By Michael H. Cottman
The Washington Post
November 26, 2002; Page B4
On the Montgomery County Council, it's known as the "Leggett Rule": If you have the votes, vote. If you don't have the votes, keep talking.
"I would seize the moment during a debate and talk until I had the votes," said Isiah Leggett, who retires today after 16 years as the first and only African American elected to the council.
But it's more than Leggett's ethnicity or legislative savvy that council colleagues say they will miss. They cite his patience, tenacity and ability to bring people together as qualities that have helped him compile an impressive record. It includes a tough clean water bill; creation of a county inspector general's position to investigate waste and fraud; and establishment of a people's counsel, who offers advice on zoning issues to residents and neighborhood organizations.
Leggett (D-At Large) also was instrumental in passing the county's "living wage" bill, intended to help the working poor by requiring most for-profit companies doing business with the county to pay their workers more than twice the federal minimum wage.
Above all, supporters say, his willingness to listen will be missed. "He taught me a very important lesson," said council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "Even if you disagree with people, meet with them, build relationships with people because you never know where they'll be on an issue."
Leggett, 58, a professor at Howard University School of Law, spent most of this year's political season encouraging members of minority groups to run for local and statewide office. He campaigned diligently for Thomas Perez, a civil rights lawyer who will be sworn in Dec. 2 as the first Latino elected to the council.
"He's irreplaceable," Perez said of Leggett. "He blazed a trail for so many candidates of color in Montgomery County, and his leadership is not just for people of color but for everyone."
If there is a sour note at the end for Leggett, it is the 2002 gubernatorial race. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend passed him over as a running mate in favor of Charles R. Larson, a retired four-star admiral and a Republican who changed his party affiliation only after Townsend recruited him for the Democratic ticket. Larson is white. Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. selected Michael Steele, GOP state party chairman and an African American.
Leggett's supporters fumed over Townsend's choice of Larson. And it left Leggett critical of the Democratic Party's commitment to African Americans.
"The Democratic Party cannot continue to take the African American constituency for granted," Leggett said. "They lost the race because they didn't get blacks out to vote."
He added: "The Republicans made an issue out of the fact that Democrats have not responded to African Americans on a statewide basis. The Democrats told us they'd do better down the line, but the Republicans -- and Steele -- are ready now."
Leggett won't be lieutenant governor come January, but he is still a long way from the three-room home in Louisiana where he grew up, one of 13 children. His father did odd jobs, he said, and his mother was a short-order cook.
He couldn't afford to enroll at Southern University in Baton Rouge and was turned down repeatedly for the university's work study program. He finally got a job helping maintain more than 100 acres around the campus. "But I decided then that I wouldn't cut anybody else's grass for the rest of my life unless it was on my own property," Leggett said. He now cuts the grass on his sprawling, six-acre Burtonsville yard. "It reminds me of my struggles in life."
One of the biggest came in 1992, when a former aide brought sexual harassment charges against him. A jury took only 90 minutes to dismiss the allegations, but the trial took a big personal toll and cost the county more than $700,000 in legal fees.
When Leggett leaves, the council will be without any African American members. Donell Peterman (D-Silver Spring), a black community activist appointed six months ago to fill an unexpired term, also will step down.
As Montgomery County becomes more diverse -- nearly 40 percent minority and with half of all Asian Americans and Latinos in Maryland -- minority representation on the council is essential, Leggett said. He said he plans to remain active by meeting regularly with members of the Montgomery County African American Democratic Club, a group of black professionals he organized to identify emerging political leaders, bring more black voters into the process and challenge elected officials to address the concerns of African Americans. Leggett said he believes minorities can be elected in Montgomery if they assemble a diverse coalition of supporters and do not limit their base to members of minority groups.
Leggett said he's not ruling out trying for higher office someday, but now it's time for him to move on. He has spread himself too thin, he said, between the council and his teaching duties at Howard.
"I never intended to stay this long," he said. "And it's time for new leadership."