Josh Kurtz: Back to the Future

By Josh Kurtz

An eerie fog hung over Montgomery County for most of the day Sunday, the kind that makes you think of ghosts and spirits and raising the dead.

A too-simple metaphor, perhaps, but an unavoidable one, for Doug Duncan’s comeback attempt, on the day he happened to hold the first big public event of his 2014 campaign for county executive.

Classic rock and soul blared from the sound system at Smokey Glen Farm in Darnestown — site of an annual Duncan picnic throughout his political career. Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” seemed especially appropriate.

But they should have played the soundtrack from “The Blues Brothers” movie — because there was so much talk of getting the band back together again.

There was a sense of nostalgia in the air, and a lot of old Duncan hands were present — David Edgerley, David Weaver, Saralee Todd, Deborah Goodwin and Steve Simon, just to name a few.

The list of the two dozen event sponsors and hosts — from Gary Abramson to the Gingery Development Group to the career firefighters union — were a reminder of the go-go ’90s and early aughts that Duncan presided over, when the county government catered to developers and was generous to public sector unions.

There was a lot of wistful talk, about Duncan being a man of action, about always knowing where he stood, about him never accepting the status quo.

And yet, this did not entirely seem like one of those oldies revues where they put the surviving members of the Monkees and the Lovin‘ Spoonful and Paul Revere and the Raiders on the road together. Inevitably with Duncan, past is prologue — but the man of action theme has a practicable political effect looking ahead to 2014.

And speaking of action, say this for Duncan: He is the only candidate for Montgomery County executive actually running a campaign right now. And with the Democratic primary a mere 13 months away, that matters.

A picnic is just a picnic. Old hands are just old hands. Talk about the good old days may be mere nostalgia. But in Duncan‘s picnic, a seed of a real campaign, with a candidate loose and confident, was evident.

Ike Leggett remains the favorite for re-election, should he decide to seek a third term as county executive. He’s built up enough good will through the years, will take full advantage of incumbency, and has the county’s ever-changing demographics on his side. Councilman Phil Andrews, who is also running, may put together a smart, issue-oriented grass-roots campaign, but it’s hard to see him raising enough money or having the kind of reach or breadth of support he’ll need to compete countywide.

But skeptics of Duncan’s ability to compete in the modern Montgomery County, 12 years after his last successful campaign and a full two decades after his last competitive race, should take heed. Whatever wounds he’s accumulated during his long career, whatever enemies he’s amassed, whatever political wilderness he’s wandered in these past eight years, this is a candidate who is raring to go.

At the picnic, Duncan, who became increasingly isolated as his time in office went on — and not just because of his public bout with depression, which derailed his campaign for governor in 2006 and which he fully acknowledged Sunday (“a dark period in my life,” he called it) — was affable, fully engaged with everyone who stopped by to say hello, and fluent in county affairs, big and small.

Duncan trotted out his predictable litany of brick and mortar achievements from his three terms. “When I was county executive, we were known for getting things done,” he told the crowd of 300.

He also boasted about the county achieving newfound respect and savvy in Annapolis during his tenure.

Without ever naming Leggett, Duncan said, “our county government’s kind of off-course right now.” He mentioned the fiasco surrounding the still-unopened transit center in Silver Spring, which has made Montgomery County “a regional laughingstock.” He accused county government officials of squabbling with the school board and the legislative delegation.

“If we’re spending the whole time fighting each other, the people in Annapolis are sitting back and laughing and spending money elsewhere,” Duncan said.

And in an interview, he said the biggest problem facing the county is “the stranglehold caused by low job growth.”

Many of these points are debatable. And they’re coming from a man who was only too willing to divide the county political community into enemy camps.

Duncan was certainly a stronger presence in Annapolis than many of his predecessors. But Montgomery County got so much school construction money during that era in part because a handful of delegates defied their constituents’ wishes and voted to fund football stadiums in Baltimore and Landover and were rewarded for it, and later because Parris Glendening needed the county so badly in his 1998 re-election campaign.

The transit center is a disaster, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. And some of those contracts were let during the Duncan administration.

Job growth in Montgomery is an issue. County officials point to data showing that Montgomery’s job growth has outpaced the level of job growth of rival Fairfax County for the past two years (though a study from George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis released about 18 months ago found that from 1990 to 2010, job growth in Fairfax County was four times faster than in Montgomery County). And Leggett has hardly been a pariah in Annapolis — he was at Martin O’Malley’s side just last week, as the governor signed the transportation funding bill, and O’Malley praised Leggett for his advocacy on behalf of the measure.

Though there were African-Americans and Latinos and Asian-Americans sprinkled throughout the picnic crowd, it did not exactly “look like Montgomery County.” But then, the county’s explosive demographic change has yet to significantly manifest itself at the ballot box.

Duncan, in an interview, had a ready answer for the suggestion that he will not be able to compete politically or govern effectively in a majority-minority county.

“I grew up here,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I know the county better than anybody. What’s really changed? It was trending this way when I was county executive. The school system was already majority-minority. It’s still Montgomery County. The issues haven’t changed.”

Duncan has begun to raise money aggressively. He takes inspiration from freshman Congressman John Delaney’s upset win a year ago — and said he’s prepared to employ some of the same tactics (indeed, Delaney was on hand to endorse Duncan Sunday, returning the favor Duncan bestowed upon him last year when most of the Democratic establishment was lined up behind someone else; a former Delaney aide, Kurt Staiger, has been hired on by Duncan‘s campaign).

Leggett, ever deliberative, remains publicly mum about his plans — though his actions suggest he’s gearing up to run again. But if he’s putting together a campaign apparatus, no one is seeing signs of it. Based on Duncan’s level of activity, Leggett will have to — and soon.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Conviction Politics

Union Powerbroker Taking New Role

Why the Rush (Hour)?

House Cleaning

Reality Check (in Four Parts)

Winners and Losers