Fear the Turtle

His critics view the county executive as a man in slo-mo, but maybe Ike Leggett is just the proverbial tortoise—slowly but surely winning the race.

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I like Ike.

Hell, everybody likes Ike. Even his critics. And what’s not to like about Ike Leggett, the Montgomery County executive who’s managing our tax dollars through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? The guy is, by all accounts, a mensch.

He seems to be everywhere, our very own Zelig, cutting ribbons, giving speeches, chatting online, attending town hall meetings, posing for pictures. And this year, if all goes as expected, he’ll win a second term as the top elected official in Maryland’s most populous and increasingly diverse county.

Leggett personifies that diversity. He rose from poverty in Louisiana, the seventh of 13 children raised in a three-room house without indoor plumbing or electricity, to become the first African-American county executive in one of the nation’s richest and most prestigious suburbs, in the shadow of the nation’s capital.

He is nothing if not understated. And for that he is more reviled than revered. His critics contend he is wishy-washy, decision-challenged, not a fighter, not a leader. In contrast to his predecessor, larger-than-life Doug Duncan, he’s a pallid presence: a balding 64-year-old in a 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound frame, a slightly rumpled, ordinary-looking guy with a mustache.

But as they say over in College Park: Fear the Turtle. In the long lens of politics, there’s the hare, the energizer bunny, and there’s the slow-moving, but ultimately triumphant, tortoise. That’s Ike. At least that’s how he sees himself.

He likes to tell how he bested a Washington Post writer who challenged him in tennis, a sport in which Leggett excels. Playing casually, Leggett found himself losing the match. He figured it was a no win situation. He could lose—and look like a loser—or he could win and potentially antagonize the scribe, who might go on to write an unflattering profile.

“I’m a very proud tennis player,” Leggett says in his Rockville office. “If I win, he’s got the pen. But I’m too proud to lose. He’s got strut, attitude. I said, I don’t care, I’m going to win. I ended up beating him.” The moral: Leggett may look laid back, he says, but he’s “always focused, determined to do what I think is critical for the public interest. At the end of the day, it’s about accomplishment. Some people are confused by that. It’s not bombastic, hit you over the head. That’s not the approach I take.”

His style drives some people crazy. Council members Mike Knapp and Valerie Ervin go on at length about his alleged executive dysfunction, while professing no personal animus. Knapp cites Leggett’s decision to end-run a state requirement that all counties spend as much on their schools as they did the year before. Through what Knapp calls an “accounting gimmick,” Leggett had the school system reimburse the county for $79 million it had previously paid for new school construction costs—thereby shoring up the county’s own bottom line without technically reducing the amount spent on education. It was a move the state board of education and attorney general declared illegal, and it could wind up costing the county millions in penalties. (Leggett promises to litigate any state move to penalize the county.)

The county executive suffers in part from being compared with Duncan, who served three terms during the boom years and left a visible legacy that includes a renewed downtown Silver Spring, Strathmore Hall and the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. Duncan himself is unsparing. “I thought we’d have a stronger leader,” says the former county executive who was backed by Leggett in an aborted 2006 run for governor. “I just thought he’d be doing better. I’m hearing from a lot of people that things sit in his office for months before any decision is made.”

Leggett has heard the criticisms so often he begins an interview by anticipating them, answering questions before they are asked. He is, he says, a man on a mission, and a man with a theme—to recalibrate a county used to big spending that is unsustainable now and for the foreseeable future.

On a fall morning, Leggett meets with grim-faced employees of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. Anxious about their future, about 100 fill a ground-floor room in the Piccard Drive building in Rockville. Leggett has been making the rounds of departments, pumping up the work force while giving them a reality check on what may lie ahead, including furloughs or layoffs. With him is Gino Renne, president of the county’s largest public employee union and Leggett’s partner in pain. Renne has known Leggett for decades, likes and respects him, but wishes he would make “tough decisions” sooner, though “he ultimately makes them.”

Leggett begins by thanking the employees: “Your workload has increased substantially, and we’re paying you less [than if they had received cost-of-living increases]. Yet you still come to work and perform in an outstanding way.”

