Greater Greater Washington

Montgomery County has changed. Has Doug Duncan?

Montgomery County's feeling nostalgic for former county executive Doug Duncan, who announced earlier this week that he'll run for a 4th term in 2014. While he presided over 12 years of prosperity and growth, it's worth asking whether he's prepared to guide a county that looks quite different than it did just a few years ago.


Doug Duncan in 2006. Photo by Tancread on Flickr.

Duncan's long list of accomplishments has made him popular among many residents, who proposed naming the Silver Spring Civic Building for him. Yet political commentators, like Josh Kurtz of Center Maryland and David Moon of Maryland Juice, note that Duncan hasn't won a competitive race since he first took office in 1994 and hasn't been politically active since his aborted run for governor in 2006.

More important is the possibility that Duncan, who pushed for growth in the county but staunchly opposed the Purple Line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, is no longer in tune with what Montgomery voters want.

Since 1994, the county has become more diverse, more urban and now faces greater social and economic issues. As a result, the traditional growth-vs-no growth debate that's driven Montgomery County politics is falling apart, presenting new challenges to Duncan or any of the other contenders for county executive.

When Duncan took office, the county was still predominantly white and still had a reputation for being what former Councilmember Rose Crenca called the "perfect suburbia," save for the occasional scandal. During his tenure, the county's population grew larger and more affluent.

Meanwhile, the county's budget nearly doubled as Duncan racked up a long list of accomplishments, including the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring. The main political rift in the county was between the business community, who naturally wanted more development and backed Duncan, and civic organizations like the Montgomery County Civic Federation, which sought less or no growth.

Today, whites are a minority, with substantial immigrant enclaves in places like Germantown that were farmland a generation ago. The county is largely built out and quickly urbanizing. Rockville Pike is now known as much for authentic Chinese food and skyscrapers as it is for big-box stores.

As this shift occurs, the old guard of anti-growth civic leaders are gradually being replaced by a new, diverse group of young adults and families, minorities and immigrants, that somewhat resembles the "coalition of the ascendant" that reelected President Obama. These groups are generally open to growth, especially if it provides much-needed jobs, affordable housing or other amenities.

That's because despite being one of the nation's wealthiest counties, Montgomery County is beginning to struggle. It has created no net jobs in 10 years even as Greater Washington has added jobs, putting the county at risk of falling behind Fairfax County and a newly ascendant DC. The county faces growing poverty and social issues, while dwindling tax revenues during the recession have resulted in an ongoing budget crisis.

Ike Leggett Speaks
Ike Leggett speaks at a Purple Line rally in 2009.

As a result, the pro-growth and no-growth coalitions are becoming more dynamic. In 1994, Duncan earned the support of Montgomery's business community by supporting the Intercounty Connector, which would support development on the fringes of the county, while opposing the Purple Line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, which he called "spending millions to go nowhere." He continued to fight the Purple Line as an administrator at the University of Maryland.

But today, it enjoys strong support from nearly all of the county's elected officials and a cross-section of business, environmental and civic groups, who all agree that the project can support a new generation of infill development, reduce traffic and pollution, and revitalize older neighborhoods.

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
As the county becomes more diverse and more urban, there are new challenges and opportunities for elected officials.

Perhaps the biggest sign of how things have changed in recent years has been the tenure of County Executive Ike Leggett, who succeeded Duncan in 2006 and may run for a third term. Though Leggett ran on a slow-growth platform, he has tentatively (sometimes very tentatively) embraced a more urban future for the county.

Over the past 6 years, Leggett's administration has pushed an ambitious, if flawed plan for the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton, while his Smart Growth Initiative will relocate county facilities to make room for a new neighborhood at the Shady Grove Metro station. In an interview with Rockville Patch, he stressed the need for infill development that can grow the county's tax base.

At the same time, Leggett's administration has often held the county back, suggesting that an old-school Montgomery politician can only bend so far. He tried to strip funding for the Purple Line from this year's budget and spent most of 2011 promoting an controversial and ineffective youth curfew. Though he supports a countywide bus rapid transit network proposed by Councilmember Marc Elrich, Leggett and his Department of Transportation have been reluctant to do anything that would take road space away from drivers.

Shortly after Duncan was first elected, the Post gushed that "Montgomery County finally has a chief executive who looks as prosperous as Montgomery County." While the county may be ready to prosper again, Duncan's past record doesn't really fit where the county's going.

It remains to be seen whether he, or any of the other candidates for county executive, will be able to transcend the old debates over growth and move the county forward.

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Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Comments

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Thanks Dan, I like your take. Duncan was a good exec in the 90s, but I wonder if his thinking has evolved since then.

I'd like to hear what he has to say about these issues.

by BeyondDC on Dec 3, 2012 10:27 am • linkreport

A. I'm not clear on the purple line stance. Was there talk of just doing it from Bethesda to Silver Spring and he was specifically against that option? The examiner piece seemed to indicate he preferred the current route of going from Bethesda to New Carrollton and such. Unless that was just a way to express non-opposition by preferring something much more unattainable. Regardless, if anything the Bethesda to SS makes the most sense anyway.

B. We really need to call it out when people deride projects in dense urban areas as a "train to nowhere" or whatever. It's not good when the person in charge of running the county (or vying for the job) calls its two major CBD's nowheres.

by drumz on Dec 3, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

Why does transportation projects in Moco take so d*mn long to build?

