Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Guest Post: Is Ike Leggett Vulnerable?

By Eric Luedtke of Free State Politics.

The endless election continues in Montgomery County, and lately I’ve been hearing a lot more chatter about the 2010 local elections. It seems we never get a break.

One of the unshakable assumptions among some of the people I talk to about politics is that County Executive Ike Leggett is going to easily win reelection. There are a couple reasons for this assumption. First among them is that Leggett himself is still fairly widely respected personally. With the obvious exception of the people who tend to personalize every political disagreement, those who disagree with Leggett usually think of him as an upstanding guy – though that may be changing, as I explain later. Another reason is his success in the 2006 election. In a race that pretty much everyone thought was going to be very close, where his opponent, Steve Silverman, was heir apparent to the Duncan machine and a prodigious fundraiser, Leggett dominated the Democratic primary for executive. And Leggett has a very strong base among moderates and Montgomery County’s increasingly powerful African-American community.

But he does have vulnerabilities. And I’ve come to think that with the right set of circumstances, and the right challenger, Leggett could be unseated. Here’s why:

First, there has been some damage done to his reputation as the last honest man in politics. Leggett was tagged on the whole question of a bathroom being built in his office during difficult economic times. He’s also recently been called out for a lack of progress on workforce housing issues, a key part of his platform in the campaign. Any headline where a politician is accused of not meeting a campaign promise undermines his or her credibility. Most recently, Leggett has almost completely reversed his position, flip-flopped if you will, on the slots referendum. Hard to trust a guy who goes back on his word on such a major issue.

Second, Leggett has taken a number of positions on policies that can be construed, or at least spun, as hurting the middle class. He was a lone voice calling for an increase in the gas tax, just before gas prices began a rapid rise toward their current levels. He opposed using an increase in the millionaire’s tax to replace the computer services tax, looking as if he cared more about Potomac’s super-wealthy than about middle class jobs tied to the tech industry. This was after opposing a move to make the state income tax more progressive in the legislature’s special session, because he was worried about hurting MoCo’s millionaires. If he were to be challenged, it would make a great attack ad to list the litany of these positions while showing an image of Leggett’s very large, very pretty home on a multi-acre spread in the northern part of Burtonsville.

Third, Leggett’s own tendency to seek middle ground rather than taking sides means he has gained few allies while losing himself some friends. Many slow growth activists that voted for Leggett and helped him into office are annoyed at him for not pursuing a more limiting course on new development. Meanwhile, with the notable exception of the Kramer family, developers and their supporters never exactly warmed to Leggett. That support from the Kramers, by the way, is as likely to hurt as to help, since both Delegate Ben and Senator Rona are among the most conservative members of the Montgomery delegation and are deeply disliked by many of the county’s progressives. And his moderation in supporting candidates led him to support Al Wynn, even going so far as to record a robocall on Wynn’s behalf, something Edwards supporters aren’t likely to forget.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 2010 won’t be 2006. Two years ago, county voters were exhausted by the twelve years of rapid development seen under Leggett’s predecessor, Doug Duncan. They were ready for a change, and Steve Silverman did not represent change. Instead, Silverman was widely seen as Duncan’s prince-in-waiting, and was therefore weighed down by all of the negative public reaction to Duncan’s term in office, including the story of links to Jack Abramoff that broke that summer. In contrast, Leggett’s personality and absence from public office gave him an aura of respectability. This time, Silverman and Duncan have moved on, Leggett is going to be defending his own record as executive, and his record is not exceptional. Further, he’ll have served during four very difficult years, in the midst of a recession that makes the people that much less happy with any incumbent politician.

The point is this: there is an opening for a candidate running a progressive / populist campaign to win a primary challenge against Ike Leggett in 2010. Who could pull it off is an entirely different question. There is a long list of people who could potentially make the race work, though whether they would is the real issue. But maybe it’s best to leave that discussion for the comments, or another time.