­sen­sus while ably lead­ing the county through the 2008 re­ces­sion and his­toric de­mo­graphic change.

To the ex­tent Leggett draws crit­i­cism, it is mostly for pro­mot­ing har­mony even when a more con­fronta­tional pub­lic stance may have been needed. County ob­servers — few of whom were will­ing to be quoted by name — said he could have spo­ken up more force­fully on the scan­dal over shoddy con­struc­tion and cost over­runs at the Sil­ver Spring tran­sit cen­ter and done more to help Mont­gomery at­tract in­vest­ment and cre­ate jobs.

In an un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence of tim­ing, Leggett is leav­ing of­fice three weeks af­ter Mont­gomery saw a cross-river ri­val, Ar­ling­ton, win the much-pub­li­cized con­test to host a new Ama­zon.com head­quar­ters. The de­feat un­der­lined what many crit­ics see as Mont­gomery’s fail­ure to com­pete suc­cess­fully with North­ern Vir­ginia. (Ama­zon CEO Jef­frey P. Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

Leggett — who planned to re­tire even be­fore county vot­ers ap­proved term lim­its for lo­cal politi­cians in 2016 — is as­sured a place in his­tory as Mont­gomery’s first African Amer­i­can county ex­ec­u­tive. He was also its first black County Coun­cil mem­ber and the first per­son of color to win any elected of­fice in what is now a ma­jor­ity-mi­nor­ity ju­ris­dic­tion.

When Leggett first ran for the coun­cil, in 1986, his cam­paign in­ten­tion­ally omit­ted his pho­to­graph from cam­paign lit­er­a­ture un­til he had been cam­paign­ing for six months. While can­vass­ing at the Friend­ship Heights Metro sta­tion, which is on the bor­der with the Dis­trict, a white voter mis­tak­enly as­sumed Leggett was a can­di­date for a D.C. of­fice.

Decades later, dur­ing the 2014 cam­paign, a U.S. Park Po­lice of­fi­cer con­fronted Leggett at 11 p.m. as he was prepar­ing to put up a cam­paign sign in Sil­ver Spring. The of­fi­cer’s part­ner rec­og­nized the county ex­ec­u­tive and in­ter­vened.

“She im­me­di­ately walks up and throws the tall guy un­der the bus: ‘He didn’t know who you were, and be­sides, he’s from Howard County,’ ” Leggett re­called.

Leggett and oth­ers said he usu­ally makes a point of not call­ing at­ten­tion to his race, in fa­vor of let­ting his work speak for it­self.

“Ul­ti­mately, you want peo­ple not to no­tice,” Leggett said. “It just be­comes com­mon that we have some­one who is com­pe­tent, who is ca­pa­ble of do­ing the job, who just hap­pens to be what­ever mi­nor­ity, what­ever race they hap­pen to be.”

Still, Leggett gets credit from blacks, Lati­nos, Asians and other groups for en­sur­ing they got a voice in county de­ci­sions, a share of ap­point­ments and at­ten­tion to their needs. Coun­cil mem­ber Nancy Navarro (D-Dis­trict 4), who rep­re­sents many Lati­nos, praised Leggett for in­vest­ments to spruce up down­town Wheaton and build a sci­ence and biotech cen­ter in White Oak.

“This was an area of the county that didn’t have those re­vi­tal­iza­tion projects that other parts of the county had,” Navarro said. “Ike has led the coun­try through a trans­for­ma­tional de­mo­graphic shift . . . while keep­ing every­body, as he says, ‘at the ta­ble.’ ”

Navarro’s only crit­i­cism: “Some­times I felt he wasn’t vis­i­ble enough” on such mat­ters as the Sil­ver Spring tran­sit cen­ter.

County Ex­ec­u­tive-elect Marc El­rich (D) said that as he has met with dif­fer­ent groups around Mont­gomery, he has been struck by Leggett’s im­pact.

“They all wanted to be as­sured that his work would con­tinue,” El­rich said.

El­rich, Navarro and oth­ers agreed with Leggett’s as­sess­ment that his most note­wor­thy ac­com­plish­ment was pro­tect­ing the county’s long-term finances af­ter the 2008 na­tional eco­nomic slump. El­rich re­called a 2009 re­treat at the Rockville Li­brary at which Leggett per­suaded coun­cil mem­bers to give up hopes of ad­di­tional money for pet projects, say­ing it was more im­por­tant to build up re­serves and pro­tect the county’s Triple-A bond rat­ing.

“Ike kind of set a marker and said, ‘Guys, this is se­ri­ous, and don’t go mucking this up,’ ” El­rich said.

