Montgomery's Leggett: A Listening Legacy
1st African American Elected to Council Retires After 16 Years
By Michael H. Cottman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 26, 2002; Page B04
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,
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company