Curran gets results the old-school way

The Baltimore Sun

When Robert W. Curran bellies up to the bar, he's usually at Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, a smoky neighborhood haunt near the city line where a bottle of Budweiser sells for $1.50. And while he could easily get his hands on suite tickets for the Preakness, he generally prefers to hang around the grandstand - in the upper seats.

Take a look at the city councilman from Baltimore's 3rd District, a man whose entire life has been tied to the rough-and-tumble of local politics - who, according to one fellow councilman, harks "back to the days of back-slapping politicians" - and you might not believe that this is the guy who just made Baltimore's smoking ban a reality.

But even ardent opponents of the ban credit Curran, not only for sponsoring the city's most controversial legislation in a long while but also for maneuvering it through a council that was hesitant to act in an election year. Curran might be an old-school Baltimore pol, but he will be remembered for advancing the ban with a finesse rare in local politics.

"I don't do a lot of e-mail and BlackBerry and that kind of stuff," said Curran, who this year became the council's vice president - the same position his father held in the 1970s. "I go to council people's offices and I sit down with them. I left no stone unturned."

Curran, 56, was born when Baltimore was split, like many other American cities, into political organizations with strong ethnic identities. Political bosses such as Irv Kovens and Jack Pollack ruled the west side, and the D'Alesandro family had Little Italy. The Irish held Northeast Baltimore - and the Irish were dominated by the Currans.

J. Joseph Curran Jr., the councilman's brother, was elected to the General Assembly, became lieutenant governor and served as the attorney general for five terms before retiring this year. Curran's father, J. Joseph Sr., was elected to the City Council in 1955, in 1963 and in every subsequent election until his death in 1977. Another brother, Martin, served in the City Council from 1977 to 1995.

There were so many Currans on the ballot in Northeast Baltimore in 1978 that Curran faced a significant problem: To run for virtually any office meant running against a relative.

Locked out of the limelight, Curran, a 1968 Loyola High School graduate, took a job bagging groceries at the Food Fair in the Northwood Shopping Center and, in his spare time, made political yard signs - a lot of them. When his brother Joseph ran for lieutenant governor with Harry Hughes in 1982, Curran made 10,500 signs in his garage.

"Election time was always a big thing in our household. The dining room table - which is still the dining room table that I have now - the weekend before the election, we'd have stacks and stacks and stacks of ballots, and people were always coming by and picking up their ballots for the polls," said Curran, who has lived in his Original Northwood home since 1959. "I grew up in that."

Father's example

Curran remembers the day in April 1976 when a gunman walked into the office building that was serving as City Hall and killed City Councilman Dominic M. Leone Sr. Curran's father was at Leone's side as he died. Though his father was not shot, doctors believe he suffered a heart attack that was a factor in his death several months later.

"My dad was really a statesman, and I really owe him everything," Curran said.

Winning approval for the smoking ban last month took statesmanship, but also patience, muscle and luck.

Curran faced opposition early from then-Mayor Martin O'Malley - who is married to Curran's niece, Catherine - and he lacked the votes needed to move the measure out of committee for nearly two years. He was forced to pull the bill off the full council's agenda minutes before a vote in December after support died.

Curran's effort was buoyed by the new mayor, Sheila Dixon, who agreed to sign the bill and also lobbied council members who were on the fence. Curran was helped by a vacancy that brought in a new council member, Sharon Green Middleton, who voted for the ban. Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, meanwhile, announced that she would leave the council, and she switched her vote to support the ban.

The shake-ups brought Curran the votes he needed hours before the final vote was scheduled. The council supported the measure 9-2, with three abstentions.

"He put a lot of himself on the line working for it," said Michael J. Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who met with Curran in early December to discuss the ban. "He's a very animated guy, and with this he was full tilt, but kind and polite and passionate."

Statewide ban next?

The smoking prohibitions take effect Jan. 1, and they cover most public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxis. The legislature is considering a statewide ban, and proponents say they believe the city's action created a momentum that will prompt Annapolis lawmakers to pass the bill this year.

While the smoking ban is the most high-profile measure Curran has carried, it is not the one he is most proud of. Curran pointed to the redevelopment of the Memorial Stadium site, along with the subsequent building of the nearby Giant Food grocery store on 33rd Street, as his most important accomplishment. In 2000, Curran helped block a proposal supported by then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer to build a high-tech research park on the site. Now, the property has a mix of recreational facilities, including a YMCA, and mixed-income retirement housing.

"There's not many issues in the City Council that draw a lot of attention. Much of it is zoning issues or water-line breaks," said Curran's brother, J. Joseph Curran Jr. "I think he likes this niche of the City Council, where you're dealing with neighborhoods and issues that are community oriented."

Curran, first elected to the council in 1995, has thick, silver hair and a bushy gray mustache that hides his upper lip. Unlike his more reserved brother, Curran - in his gravelly, boisterous voice - is quick to joke with colleagues or take city officials to task in his stream-of-consciousness style. Asked if he has any hobbies, Curran growls and smiles at the same time: "I enjoy doing short-term speculation over on Rogers Avenue," a reference to the Pimlico Race Course.

Curran will celebrate his 20-year anniversary with his wife, Janice Vetter, this year. He has been on unpaid leave from Domino Sugar since 1996 but draws a $50,000 salary as council vice president.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., elected the same year as Curran, remembers being invited by "Uncle Bob" to a 1996 playoff game at Camden Yards between the Orioles and the Yankees. Mitchell was eager to take his friend up on the offer.

"I'm all excited as we're driving down to Camden Yards, because we're going to have good tickets," Mitchell said, laughing. "They were way out in the left field, all the way out in the bleachers. We were in the last row, up against the fence. It was freezing cold. The rest of our colleagues were in the mayor's box."

Curran, who is planning to run for re-election this year, quit smoking on the night of the 1998 general election. He spent the evening counting returns, taking calls and lighting up. After the polls closed, he suffered an acute attack of bronchitis and drove himself to the hospital. Doctors told him smoking had caused the attack, and he hasn't had a cigarette since.

"This legislation that we passed has one consequence: Lives will be saved," Curran said. "We hit it just at the right time and rode this right to victory."

Robert W. Curran

Position: City Council vice president

Age: 56

Personal: Married to Janice Vetter for nearly 20 years Education: Loyola High School, class of 1968; attended Mount St. Mary's College and the Community College of Baltimore

Political background: Elected to the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee in 1982; first elected to the City Council in 1995

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