Carey's task: to tell the sins of a saintly foe


Now is the springtime of Eleanor Carey's political life. Her race for attorney general begins to fill the air, along with rumors of higher seductions. She's poised to make feminist history. So what could be wrong with such a picture?

Joe Curran, for one thing. Curran's not only the current attorney general, but one of God's noblemen. He's earnest, honest and saintly. To know him is to wish he'd adopt you. Everybody says this, including Eleanor Carey. So, what's she doing with her hands around his throat?

"Oh," she says, leaning back in a campaign office decorated mostly in Early American cardboard box, "Joe's a very nice person. He's just not on top of the office."

Thus commences the battle for the state's third highest political position. Where was Curran, she asks, when the state was awarding millions of dollars in questionable contracts? Where was he when law enforcement people were losing all control of crime? Where was he when sex abuse cases were popping out in Anne Arundel County?

In a political campaign it helps, of course, to personalize such issues. Some will wonder: "Why blame Curran?" It's not just that he's such a nice man, it's that the system itself should have caught these problems without them reaching the attorney general's office.

"No," Carey says softly. "I don't see any initiative, any action, coming from that office. I know what it's like to have an actively engaged attorney general, and not one who says everything's fine."

The reference is to Steve Sachs, the former attorney general for whom Carey served as deputy. She was there from 1978 to 1987, when the office was more overtly activist. She's 52 years old, and has been in Baltimore since 1967, when she came here to get married and pursue her law career.

Carey is soft-spoken and studiously even-tempered. Taking swipes at people, particularly a nice man like Curran, doesn't come easily. She's careful not to make it personal, but not to mince words.

"I was talking to a woman in East Baltimore," she says. "A mother. She said to me, 'I know my child can't play outside.' You know, as though that's a given. So she set up a play area in the living room, but then the child came into the kitchen and stayed there, afraid of a bullet coming in the window."

She wants to know how we reached such an unconscionable state of siege. It's a cry echoed by all politicians today, who hear the fear and anger of voters. To Carey, the attorney general's words should be among the loudest, yet she doesn't hear them.

"Curran," she says, "should be in the forefront. He should be the chief advocate for law enforcement. The president's crime bill -- he should be finding out how this impacts us, and how we can capitalize on it. He should be talking to state's attorneys, sheriffs, citizens, finding out what their needs are."

Some of this, Curran's people would say, he already does. But it's a matter of perception: Curran's low key, he's not given to public posturing. But Carey points to a painful example: sex abuse cases in Anne Arundel County schools.

The teacher Ron Price, she says, "was involved with his students for years. When teachers marry students, the way he did, shouldn't it turn on a light bulb? Other teachers had suspicions about him, but they felt funny saying anything. Students knew.

"The attorney general's office should be sitting with educators and social workers, saying, 'Here's what you need to look for,' and coordinate efforts to stop this sort of thing before it happens."

Last year, Anne Arundel County brought Carey in to investigate sex abuse cases in its schools, so she's talking with some background. Still, such gestures seem a little out of the traditional range of the attorney general -- which is exactly her point.

She wants more aggressiveness in that office.

And it might not even be her office. Talk abounds that she's been approached by two Democratic gubernatorial candidates to run as their lieutenant governor. She has no comment. Says she's only thinking about attorney general, about being the first woman in Maryland to hold such a high office.

She says this with an inscrutable smile, which she also wears when speaking of Joe Curran. She likes him, so she smiles. She hears talk of higher office, so she smiles some more. For Eleanor Carey, it's the springtime of her political life.

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