The focused one, always serious and responsible


ROCKVILLE -- There's a well-located window on the second floor of Doug Duncan's modest childhood home in the working-class Twinbrook section of this city.

Many of Duncan's 12 siblings slid open the glass, stepped out onto the roof and slithered easily to the ground below. For middle-of-the-night escapes to hang out with friends. To do something naughty.

But not Duncan. He swears he never climbed out that window. And if you don't believe him, ask his mother.

"As a matter of fact, he never did," said Eleanor Duncan, 79. "Doug was very responsible."

Responsible. It's a word that's used often to describe Duncan, who formally announced his candidacy for governor here yesterday at the house where his mother still lives.

It's not a sexy description for a politician looking to broaden his appeal as he launches a campaign for governor. Especially since that effort will pit him in a primary contest against the sassy and sometimes unpredictable mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley.

"We're very different people, and that's what's great about this election," said Duncan, 49. "The voters are going to have a clear choice. Do they want a governor who's going to get things done, or do they want a governor who's going to talk about getting things done?"

When you're one of 13 children, you find a way to get along - to get what you need and want - or you get lost in the shuffle. Duncan has certainly gotten along, and he did it by being focused.

He graduated from Columbia University in three years to save his family money. He asked the woman he loved to marry him within six months of their first date. He ran for public office for the first time at age 26 and won every election for nearly 25 years thereafter. He championed County Council candidates who would support his agenda, not block it, and most of them won.

Duncan has also used that determination to bring splashy, big-dollar projects to the county: the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring and the Music Center at Strathmore in Rockville in particular. In the process, he has won fans who say his responsible streak is what enables him to get things done.

He also has elicited criticism from others who believe he's beholden to developers and has contributed to Montgomery County's booming growth, with its traffic problems and overcrowded schools.

As Duncan launches his campaign, he'll call on the skills - self-sufficiency, directness and, of course, responsibility - that he learned in that crowded, two-story Rockville house to make a name for himself statewide, to climb out of the insular world of Montgomery County politics and into a bigger scene.

He has been waiting for some time.

First born in Md.

James Duncan and his wife, Eleanor, began raising their first four children in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington. They needed more room for their brood, so they moved to Van Fleet Court in Rockville.

Doug Duncan, their fifth child, was the first in the family to be born in Maryland. But the Duncans, devout Catholics, wouldn't stop with Doug. Between 1949 and 1967, Eleanor Duncan gave birth to 13 children.

A slight woman who walks slowly and with a cane, Eleanor Duncan paused before answering a question about how she did it. A smile grew wide across her face. "One at a time," she said.

James Duncan, who fled Nazi-occupied France for the United States as a teenager, worked for the National Security Agency for more than 20 years. His duties were a mystery to his children, who were instructed to tell anyone who inquired that their father was a research analyst with the Department of Defense.

Doug Duncan said his father, who spoke fluent French and he believes other languages as well, probably translated intelligence information for the government. After the NSA, James Duncan taught ESOL, English as a second language, in Montgomery County public schools. A diabetic, he died in 2001 after a period of declining health.

Eleanor Duncan was the one with an interest in Democratic politics - and the one who inspired her son. A volunteer for several local campaigns, she was most enthralled by Adlai Stevenson. "I cried real tears when he lost," she said.

Doug Duncan remembers his parents' home as a fun place to grow up - despite the worries about making ends meet, despite the hustle and bustle. Doug, for example, always shared a bedroom with at least two of his siblings.

"I think we had one year where one of my brothers slept on the couch," he said.

Together with other local children, the Duncan lot would roam the neighborhood playing kick the can and hide and seek. The family was so big they used a buddy system to keep track of one another. And when James and Eleanor Duncan ran out of people to godparent their babies, they chose their older children for the job.

Today the Duncan home, with its carport that has been converted to a den and the bedrooms that were added on out back, is much quieter. Only Eleanor Duncan lives there. The walls are covered with family photos of her children and 41 grandchildren. Halloween decorations, black cat decals and pumpkins, are scattered about. A pair of angels is mounted on one wall.

Duncan attended St. Mary's School in Rockville and St. John's College High School in Washington. He graduated in 1973.

Most of the Duncan children went to college. Several went to the University of Maryland and Montgomery College; others, bolstered by grants and aid packages, graduated from a string of Ivy League schools, including Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth.

Duncan chose Columbia University in New York. He was blessed with a single room his first year but hated it: "It was too quiet."

Kevin Kehoe, Duncan's roommate for two years at Columbia and the best man in his wedding, used such words as calm and well-reasoned and serious to describe his longtime friend. He said Duncan always did his work in college and got good grades, but he inexplicably pushed himself to graduate in three years, a point Duncan mentions during interviews and in his campaign biography.

"I think he just challenged himself for some reason," said Kehoe, president of the Community Investment Corp., a nonprofit in Decatur, Ill. "I think he felt a responsibility to work real hard, to get out and on with his life."

Duncan graduated in 1976 having majored in psychology and political science. After college he worked a number of jobs in Montgomery County. He said he was house manager for the Harlequin Dinner Theatre, which was in Silver Spring. He taught special education part time in the county schools.

During that time, he met a young woman who worked for his mother in the licensing department of the Montgomery County Circuit Court. Eleanor Duncan and a courthouse colleague worked hard to make the fix-up succeed, arranging a hallway interlude so that Doug could ask Barbara Cumiskey out on a date. Doug's mother liked that Barbara had attended her alma mater, Trinity University in Washington.

