Broadening horizons temper Curry's fire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a hot May day, and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry looks relaxed in an off-white linen suit. But his staff is displeased.

If he's going to be photographed by the newspaper, he really should be in executive gray. A top aide pleads with him to let a driver swing by his house to pick up a dark suit jacket. Curry resists, pouts, then relents.

That he gives in for the sake of image - the same man whose headstrong nature is infamous in the county - is a telling sign that Curry is indeed positioning himself for statewide office in 2002.

The ambitious 50-year-old lawyer from suburban Washington says he's seriously considering a race against Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer or Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., both veterans of the Baltimore political establishment.

And he hasn't ruled out a Democratic primary race for governor against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose popularity in early polls could frighten off the most determined opponents.

"I'm not going to foreclose any possibility," Curry said during an interview last week in his office, where pictures of him with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore dot the walls. "I can stack resumes with anyone."

Broad support

His support, he added, is already broad: "I got the damnedest bedfellows. I got African-Americans and I got the business folks, who are mostly white males."

A moneyed and well-connected cast of hosts for Curry's forthcoming $1,000-a-head fund-raiser - including former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, bakery mogul John Paterakis, Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder and lawyer Robert Linowes - suggests that Curry's confidence is warranted.

"Anybody who dismisses Wayne as a serious candidate for statewide office clearly underestimates his potential," said Schmoke, who is Curry's entree to Baltimore voters.

Political pollster Keith Haller agrees. "Very few political candidates can command the public stage like Wayne Curry," he said, comparing him to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "At a minimum, he must be taken seriously as a statewide contender."

Some politics-watchers warn that Townsend is unbeatable and that Curry, whose name is relatively unknown north of Prince George's, cannot compete against such Baltimore luminaries as Curran, 69, who says will run again, and Schaefer, 79, who won't say what his plans are.

A statewide poll for The Sun earlier this year found Curry's name recognition was 34 percent, compared with Townsend's 85 percent. In a hypothetical Democratic primary, 59 percent of voters chose Townsend and 8 percent chose Curry. The poll showed her trouncing him in his own county.

But Schmoke and others are not shaken by early polls or conventional political wisdom.

After all, Schmoke pointed out at a pro-Curry organizational breakfast last month, "back in 1994, we helped a virtually unknown candidate from Prince George's County become known." He was referring to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whom Curry succeeded as county executive.

Career "cross-point"

Term limits prohibit Curry from running again for county executive. But he says he probably wouldn't seek re-election even if he could. He's at a "cross-point" in his career, he says. He'll decide whether to run - and for what - based on what his own polls tell him. He'll also consult his wife and two children, ages 5 and 7. If he thinks he'd be neglecting them, he could go back to being a prosperous development lawyer.

In talking to Curry though, the latter option seems unlikely. He's too riled up about what he describes as his duty, both to African-Americans and to the state. "I sort of symbolize the possibilities of a community that's come a long way," he said.

He presides over one of the few jurisdictions in America that over the past 20 years has become more affluent as it became majority African-American. "Prince George's County has a novel demographic," he said. "I recognize that there's a duty that comes with that. I can demonstrate that I can talk the king's English and the parking lot English."

Curry, burly and handsome, speaks carefully about race, but what he calls "the tender issue" has clearly driven him to succeed.

Expected to fail

In stories told with almost mesmerizing animation, Curry laughs and rages at those people, mostly whites, who he says have expected him to disappoint, fail, crack or pander.

When he was working as a development and zoning attorney, he recalls the "where's the lawyer?" questions when he showed up at meetings. And he triumphantly recounts the time he met with skeptical Wall Street executives worried about the county's finances.

"I said to them, 'I know what you're thinking: I'm new. I'm a Democrat. And I'm black. To you, that means I'm financially disabled,'" Curry said.

