News & Politics

Doug Duncan’s Comeback

Depression knocked him out of the Maryland governor’s race. Here’s what it’s like to be able to smile again.

Douglas Duncan’s office at the University of Maryland is decorated with mementos of his past. There’s a photo of the AFI Silver Theatre, a cornerstone of the Silver Spring revitalization he shepherded as Montgomery County executive. There’s a shot of the 2002 press conference where Duncan and Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose announced that the snipers who had been terrorizing the region had been caught.

“And up there,” Duncan says, pointing to a shelf, “are all my crazy-person-of-the-year awards.”

He’s referring to plaques he received from mental-health groups after he announced he was suffering from depression. “Actually,” he says, adopting a more serious tone, “it’s amazing how many lives you can touch by just standing up and saying, ‘I’m going to get help.’ ”

Duncan stunned even his inner circle in June 2006 when—amid a tough primary battle with Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley for the Maryland governor’s seat—he withdrew from the race because of depression.

“I’d known for some time I wasn’t well,” Duncan says. “I kept telling people in the campaign, ‘I don’t feel right. I have this pit in my stomach that won’t go away.’ People said, ‘Oh, it’s just the stress of the campaign.’ ”

But the feeling got worse until it dawned on him one Saturday, sitting in church, that he’d better get help. He went to see a psychiatrist that Monday and three days later bowed out of the race.

As he finished his term, the three-time county executive and former Rockville mayor worked on treating his depression, had hip-replacement surgery, and kept a low profile. In April 2007 he was hired at the University of Maryland as chief finance and administrative officer of the College Park campus.

“I always saw myself as a community builder,” he says, “somebody who makes people proud of where they live and work. I’m doing the same thing at the University of Maryland that I did in Rockville and in Montgomery County—trying to make this a better place so people will want to come here.”

On his plate are plans for transforming the East Campus, on the eastern side of Route 1, into a town center, and issues surrounding construction of a Purple Line—either light rail or bus rapid transit—that would run through the campus.

In his office, the bearish Duncan—perhaps a bit more bearish than before—talked about his depression and his life as a private citizen. At 52, the father of five—one a Marine who just left for his second tour in Iraq—recently bought his first lawn mower. He says he now has weekends free to do yard work at his Rockville home, take walks with his wife, Barbara, and just “do what normal people do.”

Did it take you a while to stop thinking of yourself as an elected official?

No. I left in December of ’06, and I remember thinking that winter I was glad they had somebody else to call to remove their snow—though now I’m responsible for snow removal at the campus and am dealing with the Purple Line. Some issues never leave me.

Part of it was I wasn’t well. I needed to get healthy, so I just focused on that for a while. The transition was a little different than I think most elected officials have.

How long did it take to get a handle on the depression?

It took me a while to get where I felt truly better. I was still doing things, but it was a struggle. The hip surgery gave me another reason to keep out of the public eye and just recover. It was about six to eight months before I thought the depression was totally gone.

What was the most effective treatment for you?

The medication was a huge help. The first one they gave me, Lexapro, worked; I could notice improvement over time, but I wasn’t happy with the side effects. Then we tried Wellbutrin, which didn’t work at all. And now Prozac is working really well.

I don’t have nearly the lows I had before. I feel better than I have in years. It’s nice to be able to smile again, see joy in little things.

Any regrets about dropping out?

None at all. That I’m alive to talk about it is the most important thing.

Did the stress of the gubernatorial campaign contribute to your depression?

I think I had been in a chronic depression for some time, and the campaign brought it to the forefront. I would still be chronically depressed and able to do my job well, but not happy. Having it elevated caused me to understand what was going on and get treatment.

It must have been hard to give speeches, talk to people, go to events, ask for money.

Yeah, because you just think of what a failure you are, how worthless you are, and yet you’re asking people to support you. When people come up to me, people who are struggling with it or whose family members are, I feel so bad for them. It is the worst thing I’ve gone through. The hip replacement was a walk in the park compared to the depression. I describe it as moving to hell for a couple of years.

The weird thing is it was very painful to drink anything cold. So I’d have to drink water and sodas at room temperature. I have no idea what that was all about. If I drank something cold, it just hurt.

And now you can?

Oh, yeah, the colder the better. I mean, it’s these little, weird things. I couldn’t remember names at all—which, when you’re a politician, is not a good thing. Faces were fine, but names—as the depression got worse, I just couldn’t make a connection. It was like I was in a daze.

Have you continued with therapy?

No; I did that for a while, and my therapist basically said, “You don’t need me anymore. You’re fine.” So I see a psychiatrist about every three months for a medicine check.

Have you found that depression isn’t understood by people?

The one thing that surprised me was how many people suffer from it in silence. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said they’ve suffered from it—politicians, journalists, people you would never expect. And a lot of them have talked about their family members. You hear a lot of it from women, but for men to stand up and say that, I think it’s kind of unusual.

One of the nicest things was that within two days after I announced how depressed I was, the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County got more than a thousand calls from people looking for help.

Were there people who were there for you and people who weren’t?

People who knew me—my circle of friends and advisers—were very supportive. There was some discussion about trying to hang in there and “take your medicine for a couple weeks and you’ll be fine.” But you never know if it takes two days, two weeks, two years. I was convinced I was going to be the next governor if I was healthy, but I couldn’t run the campaign I needed to run because I was not healthy.

We had people saying, “Do we need to say you’re depressed?” I’m like, “Just tell the truth.”

Is it hard to see someone else as governor?

No. There’s a new county executive; there’s a new governor. I just keep my things to myself and spend a lot of time in Prince George’s County. I’m working with the local elected officials, the state delegations, and others, trying to make things better—not just on the campus but in the county.

Do you notice differences between Prince George’s and Montgomery?

