A Shiny New GOP Star

BRUCE L. BORTZ

October 06, 1993|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

He's charming, smart and soundbite-savvy, an experienced lawyer who can argue legal rings around most in public office today. He's also a Republican leader who's nearly as popular in his party's conservative wing as its more liberal one.

Say hello to Richard Bennett, a moderate Republican, who, unnoticed by most, actually won a quasi-party primary this summer.

Next November, he could well become Maryland's first Republican attorney general in three-fourths of a century.

Mr. Bennett has a lot going for him, not the least of which is his intellectual honesty. The first Republican U.S. attorney in Maryland in many a year to seek higher office, he won't feed the myth, common among many Marylanders, that the attorney general is the state's chief prosecutor. For that reason, Mr. Bennett says he won't campaign on his federal prosecutorial experience.

He says the AG should delegate most white-collar matters to the U.S. attorney. That office's enormous investigative resources -- the FBI, the IRS and postal inspectors -- are no match for the handful of state police at the AG's disposal.

Mr. Bennett supports the death penalty, but admits it's no deterrent. Its only good and proper use, he concludes, is to punish egregious crimes. No doctrinaire Republican here.

Mr. Bennett makes juvenile crime and juvenile justice his campaign's chief message. As attorney general, he says, he would have his assistants help the real local prosecutors -- the state's attorneys -- who say they'd welcome assistance in quickly prosecuting criminal cases against accused juvenile offenders.

The kids are out of control, says Mr. Bennett. They show no respect for authority or for society's limits. His antidote: Make their first brush with the law as stern as possible. One night in jail at age 12, 13 or 14, is preferable to 10 years in a costly state prison when they hit 21, 31 or 41. And probation officers must do proper follow-up, he insists.

The juvenile justice issue will sell well politically. Marylanders despair over crime; talking about rescuing the young before it's too late smacks of hope-inducing preventive action. His equal measures of compassion and toughness seems like something we should at least discuss, if not try.

Mr. Bennett will be well financed. He has superb contacts in the legal profession -- the group that takes the greatest interest in an AG's race -- but he's also well situated with big business.

Crown Central Petroleum CEO Henry Rosenberg, for instance, was his first big contributor. He'll use the money to do a very un-Republican thing -- openly prospect for Democratic votes. Perhaps only someone so secure in his own party can pull this off without real intramural flak.

Not in a long time has a sitting state attorney general been so seriously challenged for his position. The incumbent, J. Joseph Curran, brought it on himself through blundertalk about a gubernatorial race.

Still, he's got more than a passing chance of holding on. It's impossible to find someone who dislikes him. In a three-person Democratic primary, Mr. Curran clearly has the advantage. He's run and won twice statewide for AG, the second time by a very healthy margin.

But he has some troubles, too, especially in a general election. His record will be at the campaign's center, and he may be hard-pressed to point to a single, overriding accomplishment from nearly seven full years in office. He didn't, for example, slay the alleged keno monster, but deferred and delegated, helping make the decidedly unsexy issue of procurement a semi-barn-burner in 1994.

Over the next nine months, during what will be the political fight of his life, Mr. Curran desperately needs to acquire a more aggressive persona. Perhaps the best thing he can do is borrow generously from, and move quickly on, Mr. Bennett's well-thought-out platform. A year from now, the attorney general could say he's done most of what Mr. Bennett advocated, and thus undercut the challenger.

Mr. Bennett's Achilles heel is gun control, on which Mr. Curran has been a champion. Mr. Bennett supports what's in place, and says he's no captive of the gun community. But he takes the National Rifle Association line, expressing serious doubts that gun restrictions have much effect in cutting crime.

He and his issues people must see more clearly the connection between juveniles and weapons of personal destruction. Gun bans on juveniles will soon be sweeping the halls of Annapolis, not to mention state legislatures throughout the country.

Mr. Bennett is a tough cookie apparently cut from the pre-Curran mold of Maryland attorneys general -- superb lawyers like Bill Burch and Steve Sachs. And he could give Maryland something it long has lacked -- a true two-party system.

If he wins next year, and Republicans don't capture the Governor's Mansion, Mr. Bennett could use his office to vault into the governorship in 1998. If he runs a competitive race, but still loses next year, he could retain his current tag -- the GOP's shiniest new star.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics.

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