Million-Dollar Hustle

March 14, 1994|By TIM BAKER

Joe Curran and I both ran for attorney general in 1986. He beat me.

I've never forgotten how he conducted himself in that campaign, and by the time he ran for re-election in 1990, I was in a position to say something about it because by then I was writing this bi-weekly column. But no one challenged him that year, so there wasn't anything to be gained by sounding off at that point.

I've held my tongue for eight years.

Now he's running again. This time he's got stiff opposition in next September's Democratic primary and, if he wins, a tough Republican opponent in November's general election.

Now's my big chance, and I'm not going to wait any longer. I'm going to tell the world what I really think of Joe Curran.

I think he's great!

It's long been a cliche of Maryland politics to say what a nice guy Joe Curran is. And he is nice. He's a genuinely kind, gentle and thoughtful human being.

Well, sometimes nice guys win, and sometimes they make tough cops too. Don't let Joe's niceness mislead you. Underneath that sweet exterior beats a fierce and fearless independence.

Joe's a Roman Catholic, but pro- choice. He's represented white, zTC blue-collar districts, but in the 1960s, he ran for office as a supporter of open housing and an opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1986, with voters clearly worried about rising crime, he unapologetically told them he opposed the death penalty.

And Joe still takes courageous positions. As attorney general he's put environmental polluters in jail for the first time in Maryland history. Last year he was the only statewide official to speak out against John Arnick's nomination for a judgeship. On several occasions he's even braved Governor Schaefer's tirades to do what he thought was right.

For eight years, he's been a truly independent Maryland attorney general. But the coming campaign will test his mettle again.

Candidates running for attorney general have one huge problem. Hot gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns steal all the thunder. Television stations and newspapers hardly pay any attention to the AG's race. Then a week or two before the election people suddenly realize they'll have to vote for an attorney general, too. Most of them won't have heard anything about whoever's running. So in that one brief period when the voters focus on the election, the candidates must be able to present themselves. There's only one way to do it.


TV political commercials cost a fortune. Those of us who ran for AG in 1986 each had to raise $400,000 to $600,000. Eight years later, the price has risen. Mr. Curran's campaign professionals have told him he must raise $800,000. Maybe even $1,000,000.

One million dollars! For attorney general! Do you have any idea how hard it is to raise that kind of money in a race where nobody's paying any attention?

Look at it this way. To raise $1,000,000, a candidate must bring in $10,000 a week every week for two years.

Where are they going to get that kind of money? Who's going to give it to them?


Is this what we want our attorneys general doing? Do we want them beholden to this kind of ransom? Is this how we want to select our state's top legal officer?

In 1978, Stephen H. Sachs revolutionized Maryland's concept of the attorney general. Before then, people had run for the office on political tickets each headed by a candidate for governor. Mr. Sachs broke that tradition and ran as an ''independent'' Democrat. ''The People's Lawyer.'' Voters, tired of this state's sullied politics, swept him into office.

Mr. Sachs' concept of independence provided a needed change and has served this state well. But it's now threatened by the costs of TV campaigns.

Don't kid yourself. No one, no matter how well-intentioned and honest, can raise big money like this without inevitably becoming deeply indebted to the people who pay it. Money tugs and pulls. It dis- torts. At this magnitude, it will ultimately corrupt. Look what PACs and lobbyists have done to Congress!

State public campaign financing would eliminate this problem. The office of attorney general would be the most fitting place to begin.

Otherwise, we should consider a forthright reinstitution of political tickets. Let the candidates for governor pick the most outstanding lawyers they each can find for attorney general. Then they'd run as teams. The ticket would raise the money. Oh, of course, an AG candidate would have to help. But a ticket would eliminate the cost of an independent campaign and reduce an AG candidate's desperate need to raise all that money alone.

Candidates could defend the idea of a ticket. A ''People's Governor'' had simply selected the best attorney around to be the state's lawyer. And the people's lawyer too!

Yes, of course that lawyer would be responsive to the governor -- a valued member of the governor's team! -- just as the attorney general of the United States has always been selected by and responsive to the president. At least with a ticket we'd know exactly to whom our attorney general was responding.

The way our system's going now, we can't be sure. Some day, and some day soon, we'll wake up to the startling realization that some attorney general has been responsive -- very responsive -- to money.

In the meantime, we can only rely on the integrity and independent spirit of people like Joe Curran. If anyone can raise a million dollars and remain true to himself, he can.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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