Aiming for spot on ticket as No. 2

PoliticsElectionsGovernmentCrime, Law and JusticeNational GovernmentMinority GroupsRegional Authority

Isiah Leggett sits in the kitchen of his 4,500-square-foot home in Burtonsville -- a space not much smaller than the three-room house where he and a dozen brothers and sisters were raised -- and points to a faded scar above his right eye.

"See that knot there?" he asks. It was earned, he said, during a civil rights demonstration in 1966, when he was student government president at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.

"As a student leader, at that point in time, you were a central player in what happened in the community," he says.

On a bright morning about a month before candidates for governor in Maryland will announce their running mates, Leggett, 56, wants to make sure that a visitor has explored every corner of his resume.

The four-term Montgomery County councilman wasn't always the soft-spoken consensus-builder who calls his approach to government one of "aggressive moderation," he says.

Born into poverty, Leggett went from student leader to Army captain in Vietnam to Navy lawyer, White House fellow and Howard University law professor. No other public figure in Maryland, he says, can boast of such a background.

"It's the diversity of experience. It's the depth of it. It's the passion," Leggett says. "I think when you combine those things, and look at public officials and people who are in leadership positions today, that sort of uniqueness is something that I treasure."

If Leggett sounds like a candidate for office, that's because he is.

He is seeking a job -- lieutenant governor -- that will be decided by the lone vote of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

After announcing last summer that he would not seek re-election to the County Council and would return to teaching law full time, Leggett has changed his mind. He now wants to stay in public service as a partner to Townsend and is treading a narrow path by quietly advocating his candidacy for the lieutenant's job while trying to avoid appearing overly aggressive or eager.

"You can't literally run for the office," Leggett said. "You need to make yourself available, and that's probably about as far as you can go. The decision is out of your control. This is something you sort of dance around every four years. It's hard to say what is too much interest vs. not enough."

The opportunity, however, lies within reach. While Townsend and her campaign aides say that they are weeks away from naming a running mate and deny that they have a list of finalists, Leggett is mentioned as a serious contender -- and among the top contenders -- by most leading Democrats.

"He is not only bright, intelligent and articulate, he really mediates and uses diplomacy to make things happen," said Gail Ewing, a former Montgomery County councilwoman. "He's just perfect, in so many ways. He's not just a leader of the black community. He's a leader, period."

Leggett is not the only politician positioning himself for selection. In recent weeks, supporters of Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. and state Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery have also talked up their respective merits, working to create a buzz.

Much of the speculation over a running-mate selection for both Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. centers on Montgomery, the state's most populous county.

Leggett is one of Montgomery's leading vote-getters, but other county politicians are also mentioned as possible partners, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who denies interest in the job and is seeking re-election; State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler; and state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., who is running for Congress in a primary that includes Townsend's cousin, Del. Mark K. Shriver.

But if deciding to tap a leader from the Washington suburbs is easy, the choice of adding an African-American to the ticket is more complex.

Blacks make up 29 percent of Maryland's population and constitute a critical voting bloc, especially in a Democratic primary. As the daughter of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Townsend already enjoys widespread support among African-Americans. But Ehrlich, the probable GOP nominee, is aggressively courting black voters.

Townsend has this fundamental decision to make: Is she concerned about the potential loss of African-American votes in a general election, however small that erosion might be? Or is her winning strategy dependent on wooing conservative-leaning undecided voters in suburban areas of the state?

If it is the former, Leggett could be a good pick. If it is the latter, a safer selection might be House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Allegany County, another frequently mentioned running-mate choice.

"A lieutenant governor choice should expand the base," said Blair Lee IV, a Silver Spring developer and political columnist. "Picking Ike [Leggett] doesn't expand the base. It may contract the base. It is an experimental ticket, even in progressive Maryland."

Still, with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer appearing headed toward uncontested elections, the state Democratic Party faces the prospect of fielding an all-white slate of statewide candidates as Maryland's minority population grows in size and influence.

Neil E. Duke, an attorney and first vice president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said African-Americans want to see themselves reflected in state government but in positions "that hold title to real power, instead of figureheads."

"The community is too savvy to think that a position automatically entails access," Duke said. And that's particularly true with the lieutenant governor's job, which comes with no constitutional power of its own.

Leggett recognizes the arguments against him and the job. That's why he points to his biography: Blacks in Baltimore and Prince George's County might find his civil rights history appealing; whites might be impressed by his ability to bring together disparate groups such as business interests and environmentalists.

"He knows how to work across different lines," said Howard A. Denis, a Republican and Montgomery County councilman. "He's a facilitator."

As he advances points in his favor, Leggett acknowledges a notable pock on his record. In 1991, he was sued by a former aide for sexual harassment. He was acquitted after the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his defense.

"I decided I was going to fight it," he said. "I wanted to make sure my name was vindicated. And it was. It took an awful lot out of me, because I was always very trusting."

Born July 25, 1945, in Alexandria, La., Leggett was the seventh of 13 children raised by a laborer father and short-order cook mother. His mother remains his role model, he says, for keeping together a large family and instilling values of education and hard work.

After prodding from his high school football coach, Leggett begged his way into Southern University. He wasn't approved to join the school's work-study program but knocked on the door of the administrative office a half-dozen times in one day. He was given a job mowing campus grass to earn his tuition.

He joined the Army after college and collected advanced degrees in government and law from Howard, where he has been on the faculty since 1975.

"Ike loves teaching, that's clear," said Alice Gresham Bullock, dean of the Howard law school. "He never wanted to give that up. But Ike really loves public service. ... He knows that once he leaves, he is on an entirely different trajectory, and he has to give this up. It's not an easy decision for him."

If Leggett were elected lieutenant governor, Bullock said, "it would be almost as significant as our other graduate, Douglas Wilder, becoming the governor of Virginia."

Leggett's Howard connections could prove valuable in a campaign, said Adrian M. Fenty, one of three former students who are members of the Council of the District of Columbia.

"You are talking about potential donors; people with key contacts in the government," Fenty said. "The network is probably underestimated and something he can bring to the table."

Leggett has built statewide contacts as second vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and as one of five members appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year to a redistricting advisory panel (others include Taylor, the House speaker; Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Secretary of State John T. Willis).

He appears regularly at Townsend's side at speeches and fund-raising events. But if he has made a particular impression on the lieutenant governor, she is not letting on.

Asked if Leggett would make a good running mate, Townsend would only say: "I'm not focused on that at all. ... There are many talented people in the state."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading