Curran draws praise, blame for independence

October 29, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith

Some say he's great, an independent man in the world of political connections, money and influence.

Others say he's ungrateful, a man who used the system -- and then stood hypocritically above it all.

He is J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's attorney general, a former lieutenant governor, a former state senator and delegate from Baltimore, son and namesake of a Northeast Baltimore political boss -- a man with a political pedigree that might have stamped him indelibly as a machine pol or hack.

Somehow Mr. Curran has escaped these labels.

"He should have been a priest," Edgar P. Silver, the lobbyist, former Baltimore Circuit Court judge and intimate of powerful Maryland political figures, observed with some disdain.

Now seeking a second term as attorney general, the 59-year-old Mr. Curran faces a relatively unknown but sharply critical Republican opponent, Edward L. Blanton Jr. The Towson lawyer has lately seized on the attorney general's suggestion that some drugs might be legalized as a last resort to diminish traffic by eliminating the profit.

The Republican candidate also has challenged the vigor of Mr. Curran's office, criticism in which he is joined by Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer has said he would like to hire his own lawyer -- so unhappy is he with Mr. Curran's representation.

Mr. Blanton finds Mr. Curran "laid-back" and "reactive," a man who has had a lifetime of political opportunities and little in the way of accomplishments to show for them.

"He's not a very well-thought-of lawyer," Mr. Blanton said, citing Mr. Curran's performance before the U.S. Supreme Court on a case involving the permissibility of videotape testimony in child abuse cases. Newspaper reports indicated Mr. Curran's arguments were roughly treated by the high court justices.

Mr. Curran's defense is that he won the case.

The attorney general continues to encounter the annoyance of those, including Governor Schaefer, who feel he has not played by the political rules unless they suited him.

Mr. Schaefer has fumed about actions taken or not taken by Mr. Curran that the governor thought were "anti-business." For example, Mr. Curran defied the governor's instructions to stay out of an antitrust action against insurance companies by a group of state attorneys general across the country. Mr. Schaefer thought Maryland would look like a state where business was not welcome if the suit were pursued.

Mr. Curran argued that the suit was actually pro-business because the inflated premiums it aimed to expose were being paid by businesses.

Mr. Curran and Mr. Schaefer have clashed on a number of other occasions. When the governor appointed a committee to study off-track betting in Maryland, he omitted the official gubernatorial seal from the appointment papers. Without the seal, the commission could meet legally in private, excluding press and public.

Mr. Curran declared that the law did not prohibit such closed meetings -- but he advised against them.

At times, Mr. Curran has seemed conflicted about who his client is. As the state's lawyer, he says he must represent state agencies when they are faced with demands for public access to records and meetings. At the same time, he agrees, he must represent the public's right to know what happens in these agencies.

Though he had been criticized for acting without much vigor on that side, Phillip Andrews, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, says Mr. Curran is the only state official who can be seen as an advocate of open meetings.

Mr. Curran has suggested creation of a three-member board to expedite open-meeting challenges. This position puts him once again in conflict with the governor, whose representatives have argued to limit the circumstances under which public meetings can be open.

But the annoyance of Mr. Schaefer and his coterie of longtime political friends like Mr. Silver toward Mr. Curran goes further back -- at least to 1986.

On the eve of the primary election that year, matched against two strong opponents, Mr. Curran needed to close with a vigorous, costly television advertising campaign. He had about $90,000 in his treasury. His media advisers said he needed $150,000.

With his political future on the line, the man who prides himself on independence turned to a figure whose fund-raising talents were at the center of a Maryland scandal in which entrepreneurs tried to influence government decision-making. Mr. Curran called Irvin Kovens, a close ally of then Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Mr. Kovens, now deceased, and Mr. Mandel had gone to jail for their part in a political corruption case, in which Mr. Mandel gave favored treatment to the owners of a race track, although their convictions were overturned after they served time in prison. One of the track's owners, Mr. Kovens had helped to bankroll the campaigns of Mr. Mandel, Mr. Schaefer and others.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.