A police car with siren blaring bears down on a Black man who wonders what he’s done wrong. Maybe he was speeding. He’s wearing blue jeans, a sweater and a baseball cap, and he stands silently as a hulking 6-foot-5-inch white cop confronts him, yelling and cursing and demanding to know why he’s there—a Black man who’s not in a suit and tie in a white neighborhood after dark.
The scene is all too commonplace, except this was Isaiah “Ike” Leggett, running for a third term as Montgomery County Executive in the wealthy suburb adjacent to Washington, D.C. “To him I was just another Black face,” Leggett says, recalling the 2014 incident. “It didn’t matter who I was, what I was doing, I was a Black face in front of him.”
The situation was defused when a white female officer emerged from the police car. Leggett said he could tell by the look on her face that she recognized him. Her partner was from neighboring Howard County, she explained, and didn’t recognize him. “Imagine if I were a teenager who panicked,” Leggett says. “That could have evolved into a very different situation.”
Leggett had pulled into the Good Hope Recreation Center that served as a polling station in Silver Spring, Maryland, to put up a campaign poster. Putting up his own poster at certain sites was a ritual he followed in every campaign since he was first elected as an at-large member in 1986, the first Black person elected to the Montgomery County Council. At first it was out of necessity. He didn’t have enough volunteers. But in subsequent campaigns it became so important to him that he would drive in the early morning or late evening to each of 21 handpicked voting precincts (out of 245), sometimes even taking down a poster that a volunteer had put up to replace it with one of his.
The 2014 encounter that got out of hand was captured on the police car’s dash camera, but Leggett didn’t dwell on it or talk about it until recently. Prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and questions from his fifth-grade granddaughter asking about what it was like to grow up in the Jim Crow South, Leggett, now 75, wants people who have only known him in his position of leadership to also know the struggles he’s had and how race impacted him along the way.
“I rarely talked about race, but it was always there,” he told the Daily Beast. “I put that under the rug because I thought effectiveness and competence were more important.” In his first race for County Executive in 2006, he and his campaign manager, the late Susan Shoenberg, a white woman whom he served with when he chaired the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission, decided to keep his photo off campaign literature for the first six months of the campaign on the theory that people would reject him out of hand, but might give him a chance once they knew his accomplishments.
He got elected in a county that was then just 6 percent Black, 5 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian. (Today, Montgomery County is roughly 49 percent white, 19 percent Latino, 16 percent African-American, and 14 percent Asian).
Without a photo, Leggett chuckles, it was like hiding in plain sight. His campaign lit listed four higher education degrees: a Bachelor of Arts from Southern University, a predominantly Black institution in Baton Rouge, a Masters and a Doctorate from Howard University, where he was a law professor at the time, an advanced law degree from George Washington University. It also mentioned the NAACP and the Missionary Baptist Church—all of which added up to a pretty big tip-off . “If you read that far, you could have figured it out,” he says.
As an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council, he chaired the transportation and environment committee, and successfully pushed a county living wage law and a public smoking ban. As County Executive, he pushed for a statewide gasoline tax increase, which became law, and he overcame opposition from anti-immigrant groups to secure a safe site for day laborers to gather where employers can find them.
He was prominent in Montgomery County for so long, retiring after three terms in 2019, that people made a lot of assumptions about who he is and where he came from. “My style is energetic,” he says, a way of surviving that he learned early on as the seventh of 13 children growing up in a three-room “shotgun” house in an impoverished community in Alexandria, Louisiana. There was no running water or electricity, and the kids slept on the floor.
Years later, in 1990, he found his father visiting him in Maryland measuring off with his steps the size of his son’s bedroom, bathroom and office suite, marveling that it was bigger than their shotgun house, so named because you could stand on the porch and shoot a shotgun straight through.
His late mother, whom he calls “my biggest champion,” together with his high-school football coach, urged him to apply for a summer program at Southern University. After four trips to the campus, they didn’t let him in the program, but they gave him a spot in the dorm in exchange for mowing the lawn. Now he had to come up with tuition. His church raised $37 but that had to be split among three students. He got $12, which he treasured as a sign of love and confidence in him.
He appealed to the state senator who represented his parish, Cecil R. Blair, whom he describes as a “somewhat courtly” gentleman who first dismissed him, saying, “I don’t give scholarships to kids at that school,” meaning the historically Black institution (Blair was white). Two of Leggett’s older siblings had worked on Blair’s farm, but that didn’t seem to move the senator. Yet three weeks later, Leggett was told he’d gotten the stipend. “I was shocked,” he says. It was one of many instances that showed him how complicated issues of race could be.
Years later, after Blair was no longer a senator, he had a fruits and vegetables stand on one of the main roads in the Louisiana parish. It was a popular location, and he told everybody who stopped about Leggett. “He had a sign up with a newspaper clipping of me, and he would say, ‘I made this boy.”
Leggett took notice of the deference paid to people in the military, and he joined the ROTC at Southern University, heading an ROTC brigade at the same time he was elected student body president and leading anti-war protests. “So I was a prospective military officer preparing to go to Vietnam, and at the same time I was leading protests against the war—against myself,” he says.
He served in Vietnam where he attained the rank of captain in the U.S. Army and was awarded the Bronze Star for Service.
None of this of course made him immune from the many slights that Black people have endured, but he believes his life experiences prepared him to navigate the duality of so much of life, and of politics.
He concluded early on that some people are just “pure rotten evil.” There are others who believe in segregation, that it’s the right thing to do, “and they’ll go to the Bible to make their argument,” he says. But when he saw a white man he regarded as “evil” dive into the polluted lake where he grew up and save a Black kid from drowning, the episode stuck with him. There is good, he thought, in everyone.
Alexandria, Louisiana, where he grew up, hasn’t changed much, he says. The streets are more paved, and there’s electricity. His house is no longer there, but the shotgun house next door remains—along with the poverty. He made it out to a better life, as did almost all his siblings. He got a lot of help along the way from people, from government, from various institutions. “A poor kid from Louisiana growing up in a shack, if we could do that for me, we can do that for others.”
And yet we don’t. The disparities laid bare by the pandemic and by the BLM movement have shaken Leggett like so many other Americans.
After George Floyd’s death, and a string of similar deaths of unarmed Black men, he found what “galled me the most” was the woman in Central Park who dialed 911 to falsely report an African-American assailant. “Knowing she’s being filmed, she still felt comfortable saying that to the police, suggests a level of racism we haven’t gotten beyond,” he says. “The system of racism is so powerful she could simply call on the telephone and the people on the other end would come immediately to her aid, and the Black birdwatcher would not be believed.”
The assumptions that led to that encounter are as systemic as the ones that led to Leggett’s brush with the cops. “This wasn’t Louisiana, this wasn’t the South, this was New York,” he says. He talked to his granddaughter’s class right before the pandemic closed everything down, and he told them about the separate water fountains and riding in the back of the bus. “Hearing from someone who experienced those things led to a lot of discussion,” he says. “We’re better than that.”