Montgomery's `voice of reason'
By Candus Thomson
The Baltimore Sun
June 7, 1999
He is not the most well-known politician in
Montgomery County, but he holds the keys to power there.
County Council President Isiah Leggett powwows
with Johnnie Cochran, brokers deals with Gov. Parris N.
Glendening and rides herd on a sweeping, $2.6 billion
legislative agenda. The self-proclaimed mayor of Montgomery,
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, is better known throughout
the state. But those who play politics inside and outside
Montgomery's borders know the soft-spoken, four-term council
member has become the go-to guy this year. Even Duncan has to
win Leggett's support to get anything done.
Complicating Duncan's gubernatorial
aspirations, politicians from the vote-rich Washington suburbs
say Leggett would be an attractive running mate in the 2002
campaign: decorated Vietnam veteran, Howard University law
professor and highest-ranking black official in the state's most
Leggett, of Burtonsville, says he is not
"Is that subject to change? I doubt it," he
says. "It would be a very difficult job to convince me."
Leggett's triumphs this spring have fueled
Among his accomplishments: He engineered
unanimous passage of the county budget; gathered the votes to
pass the region's toughest anti-smoking law; persuaded the
governor to save a highway bypass for a small town; and revived
Duncan's ambitious recycling plan when the executive gave up.
His leadership is no surprise to Glendening, a
former Prince George's County executive who says that during the
past 20 years, he has come to rely on Leggett.
"We have a saying in Prince George's County --
it's a street term -- `I've got your back,' " says Glendening.
"That's the one thing I know about Ike. I don't have to be
around. He's got my back and watches out for my interests
politically and personally, and you can't always say that about
Cool, patient and consensus-building, the
54-year-old Leggett is most comfortable out of the spotlight. At
a recent Annapolis news conference filled with long,
self-congratulatory speeches by Montgomery politicians, Leggett
said 10 words, two of them "thank you."
"He is the voice of reason," says Duncan, who
relies on Leggett to deliver votes. "From the day he was sworn
into office, he has been a leader on the council."
Lucille Harrigan, the council's spokeswoman
for 21 years until her retirement last year, believes Leggett is
successful because "he makes it easy to compromise."
"He doesn't demonize people," she says. "He
builds his opponents a golden bridge on which to retreat."
When a local lawyer, Walter Blair, and Cochran
threatened to file suit against the county in April after a
white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black motorist,
Leggett picked up the phone and invited them to his office to
"He laid out the case and gave us our marching
orders," Blair says of his former teacher at Howard, whom he
still calls "Dean Leggett." "He was in charge."
Leggett has always responded to challenges and
can tap a deep well of inner strength, say those who know him
Friends attempted to dissuade him when he
decided to run for the council in 1985, noting that
African-Americans were then 8 percent of the county's
"They told me, `Even if you got three times
that number and Mayor Daley of Chicago counted the votes, you
still wouldn't win,' " Leggett recalls.
He ran a campaign that kept him faceless for
the first several months. Literature noted his qualifications
and positions -- nothing more.
"I waited to have my campaign kickoff until
late. When my picture appeared in the [newspaper], for some it
was the first time they had seen my face," he says. "To my
pleasant surprise, race became a nonissue."
The seventh of 12 children, Leggett grew up in
central Louisiana in a three-room house. His mother, Mary, was a
domestic cook, and Leggett became a high school quarterback with
After his graduation, Leggett's mother urged
him to try to get into a work-study program at Southern
University in Baton Rouge.
Leggett showed up unannounced at the program's
office only to be turned away. He came back three more times
that day until the director gave in and told him to report to
the grounds crew.
Cutting grass in the heat of summer made
Leggett realize he had to embrace academics to advance in life.
Four years later, in 1967, he graduated as class president with
a commission as a lieutenant in the Army.
A year later, he was stationed with the 199th
Infantry Brigade south of Saigon. Leggett did a one-year tour of
duty, was promoted to captain and won three Bronze Stars.
His decorations, he says simply, were for
"leadership under fire."
Out of the Army, he rushed through six years
of schooling: master's degree, law degree from Howard (first in
his class) and an advanced law degree from George Washington
Leggett became assistant dean at Howard, where
he met and taught family law to the woman who would become his
Catherine Leggett says that after she
graduated and moved to New York, the two "drifted away." When
she moved back a number of years later, she picked up a
newspaper and found Leggett again.
"I learned he was in politics and I was
totally blown away," says the outgoing woman with the easy
laugh. "Ike is introspective, quiet and intellectual. A
politician has to be able to meet and greet. I knew he could do
it, but I didn't know he could be it."
They married six years ago, a union of
opposites, friends say.
Leggett's political career almost came undone
in 1991, when a former aide filed a $38 million suit, claiming
he had turned her into his "sex slave."
For four weeks, the trial played out in lurid
detail in the newspapers and on television. Leggett, gaunt as he
recovered from quadruple bypass surgery, refused to settle.
"The people who knew me knew I would never
capitulate, that I would fight to my last breath. It certainly
wasn't the political way to deal with it. But at some level it
was a matter of honor and integrity," he says quietly.
A jury of 10 women and two men took 90 minutes
to clear Leggett, but the experience changed him, made him more
wary. The unflappable Leggett became calmer, friends and
"When you've gone through these experiences,
when you've gone to war, you don't panic because you didn't get
the recycling contract on the first try," he says.
Politicians -- including Glendening -- believe
Leggett should leave his options open. They believe he will be
persuaded to run for higher office by appeals to his sense of
duty and community service.
If Leggett runs in 2002 for lieutenant
governor -- some conjecture on a ticket with Lt. Gov. Kathleen
Kennedy Townsend -- that would severely damage Duncan's hopes of
becoming the Democratic nominee for governor. Leggett, Duncan
and Townsend all say it's premature to discuss it.
Catherine Leggett says her husband doesn't
talk about launching another campaign.
"Sixteen years of public service is enough,"
she says. "But who knows what happens three years from now?"