Josh Kurtz: Ike Age

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (center) was all smiles as he appeared with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Benjamin T. Jealous and his running mate, Susan W. Turnbull, at a weekend event. Twitter photo

This is an Ike Leggett story.

Not THE Ike Leggett story. There will be time for that, as Leggett, the Montgomery County executive, an important and underrated figure in Maryland politics, a trailblazer with an only-in-America rags-to-riches story, prepares to end his extraordinary 32-year political run.

But for now, let us examine Leggett’s long overdue endorsement/non-endorsement of his fellow Democrat, Benjamin T. Jealous, in the gubernatorial election. And let’s use this development to look back on the 2002 gubernatorial election, when Leggett was a leading contender to become Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s running mate – until he wasn’t.

Throughout his career, Leggett has shown a unique ability to be all things to all people – and he’s bearing the fruit of that talent now, as accolades rain down on him from every corner of Montgomery County. Fair enough – his political career has not been without its bitter battles, and he’s earned every one of his scars and rewards.

But some cynics might say that Leggett, a great conciliator, has also displayed, at times, a desire to have it both ways. That certainly seems to be the case after he said the other day that he would endorse Jealous “simply [because] he’s the Democratic nominee” but would not campaign against or say a bad thing about the man Jealous is working to defeat, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

“Larry Hogan and I are good friends,” Leggett, a former state Democratic chairman, told The Washington Post. “He’s supported the county on a number of important issues — Marriott, the Amazon proposal, to the Purple Line and a host of other things he’s done. I cannot, nor will I in any way, shape or form, campaign against him. I’m just for Ben and the Democratic Party.”

Ok…

To be fair, Leggett has said for weeks that he had some questions about Jealous’ policy proposals and their potential impact on Montgomery County, and that he’d withhold an endorsement until his concerns were satisfied. Apparently, they have been.

 

Columnist Kurtz
Josh Kurtz

The Jealous campaign will now be able to log Leggett’s endorsement on campaign literature and in TV commercials, if it so desires. But a great many political professionals were right to wonder whether Leggett’s announcement ultimately did more harm than good. It gave the Hogan campaign, for the 1,047th time this election season, to question Jealous’ political acumen.

For longtime Leggett watchers, this was vaguely reminiscent of 2002, when, as a Montgomery County councilman who had chosen not to seek a fourth term, he simultaneously seemed to welcome and discourage talk that he could wind up as Townsend’s running mate.

In numerous private conversations back then, Leggett laid out his ample qualifications. Then he’d say he didn’t really think he desired to play that kind of subservient role. Then he warned KKT and other party leaders, publicly and privately, that they really ought to select an African-American candidate for lieutenant governor or risk offending a key voting bloc, which seemed to reinforce – kind of – his interest in the job.

Leggett, in fact, was one of the very first black leaders to suggest that Democrats were taking African-American voters for granted and could suffer the consequences if they didn’t do more to promote black candidates – a narrative that has gained ample and understandable steam at the state and national levels through the years.

In the final weeks before the 2002 candidate filing deadline, the conventional wisdom – whether or not it was propagated by Leggett himself – was that Leggett had the right of first refusal when it came to KKT’s selection.

But then – surprise! – Townsend chose decorated retired Navy admiral Chuck Larson, a white Republican, to be her running mate. Hey, it was less than a year after 9/11, and as improbable as it sounds now, a lot of candidates for state and local offices felt they needed foreign policy muscle then.

If memory serves, Leggett was among the LG also-rans who turned up at the awkward Townsend-Larson announcement in Annapolis (where she famously called him “Lawson”). But I digress. Except to say that even now, I’m not entirely sure whether Leggett actually wanted the gig (a lot of KKT people would say yes).

But Leggett, who is nothing if not a strategic thinker, turned out to be prophetic in one sense: Townsend’s Republican opponent, then-congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., selected Michael Steele, the African-American chairman of the state GOP, as his running mate, and the Republicans prevailed, as black turnout was depressed.

The Democrats have not completely come out of their funk since.

But the funk will only be greater if Jealous loses badly. And Leggett, wittingly or not, may have helped tee up that very result.

Next Tuesday, Hogan is coming to Gaithersburg – a city whose Democratic mayor, Jud Ashman, has endorsed the governor – to hold a pre-election campaign rally. Don’t take this as gospel, but this is probably the first time a statewide Republican candidate has appeared in Montgomery County at a big campaign rally so close to Election Day in 20 years.

The last Republican gubernatorial candidate to break 40 percent in Montgomery County was Ellen Sauerbrey, in 1994, when she took 41 percent en route to losing the state by less than 6,000 votes. Hogan won 36.7 percent there in 2014. If the governor tops 40 percent in Montgomery County this time – and polls suggest it’s a very real possibility – that will be very bad news for Ben Jealous and the Democrats.

Anecdotally, Hogan is pretty popular in many sections of Montgomery County. The county’s so-called fertile crescent, as communications strategist and Maryland Matters co-founder Keith Haller likes to call it – the area roughly from Bethesda to Takoma Park, so rich with prime Democratic voters – may not be so fertile, or even a crescent, this time around.

Ike Leggett is very unlikely to turn up at Hogan’s Gaithersburg rally next week. But whether he desires it or not, he’ll be there in spirit.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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