Leggett Retires From Role as County Executive, Leaves Lasting Legacy


Photo by Emily Nagy

Leggett met with Rampage reporter Colleen Barrett to discuss the impact of his career.

Colleen Barrett, Print Copy Editor

Hanging in the waiting room of his office and beneath the label “from humble beginnings” is a picture of the childhood home of current Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. He described his home as not much larger than his personal office and the two small rooms next to it, but it was enough for him, his 12 siblings and his parents.

Seeking a break after serving the maximum of three terms as county executive and 16 years prior as a county council member, Leggett will be retiring at the end of the year.
Leggett’s work was recently commended by his colleagues and citizens of Montgomery County alike at a Sept. 13 tribute dinner.

“I feel like Ike Leggett has been an extraordinary force for love, which is why we love Ike Leggett,” state Attorney General Brian Frosh said.

As county executive, Leggett has prioritized improving Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), making sure that the school system has always been a central focus and concern for the county.
“The biggest effort that I’ve had to put forth is to maintain the focus on education, provide the resources and give the school system what it needs and deserves in order to be responsive,” Leggett told the Rampage. “The primary focus of the county executive should be how do you prioritize this, how do you keep the focal point on this, how do you keep the public engaged and how do you find the resources to implement the various plans that come from the board of education.”

Born in Deweyville, Texas and raised in small-town Alexandria, La., Leggett, the first African American elected into county council, has defied all odds to get to where he is today. From being a victim of separate but unequal segregation to participating in the civil rights movement and meeting Martin Luther King Jr. to working at the top of one of the most diverse counties in the country, Leggett has come a long way.

Now looking at his office in the county executive building which takes up an entire floor, he recalls the rundown, wood-frame house he grew up in. As a child with 12 siblings his space was limited. Now he has large sliding glass doors that greet visitors as they get off the elevator and walk toward his office down a hallway where his accolades from decades of work cover the walls.

Leggett first got involved in politics in college as a student leader in the civil rights struggle. After college, he served in the Vietnam War and upon returning to the states, pursued a career in law at Howard University. While attending law school in Washington D.C., Leggett lived in Montgomery County and ultimately settled down here. As a lawyer he became more involved in the community and took the position of the county’s human rights commission chair. While serving as the chairman he discovered that no one of color had been elected to any political position in the county and decided to form an organization that encouraged minorities to run for public office. Because of others’ reluctance to do so, Leggett himself was urged to run for county council.

“You needed a very strong support base within your community [to win elections], and at that time, the African-American community in Montgomery County was only about six percent, Latinos were about four percent and Asians were about two or three percent, so the entire minority community of all three of those combined was probably less than 12 or 13 percent [of the county population] and it was just very difficult during that time when people were voting along racial lines for anyone to be successful,” Leggett said.

At the urging of a small base of supporters, he hesitantly agreed to run for county council in 1985. At first, no photo of him was released, his race unknown by most.
“We had to get the people indoctrinated to say okay, this is a person really qualified, here is where he stands on the issues, here is what he believes, here is his background, qualifications and all that kind of stuff,” Leggett said. “Then after when people became somewhat familiar with that, we later put the photograph out and said ‘oh, this is Ike Leggett who happens to be an African American.’”
Crediting his success to his education, Leggett has emphasized the importance of schooling throughout his career. Growing up, Leggett was an average student, he said. He was never expected to go to college, but urged by his football coach and his mother, he decided to pursue a higher education.

With no way to pay for college, Leggett asked Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. to admit him into a program that allowed students to attend classes in return for work over the summer. He was denied four times as he was ineligible, and feeling defeated, walked away. But as he left, he was called back and presented with a compromise. He would receive similar benefits to those in the program if he agreed to work with the maintenance crew cutting grass and picking up trash. Realizing that being part of the maintenance crew was not something he wanted to do forever, he decided to devote himself to education.

“That initial push, the ability to overcome those odds, made me so focused on education because I see that as a key to so much in life,” Leggett said. “That if a person is well educated or knowledgeable, if they’re willing to work hard and they maintain the ethical and moral values that I think we all dispose, it gives you a good foundation for success potentially.”

Leggett now holds four higher educations degrees: a Bachelor of Arts degree from Southern University, a Master of Arts degree and a Juris Doctorate degree from Howard University and a Master of Laws degree from George Washington University. Leggett finished first in his class at Howard University law school and at the time of his graduation, held the third highest academic average in the law school’s history.

In addition to his large-scale efforts promoting education, Leggett has found the more personal deeds the most rewarding, he said. With an operating budget of $5.6 billion, Montgomery County has the capacity to do a lot of big things, but Leggett finds the smaller things, those that directly affect just one or two people, the most gratifying. With his four degrees hanging on the walls next to artifacts from his history as a public servant, Leggett said his past has allowed him to see situations in a different light. He is acutely aware of how the less fortunate are affected and the inequalities that exist.

“When I am sitting around the table with my staff members and they’re throwing out all kinds of ordeals, something just comes to me and says ‘you know that just doesn’t seem right.’ What about the person on the other side of this, the single mother or the person who is homeless,” Leggett said. “If you’re able to respond to that one individual, and you display the compassion and concern and ability to alter that, you get that right, you’re most likely to get the big things right.”

Leggett’s focus on small deeds and larger efforts to improve equal opportunity in Montgomery County continue to be recognized by constituents for their immediate and lasting effects.

“[He] is dedicated to education and equity and stands for the inclusion of all students and their learning,” English teacher Catherine Byrne said. “It’s that kind of equity and drive for leadership that looks out for those of us who need the most care and that makes for a wonderful civic leader. He will be missed.”