A moratorium is needed on new housing until transportation projects get completed (ie Silver Spring Transit Center).

by davidj on Dec 3, 2012 10:38 am • linkreport

I also need some clarity on the Purple line stance. If he's against it, he ought to stay on the sidelines, but Legget's finger in the wind aproach to leadership is leaving Moco behind. Someone needs to come in with a strong vision for moving people that dosen't involve more highways.

by Thayer-D on Dec 3, 2012 10:42 am • linkreport

To clarify: in the late 1980's, Montgomery County proposed a light rail along the abandoned Georgetown Branch railroad between Bethesda and Silver Spring - what is today the Bethesda-to-Silver Spring portion of the Purple Line. In 1989, the County Council voted to accept state funding to pay for it, and despite opposition from the Columbia Country Club and Town of Chevy Chase, it was approved (with then-Councilmember Ike Leggett as the sole dissenting vote).

The project was eventually tabled due to rising costs, though it was later incorporated into MD's Capital Beltway Transportation Study, which proposed lots of different routes and modes for the Purple Line. During his tenure, Duncan opposed the "Inner Purple Line" (Bethesda to Silver Spring along the Georgetown Branch, or today's Purple Line) in favor of the "Outer Purple Line" (a Metro line in the middle of the Beltway). Under Governor Ehrlich and later O'Malley, MTA studied all of these routes, concluded that the Outer PL would be too expensive, not serve enough people, and not be able to connect to Prince George's County, so the Inner PL was selected instead.

by dan reed! on Dec 3, 2012 11:17 am • linkreport

Duncan is a poster boy for the dangers of one party rule. During Duncan's tenure, the MoCo government made increasingly more generous pension, benefit and workrule promises to its employees that, in hindsight, look increasingly unaffordable. The best school system in the state and region has been overtaken by Fairfax and Howard Co have outpaced MoCo.

by SJE on Dec 3, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

Duncan was always a supporter of the "Purple Line", but he pushed a Purple Line alignment that would be a few miles outside of the beltway. That alignment would have followed the Amtrak Line outbound from New Carollton to the Bowie-Glenn Dale area, before heading west. I think that he also wanted it to be heavy rail so that it achieved the speeds comparable to Metrorail.

Today, that idea seems quaint--or possibly a next step after the light rail Purple Line is built. To be fair, connecting the two upper legs of the Red Line would be useful, and the mindset then was a transit alternative to the ICC (which he also favored) just as the Orange Line provides a transit alternative to I-66 and US-50.

While Duncan lacked the foresight of Glendenning, he was not backward looking either. How his thinking has evolved is a great question that he should explain--but I would not prejudge his answer.

@Drumz: I think that the Bethesda-Silver Spring only option dates back to the days when the rail line went to Georgetown. By the time Glenndenning became governor, there was no way that Purple Line planning would omit PG.

by JimT on Dec 3, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

To clarify further. Duncan initially took no position other than to oppose the light rail between Bethesda and Silver Spring, and at his request the state stopped work on its light rail study (a draft Environmental Impact Statement had been completed, but work then stopped) and put the money into highway projects instead. When the larger Purple Line surfaced, he first supported an underground Metro line through White Oak, Wheaton, and Grosvenor. Then he proposed a "loop" configuration in which half the Red Line trains would divert from the existing Red Line north of Medical Center, go above the Beltway with a stop at Connecticut Avenue, and then rejoin the Red Line going into Silver Spring.

by Ben Ross on Dec 3, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

Thanks all, that makes more sense.

In that case, I think its perfectly viable to have a completely different opinion about the purple line today considering the change in circumstances. Let's hope for the best.

by drumz on Dec 3, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

Aside from the effects of the recession, Montgomery County hasn't changed that much since Duncan left office. (Building a few cookie-cutter hi-rises in Silver Spring with useless pocket parks does not make the county more "urban" than it already was) Plus, he's still lived in the county all of those years.

I strongly disagree with the article's premise that Duncan somehow isn't ready to be county executive just because he's been out of office for 8 years. How are the two inept council members who have no experience at the executive position more qualified?

I didn't realize Duncan was diametrically opposed to the Purple Line. I only thought he had issues with its routing. In any case, he won't get my vote if he's not 100% behind it. He also won't get my vote if he thinks another Potomac crossing is a good idea.

by King Terrapin on Dec 3, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Ballsy post.

2. Note that it is this kind of writing that likely prevents you, ultimately, from getting local govt. jobs. Cf. me and pieces like this: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/11/dc-at-large-city-council-election-one.html

by Richard Layman on Dec 3, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

Is he responsible for the Dunkin donuts too?

by Thayer-D on Dec 4, 2012 6:47 am • linkreport

If Duncan was pro growth and helped rebuild Silver Spring, why wouldn't he support urban development. I don't buy the idea that his stance on the Purple line defines his stance in urbanization.

by Brett on Dec 4, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

He was mayor of Rockville when I worked there in the 90s. He seemed like a complete hack who tolerated sclerotic and ineffective services, while saying yes to developers. Our space was delayed by months, and then permitting for a Cable to network our computer systems under the street took almost a year. The city also allowed us to occupy space that ultimately didn't meet fire code and one of our buildings had inadequate power.

by Rich on Dec 4, 2012 10:03 pm • linkreport

I am excited for a Duncan run. I feel that he really understands that our real competition is Fairfax and we need to attract business to our county so it develops a high income tax base. I 'd like to know how he feels about the science and technology campus that Johns Hopkins was interesting in developing the upper part of the county. These are the kinds of jobs we should be attracting to our area. I'd like someone young and new to run, but I'll take Duncan. I think he is interested in helping MoCo regaining its reputation for being a very highly desirable place to live.

by nkg on Dec 7, 2012 10:30 am • linkreport

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