In fact, even Curry's critics acknowledge his fiscal acumen. He is credited with turning around the county's $137 million deficit discovered soon after his election in 1994, preserving the county's AA bond rating and effectively expanding the tax base with projects such as the Redskins football stadium in Landover and National Harbor, a $560 million hotel-entertainment complex on the Potomac River.

But back when he was running for county executive, his first stab at political office, some whites doubted that Curry could do the job and threatened to move out if he won, said Kenneth Michael, who owns a commercial real estate company in Prince George's.

Michael employed Curry more than 20 years ago, and paid for his final year of tuition at University of Maryland School of Law.

"Number one, he's a business person. It brings a whole different insight to politics," Michael said. "He's probably the only black in the country who's Democratic but conservative - fiscally conservative."

Curry was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up with his four siblings in a black Prince George's neighborhood called South Cheverly. He went to local schools, where he sculpted and played violin.

In 1972, he graduated with a psychology degree from Western Maryland College - one of 12 blacks at the school - and went to work in a day-care center.

Then he took off on a road trip, driving around the country for about eight months in his Volkswagen Beetle. Once he got home, he needed to repay the friends who had lent him travel money.

Moccasins and Afro

He landed a job in then-County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.'s office, showing up for his first day in a flowered shirt, moccasins and an 8-inch Afro. His job was to respond to citizen complaints about the public safety department, including the police. Eventually he cut his hair, got a suit and became one of Kelly's top aides.

He learned about race relations - "that stereotypes are generally wrong" - and about the machinations of politics.

By the time Curry became county executive, Prince George's, the second-largest county in the state, had changed considerably from the mostly white, rural county of his youth. The 2000 census reported that 63 percent of Prince George's residents are African-American, up from 14 percent in 1970. Statewide, blacks make up about 28 percent of the population.

Exciting prospect

Although Curry does not frame his achievements or his ambitions solely in racial terms, his stature as a potential statewide candidate is an undeniably exciting prospect for African-Americans.

Alvin Thornton, a political scientist at Howard University and former president of the Prince George's school board, says Curry helped diminish the control of the county's "historical political machine," essentially a white power structure.

"It was the counterpart to the Schaefer/Baltimore machine," Thornton said. "There was a close alliance between real estate interest, lawyer interest, development interest and politics. Curry was smart enough and strong enough to build a new coalition," which helped open government and business to blacks.

Curry has not escaped criticism, however. To balance the county budget in 1995, his administration strained relations with unions by laying off more than 100 county employees and renegotiating contracts.

The Police Department, which has grown under Curry's administration, has been under federal investigation for allegations of excessive force. (Curry points out that his office asked for an FBI probe, but some have accused him of reacting slowly to the problems.)

He was applauded for driving a hard bargain with the Redskins for the stadium project and refusing to spend much county money on it, but was later accused of steering building contracts to friends.

Curry has gained praise for helping reverse court-mandated busing of schoolchildren, and for fighting hard to secure state money to build 26 schools. But substandard facilities, poor test scores and crowding are still a common complaint in the county.

Education emphasis

"Education, education, education continues to be the number one concern of people in Prince George's," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"Wayne has not been a success in managing the county school system. So that's going to dog him," Miller said.

That Miller and Curry do not get along, to put it gently, is well-known in the county and in Annapolis. They have tried to thwart each other in past elections. With an expression just short of a smirk, Curry says he has not ruled out a run for state Senate, meaning he would take on Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

Curry and Glendening, too, have fought publicly over the budget deficit Glendening left for him, and over Curry's insistence that the state has shortchanged distressed county schools.

Even among his friends, Curry's "style" is a frequent theme. Some say he's too autocratic, his administration too cloistered. He has a long memory for slights, they say, and can be prickly and brazen if crossed. Michael, his former boss, says, "He's absolutely perfect, except he's not as humble as I'd like him to be."

Asked whether enemies in high places would hinder a statewide campaign, Curry said, "There are lots of people I get along with. I may not be obsequious and fawning, but ...

"Some people say they like my personality. At least I got one."

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