Leggett's long career taking another turn
Jan. 10, 2003
Theodore Kim
Staff Writer

Communication key for new head of state Democratic Party

Forgive Isiah Leggett if he looks a little weary these days.

Last month, he completed a 16-year tenure on the Montgomery County Council, where he brokered countless compromises, endured quadruple bypass surgery and successfully fought an embarrassing sexual harassment trial more than a decade ago. Before that, he earned four academic degrees and, while in Vietnam, three medals. He teaches full-time at Howard University's law school and remains the council's only elected African-American member.

Oh, by the way, he was recently elected chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

To understand Leggett, 57, who will be honored by political leaders at a Silver Spring gala Thursday night, one must understand the twin philosophical pillars that drive him: a zeal for public service and a fascination with the intricate workings of government and politics.

"Government plays a strong role in our lives," Leggett said in an interview with The Gazette. "It should work efficiently and appropriately."

It is this blend of passion and policy that has guided the former four-term councilman since he literally begged his way into Louisiana's Southern University as a teenager in the early 1960s. (He graduated as class president four years later.)

The same Leggett who was beaten over the head for leading a civil rights demonstration as a student at Southern is also the one who points to an overhaul of the county's storm water management laws as one of his top council accomplishments.

The same Leggett who survived the crucible of Vietnam also championed a ban on smoking in restaurants.

The same Leggett who helped pass one of the most progressive living wage laws in the nation also pushed for substantial tax cuts through the mid-to-late 1990s.

He attributes his accomplishments to a soft-spoken governing-style that is equal parts negotiating with people and listening to people, an approach that he hopes to use as state party chairman.

"You can be as fair as you want to be, but if people don't think you listen, it won't get you far," he said.

Leggett's own political future remains open. He would not rule out a run for county executive or statewide office someday, but said that it was much too early to speculate about his long-term fate.

As for now, he takes the reins of a Democratic Party stung by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the governor's race.

When the talk turns to the fate of the state party, Leggett the professor takes over:

The lack of any African Americans -- not necessarily himself -- on the statewide Democratic ticket proved to be the biggest mistake.

"I heard that from one end of the state to the other," Leggett said.

Townsend's running-mate selection of Charles R. Larson, a white former Republican from Anne Arundel County, he said, "alienated minority voters big-time, it alienated the party's progressive base, it alienated the [Washington, D.C.] suburbs, and it was handled poorly."

On the day Larson was named as Townsend's running mate, Leggett returned to his Burtonsville home to find his answering machine overloaded with messages from supporters and activists expressing concern over the decision. There were so many messages that Leggett's answering machine actually broke.

"We deflated that enthusiasm, and [the Republicans] took advantage of that to change the numbers just a little bit, but just enough to make a difference," Leggett said. "They had the ability to keep us on the defensive. We gave [Ehrlich] a lot of ammunition."