In fall 2012, Isiah Leggett said he couldn’t anticipate running for a third term as Montgomery County’s county executive.
In 2013, as the field for this June’s Democratic primary took shape, Leggett reversed course. On Sunday, he was back on the campaign trail, giving a stump speech in which he compared Montgomery County to an ocean liner — one he claimed to have steered safely to harbor despite the rocky waters of the recession and budget problems “below the surface” inherited from predecessor Doug Duncan.
“I’m not prepared to leave this ship,” Leggett said.
He spoke to a group of supporters at a backyard barbecue in the Randolph Hills neighborhood of Rockville, one of his first full-on campaign events this election cycle.
With a fundraising advantage and as a generally well-liked incumbent, many feel that Leggett is the clear favorite against Councilmember Phil Andrews and Duncan, who was county executive for 12 years before Leggett was first elected in 2006.
On Sunday, Leggett compared governing the county in Duncan’s time — mostly a period of economic growth and budget increases — to the last eight years, a period in which Leggett reduced the county workforce by 10 percent, imposed furloughs and stopped scheduled pay raises to keep the county’s budget in check.
“In the 90′s and early 2000 timeframe, it was much easier to be county executive,” Leggett said. “When you are able, over a 10-year period, to increase the budget by 130 percent, that’s unheard of. Which position is easier to govern from?”
Leggett said he wasn’t planning to run for a third term because his wife was initially very reluctant about it. He also said his mind began to change last year, when an infusion of state dollars from an increase in the gas tax provided a way to finish transportation projects he characterized as “unfinished business.”
But it’s clear Leggett’s desire to govern during improving economic times — in the type of conditions his predecessor and main rival enjoyed — was at least part of the reason he’s back on the campaign trail.
“To govern in those two periods was much different,” Leggett said. “Not to say that people then didn’t have leadership skills, but it was an easier proposition.”
As he’s done before, Leggett compared being county executive during Duncan’s time to his own experience while training for the Vietnam War.
He said officers went through a training exercise in which they crawled under barbed wire as machine gun fire roared about 12 feet overhead. The objective was to learn to remain calm and give orders under live fire. Leggett recalled completing the exercise with ease.
Six months later in Vietnam, when Leggett heard mortar fire aimed at him for the first time, the reaction was different.
“I just stood there for five seconds. It seemed like five minutes. Six weeks earlier I passed this test. Six weeks later, I’m standing there, fearful, trying to figure out what to do,” Leggett said. “Six weeks later this was the real deal. Providing leadership six weeks earlier was easier. Providing leadership at this point was different. That was the real test.”
Leggett and Duncan have gone at it at a number of candidate forums and debates in the past few months.
Leggett, for the most part, has kept a lower profile as Duncan and his larger campaign staff have thrown out critiques about the delayed completion of the Silver Spring Transit Center and the closure of the county’s biotechnology incubator, among other things.
It now seems as if Leggett’s campaign is getting more active. On Saturday, April 26, a group of supporters called the “Ladies for Leggett” will host a rally to re-elect Leggett at the Silver Spring Civic Center.
Leggett told supporters on Sunday that he expects a few hundred people in attendance.
Leggett also talked about the county’s plans for a cybersecurity “center of excellence,” as a main part of his vision for the future of the county. The county announced it would move the existing companies in its biotech incubator elsewhere to make room for the cybersecurity initiative.
He also laid claim to creating 12,000 affordable housing units in the past few years, devoting more money to road maintenance than Duncan did and completing more new fire station, school and recreation center projects than Duncan did, despite the recession.
And he said he’s confident he has the energy it takes to do the job, which for Leggett means shuttling from event to event all over the county and state. He left the barbecue on Sunday evening for another event, one of more than a dozen he had over the weekend.
“When you look at it now in terms of performance on an objective basis, on the things we’ve accomplished, it’s there,” Leggett said. “Sometimes people may be nostalgic, since we did go through some tough times. All I say to people is, ‘Look at it.’”