Underdogs take aim at Curran in the 3rd

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Baltimore's new 3rd District -- a stable middle-class bedrock in Northeast -- three political newcomers are battling an established City Council incumbent, Robert W. Curran, in the Democratic primary.

In their first face-off in a community forum, the New Democratic Club endorsed Curran last week.

The youngest son in a family long prominent in Maryland politics, Curran is hoping to project a campaign image as a hardworking common man who rose from a factory foreman to City Hall.

His three challengers -- Beatrice M. Brown, Michael L. Hamilton and James B. Butler -- face a tough, politically entrenched opponent who has many allies, including Mayor Martin O'Malley. The mayor, who lives in the 3rd District and drew the new political lines there, is married to Curran's niece and is an ardent supporter, praising Curran for doing a "terrific" job on the council.

But that's not stopping Brown and the others from giving it their all in this highly political district, where the mayor launched his rise to City Hall more than a decade ago.

On a recent day, Brown, a 60-year-old school readiness coordinator and grandmother, walked along Harford Road wearing a sun hat in the rain. She managed to persuade those behind the counter at Joe's Record Paradise to display one of her small blue campaign signs.

Brown keeps a tight schedule of door-to-door campaigning. The smaller size of the 3rd District, she said, encouraged her to run in an area she could cover by foot.

A member of the party's State Central Committee for the 43rd Assembly District and a Northeast community leader, Brown said she is seeking to bring more accountability to the council and that she opposes something Curran backs --restrictions on storefront churches on Harford Road.

"Things are not getting done, and the council members have not been accessible or accountable," she said. "I'm a church lady. ... I don't think churches do as much damage as nightclubs and bars."

Michael L. Hamilton, a 1969 graduate of City College, is making education the focus of his first run for office. After serving as president of the Parent-Teacher Association for Northwood Elementary School and Chinquapin Middle School, Hamilton said his nickname is "Mr. PTA."

The special-education teacher and former banker seizes on the citywide redistricting as a sign that times are ripe for change. "I honestly believe the City Council is not responsive to the people who put them in office," Hamilton said. "Fresh voices are needed."

Storefront churches are fine with Hamilton. "I do not want to stand in the way of God," he said.

First-time candidate James Butler, 40, a lawyer in the state attorney general's office, said Currans are everywhere: "I work for Joe (Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Robert Curran's elder brother), and I'm running against Bobby." After six years in the Army as a judge-advocate, Butler returned to Baltimore in 2000. He bought a house in the Beverly Hills neighborhood near Morgan State University, his alma mater.

He has dreamed about becoming U.S. president since he was 6, he said, noting that he has to start somewhere. His platform emphasizes mentoring youths, better neighborhood services and accountability.

Known as "Bobby," Curran, 53, has lived in the same Northwood house since he was 9. He was elected to a City Council seat eight years ago while employed at the Domino's "Sugar House" factory on the waterfront.

In his first two terms, he was involved in three land use projects: reuse of the Memorial Stadium site, building a Giant grocery store in Waverly and the revitalization of Belvedere Square.

An indefatigable meeting-goer, Curran also amassed a legislative record on land use and increasing city parking fines. Together, the bills are expected to reap $50 million or more, he said.

But those major projects were just cut out of the 3rd District. Redistricting means a sixth of the district electorate is new to him and vice versa, he said.

Curran's solution is to concentrate on improving Harford Road, he said.

"As Harford Road goes, so goes community revitalization," Curran said as he points out closed auto, hardware and stationery shops on the district's main street.

He supports an urban renewal plan to improve roads and residential neighborhoods such as Lauraville, noting the plan places restrictions on storefront churches. Such churches are used only on Sunday, he said, and pay no taxes.

Conscious of his heritage -- in addition to his elder brother, another brother and his father were City Council members--Curran said his record is all he wants to run on.

The Republican primary race features two little-known candidates, Carlos M. Torres and Lorraine B. Ponti. Torres is a 38-year-old Hamilton resident employed as a manager for an insulation company.

He ran as a Democrat in 1999 in the city's 1st District. After working on Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign for governor, he said, he changed parties.

Bringing a stricter federal sentencing program to help fight Baltimore crime is Torres' main goal. First tried in Richmond, Va., "Project Exile" requires mandatory minimum sentences and prohibits early release for good behavior, a policy Torres believes would reduce Baltimore's violent gun crimes.

Ponti could not be reached for comment.

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