Against the foggy background of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. stood atop Federal Hill to receive the endorsements of two environmental groups.
Although the campaign for attorney general is in its last week, the news conference, held yesterday by the Clean Water Coalition, was to be a low-key affair, not a lot of fanfare, just simple and to the point, the way Joe Curran likes things.
But arriving just after the news conference began was Curran's Republican challenger in Tuesday's election, Edward L. Blanton Jr. Blanton had come to ambush the incumbent in an effort to force a campaign debate.
As the attorney general shook hands with environmental supporters and several campaign aides began to escort him to a waiting car, Blanton approached his opponent: "If you ask your muscle men to move aside, we'd like a debate, Joe, and with time running out there is no time like right now. Let's debate your record on the environment, let's debate your record on drugs."
Curran continued to head for the car, obviously not wishing to turn the event into a confrontation. But when Blanton accused him of lacking the courage to debate and thus lacking the courage to handle his job, Curran turned around.
"I have a record that I am running on and I'm proud of that record," Curran said firmly. "You have no record and I can't see debating someone that has no record."
Curran had said previously he would only debate Blanton if he agreed that it would be free of personal attacks. He challenged his opponent to sign a "clean campaign" pledge.
Blanton said that, in return for that pledge, he wanted a debate. He said no debate, no pledge.
The clean campaign pledge is typical of Curran. Through most of his 32 years in public office, Curran, 59, has always preferred to keep his gloves on and run on his record.
In an interview during the campaign, he said that if voters don't like his record they should vote him out "because then I haven't done the job they elected me to do."
Joe Curran -- honest, self-effacing, Mr. Nice Guy -- might be the most politically successful non-politician in the state.
In his first try for public office, he won a seat in the House of Delegates in 1958. Four years later, he won his first race for the state Senate. He served there until then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes selected him to be his running mate in 1982.
With the end of the Hughes administration, Curran ran for state attorney general and beat two other candidates in a hard-fought Democratic primary.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Curran's honesty and fairness have served him well in many areas, but prevent him from being a good leader.
lTC "His integrity is above reproach, but to be a good leader you need to be an S.O.B. at times and Joe is too nice a guy for that," said Miller, who served on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which Curran chaired.
Another former state Senate colleague, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Balto. Co., said it is a mistake to take Curran's low-key, self-effacing approach as a sign of ineffectiveness or lack of leadership.
"When Joe makes up his mind on something and is forced to defend it, he can be as tough as they come," said Stone, who went to law school with Curran. "But he has a way of doing it and playing fair as well."
Tough, but fair. That's the theme Curran himself likes to portray of his office. His record of the past four years, he said, includes:
* An environmental prosecution policy that insists on jail time for flagrant and willful pollution of the air and water.
* Adopting a policy of using tax records to go after the assests of suspected drug dealers even if they haven't been convicted of a crime.
* Using the Medicaid Fraud Unit to investigate abuse cases against the elderly in senior citizen institutions.
* A criminal appeals division that has an 87 percent success record while handling more than 3,500 appeals in the last four years.
* A 100 percent conviction rate in those criminal cases, mostly white-collar crime, initiated by the attorney general's office.
* Winning three of five cases taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The attorney general dismisses criticism from Blanton that he is soft on crime. And, he bristles at charges that his office is anti-business.
"When we get a consumer complaint, we first try to encourage mediation to settle the matter," Curran said. "We've had over one thousand businesses agree to settle disputes in that manner."
Since the Sept. 11 primary, the campaign has not attracted a lot of attention.
Curran has quietly worked the legal community, consumer groups and his former colleagues in the legislature, the elements that constitute what he calls his statewide political network.
A typical campaign swing would be to a county to meet with a group of lawyers, to tour the county courthouse and greet employees and to address a consumer advocate organization or senior citizens.