The employees gave up their COLAs in the current fiscal year, and the outlook for 2010-11 is bleak. Leggett puts on his professorial hat to explain why. Though tax-supported spending rose 14 percent the year before he took office, tax revenues rose only 9 percent. And that was before the economy tanked. In his first budget, with revenues falling, he had to close a $211-million gap, followed in succeeding years by gaps of $400 million and $600 million—a total cumulative shortfall of $1.2 billion, with a probable $400 million more in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2010.

Thanks to “your sacrifices,” he tells them, the county has maintained essential services. He pledges there will be no payless days through June 30, though he makes no promises beyond then. But the $171,000-a-year executive says he and his senior staff will share the burden, rejecting pay raises so long as the county’s 33,000 employees don’t get them.

Afterward, county workers and Leggett exchange well wishes. He empathizes with them, perhaps because he has known hard times himself.

Isiah “Ike” Leggett was born in Deweyville, Texas, on July 24, 1945, and raised in Alexandria, a small city in central Louisiana. It was majority black and poor then, and still is, with more than a quarter of its people below the poverty line, according to the most recent survey. Leggett’s father worked in a lumber mill, his mother as a cook in a restaurant.

“Everything,” Leggett recalls, “was segregated— schools, movie theaters, water fountains. We sat in the back of the bus and in the balcony at the theater. Nothing was integrated. The only professional people I saw who were African-Americans in Alexandria were teachers and preachers. I never saw a black lawyer, doctor, nurse, fireman, police officer until I went away to college. Even the mailman was white.” Friends and relatives called Leggett “Spud,” a nickname he attributes to an uncle “who saw me always poor, dirty, like a potato.”

Leggett quarterbacked his high school football team and went on to excel at New Orleans’ Southern University, where he was student body president and brigade commander of the Army ROTC. It was the 1960s, and Leggett demonstrated for civil rights and against the war. Nonetheless, he felt an obligation to serve, and after graduation in 1967 he did, going to Vietnam as a lieutenant and returning a year later as a captain with a Bronze Star for bravery in combat. He lost his college roommate there and learned, he says, that “there is nothing glorious about war.” He also learned “a lot about the importance of leadership under extremely difficult conditions.”

His next stop was the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., from which he graduated magna cum laude. He met his future wife, Catherine, in a study group he tutored there and, later, after he was hired on the faculty, she was a student of his in family law.

They married in 1991 and live in a 4,564- square-foot house on 5 acres in Burtonsville, close to the Patuxent River in the northeast corner of the county. The property has a tennis court, where Leggett plays most mornings to keep in shape. Catherine Leggett, 59, is senior vice president for human resources of the International City/County Management Association Retirement Corporation, a nonprofit organization that helps government employees plan for retirement. The Leggetts have no children together, but he has a daughter, Yamina, 34, from a previous marriage. She is a biomedical researcher and lives in Silver Spring.

“Me, I’m the emotional one,” Catherine Leggett says. “He’s the pragmatic, always-in-control kind of guy. He will not make rash decisions. He will engage in consensus building, but at the end of the day he will make the tough decisions. He is quick when he needs to be quick, and deliberate when he needs to be deliberate.”

Aside from tennis, she says, he loves to read. And “he likes to laugh. He likes to tell funny jokes that are difficult to get, and sometimes he’s the only one laughing.”

Leggett is proud of being an African- American county executive in a largely white jurisdiction. But in his first run for the county council in 1986, he took the “unusual precaution,” he says, of circulating a brochure without his picture to de-emphasize his race because he feared a white backlash. After six months, he concluded that race would not determine the outcome and his face began appearing on campaign literature. Not only was he elected at-large as the county’s first black council member, he was re-elected three times. Altogether, he spent 16 years on the council, including three one year stints as president. As a legislator, he gained a reputation as a conciliator who could forge compromises to get things done. Steve Silverman, who ran for county executive against Leggett in 2006 and who served with him on the council, recalls Leggett’s successful legislative effort for a “living wage” covering contractors doing business with the county. “He was key to an agreement to have small nonprofits exempted, which was a stumbling block to my support,” he says. Throughout, Leggett continued to teach law at Howard. Among his students: D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.

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