Sunday profile: Ike Leggett

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In the late 60s, Leggett was a First Lieutenant, stationed in Georgia. Since his childhood, he had always wanted to join the military. In those days, African American service members were the only African Americans that got respect.

Ike Leggett (Photo courtesy Montgomery County)

But after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, Leggett was sent to Druid Hill in Baltimore to help quell the riots. He had to help suppress the very movement that he spent years building up. After a tour of service in Vietnam, confused and conflicted, he decided to go into politics. It would allow him to enjoy both the service element of the military and the transformative capacities of the civil rights movement. In 1978, he was selected as a White House Fellow.

Leggett graduated from Howard Law School with the third highest GPA in its history. He began teaching there in 1976, and among his students were Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Adrian Fenty, Rushern Baker, Vincent Orange, and Kevin Chavous. Jack Johnson was a year behind him at Howard, and Leggett calls him "a good friend." When Jackson was indicted on federal corruption charges, Leggett commented, "Very sad. You want to believe it’s not true."

Leggett's own political career hasn't gone without controversy. In 1992, a formal council aide accused him of sexual harassment (a jury dismissed the case). As county executive, he proposed a hike in the gas tax, a day laborer center near the Shady Grove Metro, and he's currently trying to get a youth curfew law passed in the county. Councilman Phil Andrews told the Gazette newspaper that the curfew was "one of the worst proposals I've ever seen come over from the executive branch."

In his five years as county executive, he also closed budget gaps totaling $2.5 billion, and eliminated 12 percent of County government positions. He established CountyStat to track government performance in real time, and established a 311 call center for residents to report problems.

In the late nineties Leggett would realize one of his proudest accomplishments to date. He wanted to ban smoking in public bars and restaurants, but no other county official would support it at that time. Later, he convinced Steve Silverman that it was the right thing to do and gained the support of four other councilmembers. Still, the County Executive vetoed it.

But, Leggett didn’t stop there. He figured out that he didn’t have to pass the bill through the council. He could convene the board of health and introduce the plan as a health regulation, over which the executive has no veto power. He did exactly that, and the county became one of the first in the country to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, after which many would follow suit.

As Leggett deconstructed these events last month at the Austin Grill, a plate of plain rice, beans, and chicken sat before him. He eats this meal as often as he can; it’s a ritual of memory and family. While he ate, he attributed his achievements to the resilience he gained in the cotton fields of Alexandria, the passion for change he cultivated on the streets of Baton Rouge, and to his mother, who always had his back. He remembered how she spoke to him when he was a child, and it’s clear the message stuck to his ribs: "There’s nothing you’re not smart enough to figure out."

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