Leggett elim­i­nated more than 1,200 jobs — about 10 per­cent of the county work­force — curbed in­creases in pay and ben­e­fits and re­quired fur­loughs of county em­ploy­ees.

“I even fur­loughed my­self” for five days, he re­called.

He leaves El­rich a fi­nan­cial re­serve of $514 mil­lion in fis­cal 2018, or 8 per­cent of rev­enue, up from $114 mil­lion, or about 2 per­cent, in 2010.

Iron­i­cally, the big­gest crit­i­cism of Leggett also has to do with his eco­nomic record. A study is­sued in April by Em­power Mont­gomery, a busi­ness ad­vo­cacy group, faulted the county for slug­gish job growth, ris­ing debt and high of­fice-va­cancy rates. It noted that in the decade be­fore 2016, the county added just 210 jobs, while Fair­fax County added 6,030.

Leggett has not ig­nored the prob­lem. He pro­moted the Pur­ple Line, which should en­cour­age de­vel­op­ment from Bethesda to Sil­ver Spring and into Prince Ge­orge’s County. He moved county fa­cil­i­ties to pave the way for a burst of de­vel­op­ment in Shady Grove and launched what he says are nearly 60 ma­jor pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture projects dur­ing his 12 years in of­fice. He also con­verted the county’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment en­tity from a pub­lic depart­ment to one led by the pri­vate sec­tor.

“His legacy in eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment was his will­ing­ness to es­tab­lish the pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship,” said Bob Buchanan, whom Leggett named to chair the new Mont­gomery Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Corp. The pre­vi­ous en­tity “wasn’t get­ting the pri­vate­sec­tor sense of ur­gency, and sense of how the market was, and what the per­cep­tion of the county was,” Buchanan said.

Crit­ics say Leggett should have acted ear­lier. They also said the county has been slow to build bus rapid tran­sit (BRT) lines, fin­ish de­vel­op­ing White Flint and re­spond to Sil­ver Spring’s loss of Dis­cov­ery Com­mu­ni­ca­tions’ cor­po­rate head­quar­ters.

“We cer­tainly would have liked to see ad­di­tional move­ment on [BRT] routes dur­ing his last term,” said Ste­wart Schwartz, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Coali­tion for Smarter Growth. “There’s a great plan for White Flint, but per­haps we’ve not been mov­ing fast enough on in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments to sup­port it.”

Schwartz added that he had “the high­est re­spect” for Leggett. “Ev­ery­one rec­og­nizes his lead­er­ship in bring­ing the county through the re­ces­sion,” he said.

Leggett con­cedes Mont­gomery could have done bet­ter in some ways but puts much of the blame on the County Coun­cil. He noted that he ini­tially ve­toed a pro­posal to raise the min­i­mum wage, fear­ing it would hurt small busi­nesses, and sought a lower prop­erty tax in­crease than the coun­cil wanted.

He called crit­i­cisms in the Em­power Mont­gomery re­port “a lit­tle bit over­stated.”

“If you look at the de­ci­sions I made, they’re prob­a­bly con­sis­tent with things that peo­ple are ar­gu­ing for in the re­port,” he said. “We were at odds, my­self and the coun­cil.”

In re­tire­ment, Leggett plans to write a mem­oir. Raised in what he called “ab­ject poverty” as one of 13 chil­dren in ru­ral Louisiana, he went on to serve as an Army cap­tain in Viet­nam, a White House fel­low and a law pro­fes­sor at Howard Univer­sity.

Through it all, he cul­ti­vated the same unas­sum­ing style that once prompted po­lit­i­cal blog­ger David Lublin to re­fer to Leggett’s speeches and ac­tions as “po­lit­i­cal oat­meal: rea­son­ably sat­is­fy­ing and noth­ing that up­sets the stomach.”

Leggett said the com­ment “was about half true.” But Lublin had “for­got­ten” some of his fights, Leggett said, such as with the county’s la­bor unions.

“He’s right in the sense that I do not come across as putting down peo­ple in a per­sonal way, at­tack­ing peo­ple,” Leggett said. “I will present what I con­sider to be some very con­tro­ver­sial and dif­fi­cult ideas, but on a civil plat­ter.”

He said he learned this ap­proach from a foot­ball coach at Pe­abody Mag­net High School in Alexan­dria, La., who chided a loud­mouthed quar­ter­back.

“You don’t have to bring at­ten­tion to your­self, be­cause the ball is in your hand,” Leggett re­called the coach say­ing. “All you have to do is go out on the field and per­form well.”

Leggett lis­tened, and ended up with the quar­ter­back job him­self.

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