Barbara accepted Doug's invitation even though he told her she was his second choice. She found it charming. At least he was honest.

"Great blue eyes, and he was so nice to his mother," Barbara Duncan, now the director of community relations and marketing at Sunrise Assisted Living of Rockville, remembered. "I said, 'That's a keeper.'"

Their first date was March 3, 1979, which both Duncan and his wife mention wistfully before they tell their story. They went to a Young Democrats event during which J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is now the Maryland attorney general and O'Malley's father-in-law, was honored. After, they stayed up half the night talking.

"He told me he was going to be an elected Democrat," Barbara Duncan, 49, recalled. "I said fine."

Duncan remembers being instantly smitten: "I fell head over heels in love that night, and here we are 25 years later."

They became engaged that September and married the next June. Today they have five children, four boys and a girl; two cats, named Zeus and Athena; a dog called Bogie; and a listed phone number.

Barbara Duncan, who wore funky black plastic glasses, big pearl earrings and a bright yellow blouse during a recent interview, fields lots of constituent calls, but she said she doesn't mind. She gives Duncan one household task to remind him that family and home are what's most important in life: the dishes.

During election years, however, she washes the dishes. It's her gift to him.

Trying out the trail

Duncan landed his first campaign job in 1978 working on Charles W. Gilchrist's bid for county executive. Duncan drove the candidate and his wife. He knocked on doors. Anything and everything. He loved it.

In 1981, he took a job with AT&T.; He stayed with the company for 13 years and rose to a national account manager.

Duncan's first bid for public office was in 1982. At 27, he emerged from a crowded field to win a spot on the Rockville City Council. Affordable housing was his key issue, he said. After all, as a young father, he couldn't even afford to buy a house in his hometown.

Duncan served three terms on the City Council before running and winning the mayor's job in Rockville. He served three terms as mayor.

In 1994, after winning the county executive job, Duncan left AT&T.; Ike Leggett, the former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and a candidate for Montgomery County executive, supported Duncan's primary opponent in that race. But Leggett said that while he has had his differences with Duncan, most notably on growth issues, he has grown to respect him for working hard and getting things done.

Leggett lauded Duncan for championing the renovation of downtown Silver Spring, a $400 million effort that has renovated a historic movie theater and brought businesses and a new vitality to that community.

"I wouldn't sell him short in terms of this election," Leggett said. "He's a tireless campaigner."

As it did, though, with Leggett, the issue of growth and development on Duncan's watch comes up again and again with his colleagues and with residents.

Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews, who is the former executive director of Common Cause Maryland, is staying neutral in the governor's race. He said he has butted heads with Duncan on many matters (Andrews mentioned his proposal to ban smoking in county restaurants, which the county executive originally vetoed), but said he's most disturbed by the percentage of Duncan's campaign contributions that has come from developers.

"Frankly, I don't see a difference between having a developer as county executive and having Doug Duncan as county executive," Andrews said.

Drew Powell, the executive director of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, a grass-roots public awareness group and political action committee that opposes excessive development in the county, said that Duncan not only advocates for projects favorable to developers but that he has gotten behind candidates for the County Council who will do the same.

In 2002, Duncan created the End Gridlock slate, which included council members Steve Silverman, Mike Subin, Nancy Floreen, Mike Knapp and George Leventhal, among others. Duncan has fashioned a body, Powell said, that is loyal to him when it comes to building.

"Their voting record is notorious," Powell said. "Their record is very much slanted pro-development."

Powell's group has analyzed Duncan's 2002 campaign contributions and determined that 56 percent of the money he received came from developers or companies or individuals with development-related interests.

Duncan says he doesn't know how much of his money comes from developers. He hasn't looked at the numbers, he said. He did say that he supports Smart Growth and notes that Montgomery County has more land set aside than any county in the country.

"I've got one of the best environmental records in the state of Maryland," he said.

And Duncan has shepherded projects that are roundly cheered by people in the county, even his adversaries. Silver Spring was one, the Music Center at Strathmore is another. The Strathmore project cost nearly $100 million and welcomes performers such as Savion Glover and Betty Buckley. According to the center's Web site, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra makes Strathmore its second year-round venue.

The battles over growth and development are, of course, not the only matters of public interest that Duncan has faced during his time as executive. He gained national attention during the Washington-area sniper shootings in fall 2002. It was a time, he said, that took a personal toll.

Standing in front of his mother's house on a recent cool, misty afternoon, Duncan said he remembers telling residents that they should go about their normal lives - go to school and work and shopping - even as their fellow citizens were being slain across the county.

"I had this fear that somebody was going to get killed because they did what I told them to," Duncan said.

Down to earth

Duncan is the kind of guy who brings the recycling bin from the curb to his mother's kitchen. When he left her after a visit on that drizzly afternoon, he kissed his mother on the cheek, told her he loved her and reminded her to take her medicine.

Inside Duncan's childhood home that day, the county executive slouched in one of his mother's living room chairs, listening as she told of how "abnormally shy" he was as a boy and how he wasn't the one of her 13 children she expected to go into politics.

But she said that Duncan - who acknowledges being a serious Harry Potter fan (he has read each of the books twice) and an avid movie-goer - has qualities O'Malley does not, qualities vital to being governor.

"Experience, maturity, good sense," Eleanor Duncan said.

And then Duncan piped up, reminding his mother that there's actually a Prince George's County activist, a man who used to work for state Sen. Ulysses Currie who always introduces him as: Doug Duncan, "the most responsible guy in politics."

Duncan grinned. Maybe responsible suits him just fine after all.

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