After censure, Currie faces rare primary challenge
By By Luke Broadwater and The Baltimore Sun
Apr 19, 2014 at 10:31 AM
Melony Griffith is in District Heights making her pitch to voters. The veteran Prince George's County delegate is telling them about her 15 years of legislative experience, her expertise on state pension issues and her plans to boost the economy.
There's one thing Griffith is conspicuously not mentioning: her opponent, Ulysses S. Currie's, trial on corruption charges and subsequent censure by the Maryland Senate.
For the first time in 12 years, Currie, still a towering Annapolis figure, is facing a Democratic primary challenger. But if voters were expecting the words "bribery" and "extortion" to be heard on the campaign trail as often they were in federal court, they would be mistaken.
As she waves signs and smiles at a busy intersection, Griffith says she's running a "nice" campaign against a man she considers her friend.
"I've got a devil on one shoulder telling me to go negative, but an angel on the other saying to stay positive," says Griffith, 50. "I don't believe I gain anything by tearing someone else down."
There's perhaps another reason. Political analysts say Currie, a 77-year-old former educator, is well-respected in the 25th District. And while he was censured in the General Assembly, he was found not guilty by a federal jury. Harping on the charges, some say, could feel like piling on.
"He's always come across as this very courtly gentleman," says David Lublin, a government professor at American University. "It can look bad when younger people are picking on older people. It's definitely one of the races to watch in the state."
Griffith, who is running on a platform of stimulating business and funding infrastructure and schools, said she met with Currie to tell him she was getting in. She says her candidacy kept two other potential challengers who would have run more negative campaigns out of the race.
"I hope when this is over, we'll be able to continue our friendship," Griffith says.
Currie did not respond to requests for comment. But Del. Dereck E. Davis, who is running on a slate with Currie, says Currie is taking the rare challenge very seriously.
"He's out there every day knocking on doors," Davis said. "I think he has a lot still to offer. It's nothing against her, but I see no reason for change."
Currie, who was first elected to the General Assembly in 1986, has a notable fundraising advantage over Griffith, records show. He has $112,000 in his campaign fund, including donations from Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Griffith has $39,000, including a donation from the development firm the Cordish Cos.
After a six-week trial in 2011, a federal jury acquitted Currie and two Shoppers grocery chain executives of extortion and bribery charges. Currie was accused of using a consulting contract to conceal a scheme in which he accepted payment from Shoppers in exchange for legislative favors. Prominent Marylanders testified to his character, including Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who called Currie a "man of strong integrity."
Despite the verdict, the Senate voted unanimously to censure Currie for numerous violations of ethics laws stemming from his failure to disclose that he was being paid by Shoppers when he sought help for the company from state agencies.
Currie, who resigned as chairman of the powerful Budget Committee, apologized to the Senate for his conduct and voted along with his 46 colleagues for the resolution of censure.
He was the first senator to be disciplined since Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat expelled in 1998 amid allegations that he had used his office for personal gain.
Davis, who says the slate is touting Currie's long track record of good work for Prince George's, said he doesn't believe Currie's legal troubles will cost him many votes.
"I don't think it will be enough to impact the election one way or another," Davis says. "He supported the censure. It was an acknowledgment that there was an error in judgment. During his 28 years he's done enough good to outweigh any questionable decisions."
Political analysts predict that Currie will prevail in the June 24 primary.
Griffith "has a chance, because of what has happened with Currie over the past few years," says Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College. "But I suspect in the end, it isn't enough for his constituents to say to him, 'It's time to pack it in.' He's known as someone with tremendous seniority who has delivered for the district."
Lublin says the accusations against Currie weren't as attention-grabbing as those leveled against former Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Leslie.
"What Currie did is hazier than stuffing thousands in your bra," Lublin says. "Censuring is a term that goes over most people's heads."
But community activist Belinda Queen Howard, vice president of the Coalition of Central Prince George's County Community Organizations, says she believes Currie's censure makes him a less effective legislator. She says she's backing Griffith.
"It's time for the good old boys to move on," Howard says. "She has the grace and faith to win this election."