Ending months of speculation, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that he will not seek re-election to a sixth term, bringing to a close a political career spanning a half-century.
Curran's decision is expected to prompt a frenzied bid for the position from those who have waited for the announcement. Because the state attorney general advises the governor on legal matters, the move also frees Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, his son-in-law and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, from political attacks about potential conflicts of interest involved in having Curran in the state's top legal office.
A former lieutenant governor and state senator who is widely regarded as one of the most respected politicians in Maryland, Curran, 74, said he would inform his staff of his decision this morning. He said he wants to spend more time with his family, perhaps write a book, lecture students and go back into private practice. O'Malley's gubernatorial bid did not drive his decision to leave office, Curran said.
"I'd rather have people say, 'Hey Joe, why did you leave so early? You could've won again,'" Curran said in an interview in his Baltimore office. "I'd rather have them say that than, 'Why are you staying around so long?' ... I feel good about what we've done."
Still, Curran, a soft-spoken man who has taken groundbreaking social stances over his career, such as working to overturn a state ban on interracial marriage and opposing the Vietnam War, would have faced a campaign with dynamics unlike any he has endured if both he and O'Malley had become Democratic nominees this fall. He will leave office as the longest-serving elected attorney general in state history.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch lauded Curran for conducting himself "as a gentleman and a statesman throughout his entire career," but noted that Curran was well aware that Republicans would inevitably question how he and O'Malley could work together.
"I think he certainly felt that there would be the perception of a conflict and that certainly people would raise that," Busch said. "I believe in Joe's mind he believes he could've done the job without compromising his principles."
O'Malley said yesterday that he encouraged Curran to make his own decision, regardless of the gubernatorial campaign.
"He's been a real inspiration to me day in and day out," O'Malley said, calling Curran a political and personal role model. "I'm happy for him that he's come to a decision, and I support him in the decision."
Curran is the second of the Democrats' three most prominent elder statesmen to relinquish their offices this election cycle. Paul S. Sarbanes, 73, the longest-serving U.S. senator in state history, announced last year that he would not seek another term. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, 84, a former governor and Baltimore mayor, is running for re-election, but he faces two primary challenges and growing discontent among some supporters who say it is time for a change.
J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, the attorney general's son, called his father's decision "bittersweet." He said Curran's retirement from the attorney general's office will not mark an end to his career.
"I think his main passion is the law, and he'll find a role to continue to be an advocate for either clients or the public in some fashion," Max Curran said.
Others praised Curran - a devout Roman Catholic who learned the business of big-city politics from his father, a Baltimore councilman - for being among the last of a generation of thoughtful liberals not afraid of the label.
"I am partisan, I am a Democrat," Curran said yesterday, his office walls and shelves covered with framed family photos, old newspapers and memorabilia. "And yes, it's true, I do advocate some positions that are liberal. Nothing wrong with being liberal."
But it is Curran's principles, not his politics, that make him a standout, said Stephen H. Sachs, Curran's predecessor in the office. "To borrow a phrase, if there's one fixed star in the Maryland political constellation during my career it's been the unshakeable integrity of Joe Curran," Sachs said.
John Kane, chairman of the Maryland GOP, added: "I think Joe Curran has served with honor and distinction over his long career in Maryland."
Born in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1931, Curran moved as a small child with his parents to Baltimore, where his father was born. They settled in a rowhouse in the heavily Catholic Govans neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore.
Curran's first memory of his father's political life was his 1946 campaign for the House of Delegates during which Curran, then a teen, would hand out literature. Though his father lost - by 72 votes, Curran noted yesterday - he would win a seat on the Democratic State Central Committee. The elder Curran became chairman of the group and was later appointed to the City Council.
The family's mini-dynasty - Curran's brother, Martin "Mike" Curran, once said, "We're the brown-bag Kennedys" - was launched.
Curran served in the Air Force in Korea and Japan and graduated from the University of Baltimore and the University of Baltimore School of Law.
As a member of the Young Democrats in law school, he was coaxed into running for the House of Delegates in 1958. Neighborhood door-knocking paid off with a victory.
Four years later, Curran won a seat in the Maryland Senate, where he would serve for 20 years. In 1967, his Baltimore home was picketed for his support of open-housing laws requiring the sale of homes to people regardless of color. That year, he also became chairman of the powerful Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, a position that that gave him a forum to advocate for the repeal of Maryland's law against interracial marriage.
About that time, Curran reconsidered his position on abortion and broke with his church. In 1968, his committee passed a bill liberalizing abortion laws. A decade later, Curran voted for Medicaid funding for abortions - a position that prompted his parish priest to criticize him from the pulpit. Curran later bragged that he carried the precinct anyway in his next election.
Curran ran for Congress in 1968 on a platform opposing the Vietnam War. He lost - "by a whisker," he said, of less than 1,000 votes - to incumbent Rep. George H. Fallon. Curran attributes the loss to "a horrific rain" that fell on Election Day, not his anti-war sentiments.
Curran lost a second congressional bid in 1976 to Barbara A. Mikulski, now a U.S. senator.
In 1982, Gov. Harry R. Hughes dumped his lieutenant governor, Samuel W. Bogley III, and tapped Curran as a running mate because of his legislative experience. They served a four-year term together.
"I knew he was totally honest," Hughes said.
In 1986, Curran won the attorney general's job. Over the past 20 years, he has railed against slot machine gambling, the death penalty, teen smoking and handgun violence, a particularly personal endeavor. Curran's father died of complications of a heart attack suffered after a 1976 shooting at City Hall. The elder Curran was not shot; a councilman was killed and another wounded when a disgruntled constituent stormed their offices.
Curran has initiated proposals to curb child sex abuse and was a leading proponent of a 2004 law making it a crime to solicit a minor by computer or other venue.
He has argued two cases successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court and represented Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican incumbent whom O'Malley is seeking to unseat, in a lawsuit brought by The Sun, among other matters. The First Amendment case addressed whether the administration could ban executive branch employees from speaking to two reporters.
Curran said the next phase of his life and career will include some campaigning - in his free time, to comply with laws governing the behavior of elected officials - for O'Malley, who is married to Catherine Curran O'Malley, the attorney general's daughter and a Baltimore District Court judge.
Over coffee and doughnuts this morning at the Tremont Plaza Hotel, he will thank his staff for years of support.
"Sometimes it might be better to say you're at the top, you've got the greatest office. Maybe you want to be remembered at that level," he said.
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
1958: Elected to House of Delegates from Baltimore.
1962: Elected to state Senate.
1968: Runs for Congress as anti-war candidate, challenging incumbent Rep. George H. Fallon; loses by fewer than 1,000 votes.
1978: Having become a supporter of abortion rights, votes in favor of Medicaid funding for abortions.
1982: Gov. Harry R. Hughes dumps Lt. Gov. Samuel L. Bogley from ticket, selects Curran as running mate. Hughes wins second term, and Curran becomes lieutenant governor.
1986: Wins three-way primary for attorney general and is unopposed in general election.
1995: Issues study that opposes slots and casino gambling.
2003: Calls for abolition of death penalty because of risk that it could lead to the execution of an innocent person.