Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mike vs. Ike

Council Member Mike Knapp’s harshly-worded press release targeting County Executive Ike Leggett and resulting coverage from the Examiner and the Gazette have created a bit of speculation. Will the Gentle Giant of Germantown be challenging the county’s wiliest politician in 2010?

The consensus of this blog’s Secret Shadow Cabinet is no, for reasons specific to each man.

Mr. Leggett
In his nearly two years in office, the County Executive has navigated carefully through two tight budgets, replaced the Birchmere with the Fillmore, and preserved the Council District 4 seat for the Praisner family. He is the all-time best at giving many of the county’s diverse groups much of what they want, but not too much in order to avoid protests from their rivals. He has no enemies other than the virulent Minutemen – a good nemesis to have in liberal Montgomery County. And he has expertly played off anti-tax activists against program advocates to thread the needle on the budget.

Some in our cabinet said they would like to see more leadership from his office, occasionally contrasting Mr. Leggett with his hard-charging predecessor. But Mr. Leggett’s cool, under-the-radar style fits better with this County Council than Doug Duncan’s aggressive approach would have. The quiet phone call, the low-key meeting, the whispered bit of advice – these are Mr. Leggett’s tools of the trade. He is not one to call out people in the newspaper. “He’s the great chess master,” says one politician. “He’s over in his office, moving his pieces around the board. He’s one step ahead of everyone else and only he knows where he’s going.”

The poor state of the economy has held back Mr. Leggett's administration from a policy perspective. But he retains significant personal popularity (witness his crowded birthday party fundraiser a few weeks ago), is an icon in the black community and is respected even by his critics. No power base in the county is sufficiently antagonized against him to rise in revolt at this point. For now, the next move always belongs to Mr. Leggett.

Mr. Knapp
Upcounty’s district Council Member is a man on the move. This year’s Council President seized the vital chair of the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee for himself after Marilyn Praisner’s passing. This is a very important position because it enables Mr. Knapp to oversee all development issues across the county. Mr. Knapp received substantial credit for dealing with this year’s budget crisis and his anti-truck parking bill has county-wide appeal.

Most intriguingly, an out-of-district visitor to Mr. Knapp’s office is likely to be asked, “What’s going on in your neighborhood?” It does not matter whether the individual lives far from Mr. Knapp’s district – he is genuinely interested in learning more about other parts of the county. Clearly, Mr. Knapp is looking to expand his horizons outside of District 2.

But would Mr. Knapp actually challenge Mr. Leggett in 2010? None of our informants take that prospect seriously for the following reasons:

1. The county’s economic problems have so far not damaged Mr. Leggett’s personal standing with the community. No one perceives Mr. Leggett as vulnerable. And so long as that perception remains true, Mr. Leggett will not in reality be vulnerable. This dynamic works to the benefit of many incumbents, but that is especially the case for Mr. Leggett, who enjoys significant advantages of experience, name recognition and good will over any of his potential opponents.

2. Mr. Knapp occupies a safe seat but would be taking an awful risk by challenging the County Executive. If he loses, the consequences will be severe as this county has short memories of defeated politicians. “It’s amazing how fast people disappear around here,” says one Rockville staffer. “It’s cruel, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

3. Mr. Knapp has many well-wishers in both the business and the labor communities. (He is not liked by anti-development activists who still remember his participation on Doug Duncan’s End Gridlock slate.) If Mr. Knapp leans toward running against Mr. Leggett – and he has never said or even hinted that he will – many of these supporters will urge him to wait for a better opportunity. “Mike Knapp has a bright future,” said one commentator. “But not against Ike Leggett in 2010.”

The most likely scenario of all is that Mr. Leggett will run again in 2010 and nearly all of the County Council incumbents will seek to return. If that happens, the real County Executive race will occur in 2014. At that point, more than one County Council Member will run. The winner will be whoever can best balance the priorities and conflicts of the county’s three great constituencies: business, labor and the civic community. And no contender yet has a daunting advantage over the other ones.

Update: The Washington Post's Ann Marimow follows up the story here.