Former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan's decision to run for his old seat after a six-year hiatus has changed the political landscape of the state's largest county even as critics argue that new demographics could present a big hurdle to his comeback.
Duncan, 57, a Democrat who ended his 2006 campaign for governor abruptly after he was diagnosed with depression, told supporters last week that he will run for county executive in 2014 — setting the stage for a possible showdown with incumbent Isiah "Ike" Leggett that would have statewide political implications.
Broadly popular during his 12-year tenure, Duncan is credited with spurring development in the suburban Washington county and came to be known affectionately as the "mayor of Montgomery." Yet his decision to re-emerge has prompted little public reaction — even from former allies — as most Democrats wait for Leggett to decide whether he will run for a third term.
"Doug Duncan clearly comes in as the 800-pound gorilla in this race," said Mark Uncapher, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party. Two County Council members have also announced plans to run for executive, and many others are considering a run.
The high-profile nature of a Duncan-Leggett contest could force Democratic candidates for statewide office in 2014 to pick sides, setting the future tone of relations between Annapolis and one of the state's most important political and economic centers.
Whoever wins would have the same voice in statewide policy decisions that leaders of other large jurisdictions, such as Baltimore, have enjoyed.
Though Duncan made some enemies on the County Council during his three terms from 1994 to 2006, he won re-election with wide margins. He captured 80 percent of the vote in the 2002 Democratic primary, his last before seeking the party nomination for governor.
But Montgomery's demographics and economy have shifted since Duncan left office — a point many Democrats raised as a potential challenge to his candidacy.
For starters, the county is growing quickly, adding more than 90,000 Democratic and unaffiliated voters since 2006, according to registration figures maintained by the State Board of Elections.
In addition, the 2010 census showed that minorities made up a majority of the county's population for the first time, with 50.7 percent of residents identifying themselves as black, Hispanic or Asian. The share of the county population that is Hispanic grew by 6 percentage points over the past decade.
Duncan, who last appeared on a ballot in 2002, would have to introduce himself to many of those new faces.
"It's really a rainbow in Montgomery County," said Duchy Trachtenberg, a Democrat and former at-large member of the County Council who is also pondering a run for county executive. "The demographics have changed, and the county's financial footing has changed."
Chris Stoughton, who teaches a course on local government at Montgomery College, noted that many of those groups are also becoming more politically powerful. Hispanics in Montgomery County were heavily organized in favor of a ballot question approved last month to allow certain illegal immigrants to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, for instance.
"They're definitely a force to be reckoned with," said Stoughton, who was appointed by Leggett to serve on a county citizens advisory panel.
The shape of the race will hinge largely on what Leggett, 67, decides about his future, several Democrats said. Leggett, who in 1986 became the first African-American elected to the County Council, initially said he would not seek another term. More recently — as speculation about Duncan's intentions swirled — the incumbent softened that stance, saying he won't make up his mind until early next year.
The 2014 primary will take place in June.
Duncan, a former Rockville city councilman and mayor, ran the county during a period of national economic growth. Leggett, by contrast, has managed county budgets during a recession. The county is projected to face a $71 million gap in its roughly $4.6 billion budget in the next fiscal year. County employees have been operating under a pay freeze for four years.
But it's not clear whether economic or demographic factors have altered the political landscape enough in Montgomery to give either candidate a decisive advantage. Leggett has $570,000 in his campaign account, a formidable sum for a local candidate. Duncan has just under $300,000 in the bank, much of which is left over from his 2006 bid for governor.
Duncan announced his intention to run during a closed-door meeting in Gaithersburg. In a subsequent email to supporters, he wrote that "as I mentioned at the close of our meeting, I will be running for Montgomery County executive. I will need your help, and I will be back in touch in the coming days and weeks to talk about working together."
The meeting received a flurry of media attention, but Duncan has not made a public statement about his candidacy, and neither he nor his former top aides have granted interview requests.
A Twitter account created this week claims to be the "official page for the 2014 election of Doug Duncan," but there is no way to verify its authenticity.
Neither Duncan nor Leggett agreed to be interviewed.
Duncan ran against then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. After dropping out, he worked as vice president of administrative affairs at the University of Maryland. He was an early supporter of John Delaney, the Potomac businessman who won a seat in the House of Representatives last month from the 6th Congressional District.
Duncan was a constant presence at Delaney campaign events throughout the year.
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