Building county with a ‘can-do’ attitude

Duncan’s legacy is built on development, schools and jobs, observers say

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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Gazette file photos
(Above) Douglas M. Duncan accompanies Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and William A. Haseltine, CEO of Human Genome Sciences, in breaking ground for HGS corporate campus in Rockville in 2001. One of Duncan’s signature projects, the $100 million music center at Strathmore Hall (right), opened in 2005.

Whether last week’s announcement marks an end to Douglas M. Duncan’s political career or a new beginning, he has built a strong legacy that has left concrete examples of growth across Montgomery County and a higher profile for the county in state politics, county politicians said.

Duncan’s political career, which began when he was a twentysomething campaigning for the Rockville City Council and spanned 12 years as county executive, has sown seeds of development and growth in jobs, transportation and education that are seen across the county today.

‘‘He’s a doer,” said County Councilman Howard A. Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase. ‘‘Silver Spring, Rockville, the Woodmont Triangle, the ICC — from one end of the county to the other. Strathmore, the conference center. He picked Montgomery County up when we needed it.”

Elected officials past and present said they were shocked that Duncan dropped out of the governor’s race.

‘‘I think Doug Duncan helped put Montgomery County on the map,” said County Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown. ‘‘I was excited about the Duncan campaign because he was able to show the rest of the state how Montgomery County’s problems were everyone’s problems. I think the burden is on us to continue to work with other jurisdictions.”

It was this attention to statewide issues that led to many of Duncan’s successes in the county, said former county councilman Isiah ‘‘Ike” Leggett (D), who is running for county executive.

‘‘He recognized early in the process that the county needed to pay more attention in Annapolis and he was more visible there,” Leggett said. ‘‘He brought a ‘can-do’ attitude to Montgomery County that we really needed.”

Duncan and the county came to the nation’s attention in October 2002 as the sniper shootings terrorized the region. County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, the official and sometimes emotional face of the multi-jurisdictional investigating task force, credited Duncan’s reassuring presence and confidence with helping to keep the public calm during the three-week ordeal.

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Photo gallery: Doug Duncan in pictures
Graphic: Timeline of a political career

Text: Timeline

Throughout his tenure, education was Duncan’s priority. County spending on schools increased by more than 90 percent and accounted for nearly half of the county budget during Duncan’s 12 years as executive.

‘‘He had the good sense of following those of us getting behind [county schools Superintendent] Jerry Weast,” said school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Dist. 2) of Rockville. ‘‘He’s been a very, very strong supporter of ours, both in lobbying for state resources, but more importantly, making sure county resources were available as well.”

Duncan also pursued major construction projects such as the $1 billion redevelopment of Silver Spring, the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore and the $40 million conference center in North Bethesda that were ‘‘dreams in people’s eyes before that never would’ve come about,” said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville. ‘‘The partnerships he created with the community and business are magnificent.”

Abrams, a Republican candidate for state comptroller, called Duncan ‘‘the only Democrat who has been a very consistent strong supporter” of the Intercounty Connector, the $2.4 billion, 18-mile east-west connector highway that is expected to break ground in the fall.

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce credits Duncan with creating 93,000 jobs since taking office in 1994. Many of those came from the expansion of the I-270 biotechnology corridor.

‘‘He supported research and development, which is the lifeblood of Montgomery County,” said William E. Hanna Jr., a former county councilman who is credited with bringing the life sciences center to the Traville neighborhood of Rockville. ‘‘Montgomery County doesn’t have any gold or coal mines. We had to find where we were going to get our revenue. He was smart enough to follow what some of us started.”

Duncan’s decision to step away from the governor’s race demonstrates one of his greatest legacies, said County Councilman Michael L. Subin, who has had a sometimes contentious relationship with Duncan.

‘‘I think what this does is confirms that Doug Duncan always did what he thinks was best and what is right no matter what the personal ramifications were going to be,” said Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg. ‘‘He never shrunk from a tough decision.”

But not everyone is impressed with the Duncan record. Some critics call him too close to developers.

‘‘I think it’s time for a change,” said Dan Wilhelm, immediate past president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. ‘‘He has worked with developers and has kind of ignored us. I don’t think we exist in his mind. He is looking to where he got more of his campaign money, which is from developers. Citizens don’t have a lot of money.”

The nonpartisan Neighbors PAC also has criticized Duncan.

‘‘Neighbors is still very concerned with the ‘pay and go’ legacy that existed under the Duncan administration,” said Drew Powell, Neighbors PAC’s executive director. ‘‘Duncan’s legacy is one that I hope the county can recover from.”

But most county politicians said Duncan’s political life is far from over.

‘‘I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Doug Duncan,” Subin said.

Staff Writer Warren Parish contributed to this report.