The Bark of an Underdog: Doug Duncan in His Own Words
interviewed by Sandra Olivetti Martin
Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan figures running Maryland’s most populous county for a dozen years is on-the-job training for running Maryland as governor.
To get his chance, he’s got until September to convince Democratic voters that he and not the guy who’s been running Maryland’s biggest city, Martin O’Malley of Baltimore is the man for the job. Unless Duncan quits before then, which he vows not to do.
He’s collected a crab basket full of endorsements. But his bank account is not so full. O’Malley raised $4.3 million last year, close to Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s $4.6 million, while Duncan raised only about $1.3 million. Polls show that voters are not yet convinced, with Duncan trailing O’Malley.
Duncan, however, says he’s happy as an underdog, because that’s how he’s always run and won. Once voters hear him, he says, they recognize him as a man whose word is as good as his record.
We’ve been listening so long that we’ve got parts of his stump speech memorized. Last week, when the county executive called us for a chat, we asked our own questions, starting with Chesapeake Bay. Some of the answers, we’d heard before.
Bay Weekly Montgomery County is a pretty place, as well as Maryland’s Number One pumpkin-growing county, but it’s pretty far from Chesapeake Bay, which is the center of life for Bay Weekly readers. What’s your personal relationship with Chesapeake Bay?
Doug Duncan I’m a native of Maryland and spent my whole life here. Chesapeake Bay is a huge piece of who we are as a people. The environmental health of the Bay tells you all you need to know about the rest of the environment. My worry is that if we don’t change things, we’ll be the generation of Marylanders who turn over a dead Bay to our grandkids. We’ve got to redouble our efforts.
Bay Weekly How about personally? Have you spent much time in and along the Bay?
Doug Duncan What’s been real nice has been going out on fishing trips with my sons not all at the same time; I have four of them. It’s a great family experience, a great way to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Especially my oldest, Michael, he caught rockfish and really enjoyed it.
Bay Weekly We’ve heard you criticize Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s Open Space policies. But now it looks like in this budget he’s restoring Open Space money he’d sidetracked to pay other government bills. Does that take away a campaign issue for you?
Doug Duncan Not at all. I don’t think people should trust an election year conversion. Now he’s saying, Don’t pay attention to everything I did in my first three years. He diverted $370 million in Open Space money from land preservation. He abolished the office of Smart Growth. He doesn’t have the credentials to convince voters he’s sincere. My worry is that after the election, he goes back to what he did before, slashing funding for preserving Open Space and trying to sell off parkland again.
In the last three weeks, Bob Ehrlich has starred in his own TV show, Extreme Makeover, Maryland Edition.
Bay Weekly The flush tax is recognized as a tremendous success. Isn’t that achievement a Nixon-goes-to-China type of thing, possible only under Republican leadership?
Doug Duncan I do commend him for the flush tax. But we need to do a little more than wastewater treatment. You can’t [get far] if you raise $120 million over two years with the flush tax and take away $370 million from land preservation. That’s one step forward and three backward. Even with the flush tax, we’re worse off than when he took office because of how he’s decimated land preservation.
We need a governor who’s going to take care of the environment every day of the year, not just election day.
Bay Weekly There’s been enormous debate in recent weeks on same-sex marriage. What do you tell those people who feel strongly that there ought to be a Constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage?
Doug Duncan I don’t support same-sex marriage. [But I do support] civil unions, protections like medical decision-making and benefits we provide for same-sex couples in Montgomery County.
Rather than rush to a constitutional amendment, let’s let the appeals process take its course and let the courts have their review.
Bay Weekly What do you think of Gov. Ehrlich’s entrance into the debate, now that he’s pushing to take the issue onto the ballot?
Doug Duncan I think it really fits in with what he’s tried to do: Pick a fight, blame others, be divisive rather than bringing people together to solve problems. The people of Maryland want a governor who’s going to put ego aside.
Bay Weekly Senators Mike Miller and Ray Dyson are among those who say they want a settled gubernatorial candidate so as not to siphon away resources from the race against Gov. Ehrlich. What do you tell those who say, Mr. County Executive, This is not just your year?
Doug Duncan [Laughter] That’s not their decision. It’s the decision of the voters of Maryland.
When did Democrats become afraid of debate? I’m confident when they look at my record, the promises I’ve made and kept or didn’t keep in his [O’Malley’s] case they’re going to side with me when it comes down to election day in September.
They [the Democratic leadership] did this four years ago, Mike Miller and others handpicked a candidate, and she didn’t win. They gave the voters a flawed candidate, and they’re trying to do the same this time. When a race is contested, you come out much stronger.
Bay Weekly If it becomes clear to you prior to September that you’re not getting support, would you step out the race?
Doug Duncan No. I’m getting a lot of support, tremendous support growing every month. I feel very good about the race and where we are headed. We’re going to have a great debate here. The conventional wisdom in Annapolis has me by far the best governor of the three. But How are you going to win, they say. I say, voters have an innate sense.
Bay Weekly Do you think, as a lot of people do, that Martin O’Malley just wants to run for governor so he can run for president?
Doug Duncan [Laughter] You’d have to ask him that. I do think he has a failed record and has not kept his promises to the voters.
Bay Weekly We’re seeing a Republican demographic trend in Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland. How will you appeal to Republican-leaning Independents?
Doug Duncan The way I’ve done in Montgomery County, appealing to swing voters by talking about putting education first, talking about the right kinds of jobs, technology and not gambling jobs. As those swing voters look at who’s got the best vision for a brighter Maryland, they’ll come down on my side.
Bay Weekly So governor is a job you’re going to have to fight for.
Doug Duncan Anything worth doing is always difficult. In every race, I’ve entered, I’ve been told Don’t run, you can’t win. I haven’t lost yet. There’s a history of upsets for governor in Maryland, and the people of Maryland respond to the underdog as someone they believe.
In Montgomery County, downtown Silver Spring had gone from being the county’s economic center to blight. When I said we’re going to fix it, people laughed. They said it was political suicide. I kept saying, If we don’t fix it, blight will spread up Georgia Avenue to one-third of the county. I said that alternative is unacceptable. After 10 years of hard work, we did it. Silver Spring is one of the bright spots in urban America.
I have never paid attention to conventional wisdom. Being one of 13 kids, you learn you’ve got to partner to get anything done and put ego aside. We’ve got to solve problems. The lesson of Silver Spring is that when you bring people together, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish if we put our minds to it.