An evening of storytelling—humorous and poignant—was enjoyed by a large crowd over dinner at the Bethesda Marriott on Thursday, September 13th. Click here to see the photos from the event.
Master of Ceremonies WDC Past President Carole Brand introduced the many speakers, taking a moment at the beginning to remember the late Judith Heimann, who played such a long, critical role in WDC affairs and was influential in the political careers of many of the evening’s speakers.
One by one the speakers came up to the podium, commending County Executive Leggett and sharing warm memories. Following brief remarks by Marc Elrich, Democratic candidate for County Executive in the coming election, Senator Chris Van Hollen took the stage. He stated that the residents of Montgomery County and the Democratic Party have been blessed to have Ike Leggett as a leader—he has accomplished his many successes not only because he is a thoughtful, caring person, but also because he is a skillful politician. The contrast with the current occupant of the White House could not be starker: Ike has led our county with dignity and grace—sticking with real facts—leading by addition and not subtraction, being inclusive to build a bigger coalition, and never forgetting the most vulnerable. In this respect, Senator Van Hollen took special note of Ike’s devotion to those who have served, as he did, in the military. As a result, Montgomery County is the only Maryland county that does not have homeless veterans, and now has a memorial to veterans in Rockville.
Congressman Jamie Raskin, noting the many awards earned by our County Executive over the years, said there are only three awards Ike Leggett never won: the Maryland award for speed in conducting meetings; the award for uproarious comedy; and Wimbledon. In a more serious vein, Raskin said “I am in awe of his accomplishments!” Remembering the biblical lessons of his childhood about “exemplary prophets” who lived lives of gentleness, compassion, and commitment to their community, Raskin declared, “Ike qualifies as an exemplary prophet.”
Expanding on references to Leggett’s military service, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh explained that Ike was in the ROTC at Southern University, and also was elected student body president. Even though he participated in some anti-war protests, when the time came, he served with distinction in Vietnam, rising to become captain in the U.S. Army. Turning to the present, Frosh pointed to the 2015 anti-profiling regulation as a signal accomplishment of his office. He told a story of how in 2014 Ike Leggett was putting up campaign signs in front of a polling place. A county police car pulled up, and the young white officer driving burst out of the car yelling at Leggett. His partner, a female officer intervened: “Please forgive him, Mr. County Executive, he doesn’t know who you are.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker paid tribute to Ike Leggett’s role as a teacher and mentor. Leggett served as a professor of law at Howard University Law School beginning in 1975, and as Assistant Dean from 1979 to 1986, he taught the torts class. “I have to get out of that torts class,” Baker remembered, but Dean Leggett wouldn’t let him skip it. On graduation day, introducing the dean to his parents, Baker told him proudly that he had gotten the best grade he’d ever received in that torts class. Years later, as a frightened young County Executive, “when everything was going wrong,” Baker said he turned to Leggett, who gave him good advice, and once again taught him to believe in himself.
Dr. Teresa Schwartz described how she had come to be friends with Ike Leggett when they both were among fifteen from around the country chosen as White House Fellows in 1978-79. The program was focused on developing leadership skills, so the group met various leaders in government engaged in important issues at that time, including the SALT talks, the Panama Canal, and the Middle East. At one point the fellows were treated to a visit to an aircraft carrier at sea, which, of course, involved landing on the ship—coming in fast and being stopped suddenly by the “arresting wire.” If the plane missed the wire, it would have to take off and go around again—and that is exactly what happened to Ike’s plane. This man, who had been in Vietnam combat, Dr. Schwartz said, looked pretty shaky getting out of that plane. “But,” she added,” he was the very best of the White House Fellows.”
Members of Leggett’s family also took the stage to pay an emotional tribute. Dr. Susan Leggett Johnson, Ike’s physician sister, said their mother had “grit”—choosing to demonstrate strength and always looking forward. His wife Catherine told about meeting Ike, the smartest in her law school study group. “I fell in love with his mind,” she said. Their daughter Yaminah, a bio-medical researcher, was 12 when her father won his first election in 1986, and echoing others, said to him, “What you do is from the heart!”
Taking the stage to acknowledge this praise, Ike filled out the picture of his remarkable life, from the humblest beginnings. Born the seventh of 13 children in Alexandria, Louisiana, to parents who were very poor, Ike said he was determined to go to college, despite having no professional role models who were African-American. Money was a problem. Turned down for work-study aid at Southern University, he received $12 from his parish church—a gift of sacrifice and love. After first saying no, his local state Senator (who was white) came through with a scholarship, probably expecting him to fail. When Ike graduated four years later, the Senator tried to claim the credit: “I made that boy!”
Ike said he was a reluctant candidate for county council in 1986, feeling that Montgomery County—at that time far less diverse than now—might not be ready for an African-American on the council. So his campaign manager printed campaign brochures full of his impressive educational and career achievements, and his policy platform, but no photo. He won and, from then on, never had a close contest. He gave credit for his success to the generosity and fairness of Montgomery County residents.
Elected County Executive in 2006, he said there have been challenges and difficulties. But through good times and bad, his driving principle has always been to do the best for everyone in the county, especially the most vulnerable. About his governing style, Ike added mischievously, “When I had the votes [on the council] we voted; if not, we talked. They now call it the Leggett rule.”
Speaking about his legacy, Leggett said he and his wife have started a scholarship fund for students wanting to attend Montgomery College. “I have been driven all my life by the two scholarships I received to attend college: the smaller one given out of love, the other given in the expectation of failure. I had to prove that I was worthy of both those scholarships.