I think there is a different culture and different expectations in Prince George’s County. I get frustrated with what I call the culture of low expectations in Prince George’s. I talked to [former Prince George’s County executive] Wayne Curry about this quite a bit. That’s something he fought. He said, “We’re not going to be the dumping ground for the region anymore, and we want luxury homes built here and all that.” I was his partner in Montgomery at the time, and I didn’t really understand the true depth of what he was talking about until I got here.

We’ve got the Route 1 corridor, which particularly in College Park is not a pretty place. It scares people away from coming to the university. It’s got a bunch of abandoned and torn-down buildings. We’re trying to improve it, yet some of the elected officials here have told me, “Everyone’s fine with the way it is. Why change anything?”

We’ve talked about the need to bring in better restaurants. In College Park there are a lot of sandwich shops but not a great restaurant. We recruit faculty and grad students, and sometimes you take them to dinner or lunch—you’ve got to leave College Park to do that. An elected official told me, “We have Applebee’s—what’s the problem?”

I say, “You know, there are things we can do to make improvements here. We should be working on that.” And they’re like, “We can’t ask the state for that.” It’s almost as if sometimes people are conditioned not to ask for anything because they expect they’ll get rejected, instead of saying, “We deserve this.”

We’re doing the East Campus here. It’s a major economic project for the city of College Park and Prince George’s County, and we’re getting a lot of resistance from the city. When we did Silver Spring, the project was about $400 million; we got $35 million from the state. The campus project is $750 million, and all they’re really willing to ask the state for is about $3 million to help move the Birchmere here.

Can you change that culture?

I hope. In the local community here, there isn’t a real sense of partnership with others. It’s more “I’ll take care of my business, and you’re on your own.” We have to be a partner with the city and the county to get anything done. There’s a lot of distrust between the surrounding community and the university.

What I hope happens is the East Campus project breaks new ground here, literally and figuratively, and we create a new sense of partnership with the city and the county.

Do you see your role as something bigger than just an administrator?

Yeah. [University of Maryland president] Dan Mote has said it’s not just the daily operations; it’s the relations with the community. So I do see myself as an ambassador for the university. I think the local elected officials here see me as one of them. I’m not some university official; I’m a former elected official who knows what it’s like to run a local government.

Are you still following issues in Montgomery County?

Not too much. I get calls every now and then. I got called by the press on the bathroom issue in Montgomery, where the exec is building a private bathroom at enormous expense, which I think is ridiculous.

How about in state politics? Do you look at what the governor’s doing and think, “Gee, I would have made a different decision”?

I’m a state employee. I’m not allowed to speak about the governor.

Would you consider running for public office again?

I don’t know. At some point I might.

How soon do you think you would think about it?

Who knows? I’m having too much fun here. But maybe in the future.

How’s your commute?

It’s not bad. Once I get off I-270, I’m usually doing pretty good. Bad days, it’s 45 minutes, but some days I can make it in under a half an hour. When we make the Purple Line, I can ride that.

What’s going to happen with the Purple Line?

We’ve reached agreement on several stations around here and are working with the Maryland Transit Administration to determine the best route through the campus. I expect we’ll reach agreement sometime this summer or fall, and then they’ll pick an alignment route and nothing will happen for 20 years because they don’t have any money.

Do you think the Intercounty Connector will be finished?

Yeah, I do. It’s under construction. The joke is that the Purple Line is the new ICC: talked about forever.

You always cared about making sure the Washington suburbs got their fair share from the Maryland legislature. Now that the governor is again someone from Baltimore, how do you think the suburbs are faring?

I’m not sure I’m allowed to comment on that.

Is it still an issue?

Getting your fair share is always an issue. This year Montgomery County is getting less state aid than it did last year, which is very unusual. But I’ll leave that to [county executive] Ike Leggett to answer.

Is the Montgomery County biotech corridor all it could be?

I’m worried about the future of that. If I had stayed as county executive, I think my next big project would have been a major redo of the 270 corridor and our Shady Grove Life Sciences Center to bring it up to world-class standards. It has done very well. It has made an international reputation for itself. But I worry that we’re starting to slide a little bit. And as companies outside the region purchase our big companies here—like AstraZeneca buying MedImmune—that’s always a cause for worry.

Are we still doing enough to promote the start-ups? I think in Montgomery County right now there’s an attitude that we’re just going to shut things down. We’re repeating the mistakes of the early ’90s that we shut things down when there’s a recession, which makes the recession that much worse.

What are you proudest of from your time as county executive?

Everything feeds off a good education system, so I’m proud of the support I gave to our schools, working in partnership with [Montgomery County school superintendent] Jerry Weast, and I hope we don’t slide backward now. I think we’re in danger of that. Montgomery County didn’t get the school-construction dollars it was promised. There’s a real worry there.

Do you often go to Silver Spring and walk around?

Yeah, I like to go to Silver Spring and just sit and watch people. When we first started doing it, my wife would say, “Where did all these people come from?” I said, “Well, they either went to Adams Morgan or Bethesda or they just sat in their homes, and now they’re enjoying their own downtown.” I still have the pictures in my mind of the mess it was before.

And every time I’m on the Beltway, I get a kick out of the sign that says strathmore music hall/north bethesda conference center. Two controversial projects, but when they opened, everybody took credit for them.

Do you feel like you’ve changed a lot since you left the campaign?

No, I’m back to the person I used to be. When I was realizing what was wrong with me and deciding to drop out, one of my sons was upset. He knew I had wanted to run for governor for some time, and he didn’t want to see me drop out. Another one of my sons said to him, “You don’t live here. You moved out when you went to college, and you don’t live here. You don’t see Dad, and he’s not Dad anymore.”

I think I’ve become Dad again. If I could lose weight, I’d be perfect.

This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here. 

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].