Bennett rides different campaign trail CAMPAIGN 1994 -- ATTORNEY GENERAL

May 22, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Lawyer Dick Bennett cruised Baltimore in his family station wagon, stopping at heavily for tressed liquor stores and pizza delivery places in neighborhoods much different from his own.

At each, he posed the same questions to people behind the counter or bulletproof glass: Have you ever been robbed? A victim of teen-age thugs?

This resident of tony Ruxton was not trolling for clients. It was stories he was after, firsthand accounts of crime that might help

him in his quest to be Maryland's chief attorney.

Richard D. Bennett, a 46-year-old former federal prosecutor, is the Republican Party's lone candidate for state attorney general and its best shot in decades at winning the office this November.

His supporters say he's got the experience, charisma, message and campaign abilities to make things happen for a party outnumbered 2 to 1 statewide. "If only I could clone him," said state GOP Chairwoman Joyce L. Terhes.

On his daylong trip through Baltimore recently, the candidate, wearing a blue suit and earnest expression, collected a handful of crime stories in scheduled and unscheduled stops.

He met a shopkeeper from Vietnam who was robbed three times in the past two years. One time, the store owner said, his adult son chased away a robber by waving a large knife. "We scared," said the man, who, like other victims, did not want to be identified.

Mr. Bennett also spoke with a pizza shop owner whose delivery people keep getting held up despite his best attempts at crime prevention.

Mr. Bennett asked question after question, like a lawyer interrogating witnesses before a trial.

He is making the fight against violent crime his theme -- an interesting tactic considering the attorney general historically has been more of a legal adviser to government agencies than a criminal prosecutor.

Putting criminals behind bars is the main job of another office, the state's attorney elected in each county and Baltimore.

Convicting criminals also happens to be the primary role of the U.S. attorney for Maryland -- the job Mr. Bennett held during the Bush administration.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bennett contends, the attorney general should the state's chief advocate for crime fighters, even if the Maryland Constitution does not specifically include that in the job description.

"If the attorney general doesn't lead in this kind of fight across the state, then who will?" he said. "My priority will be dealing with the problem of violence in Maryland and particularly juvenile violence."

That stand helped him win the endorsement of the 13,600-member Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police.

The police union chose him over a trio of Democrats -- J. Joseph Curran Jr., the two-term incumbent and former lieutenant governor; Eleanor M. Carey, a former deputy attorney general; and Patrick J. Smith, a Rockville lawyer who managed ex-Sen. Paul E. Tsongas' successful 1992 Maryland presidential primary campaign. Mr. Bennett has no challenger in the GOP's September primary so far, a testimony to his political strength, said Ms. Terhes, the party chairwoman. "I can't recall when we've had someone as qualified as Dick Bennett running for attorney general," she said.

Without a primary, he has the luxury of preparing for the November general election while the Democrats battle each other for their party's nomination in September.

Mr. Bennett's supporters think his positions on emotional issues such as gun control and the death penalty could appeal to moderates in both parties.

He backed the Brady bill to establish a waiting period for gun purchases, now law, and favors a federal ban on assault weapons. He also supports the death penalty.

Yet he does not believe those measures alone will rid the streets of violent crime, he said.

So he's focusing on juvenile offenders, with an eye toward preventing today's delinquents from becoming tomorrow's adult criminals.

If elected, Mr. Bennett said, he would lobby for boot camps for juvenile delinquents and create a team of 20 assistant attorney generals to help local prosecutors with heavy juvenile caseloads.

And where is he going to find the money for this team?

Mr. Bennett says the office is stuffed with so many lawyers that it will not be hard to find 20 to spare.

He notes that Maryland's top law office has more than 300 attorneys, compared with only 130 in neighboring Virginia. Yet both offices have similar responsibilities -- providing legal advice to other state agencies and handling criminal appeals.

Mr. Bennett is not the first candidate to charge Attorney General Curran with having a bloated staff, according to challenger Mr. Smith. "I've been saying it for 14 months."

Mr. Curran, however, said it's not fair to compare his office to Virginia's because Virginia hires private attorneys to perform some work that Maryland does in-house.

"It's political rhetoric," he said of his opponents' charges. "They don't understand the Maryland attorney general's office."

Mr. Curran also was unimpressed with Mr. Bennett's plan to put more lawyers on juvenile cases. "Lawyers are not the answer to the juvenile crime problem. The answer is more programs helping children," he said.

The other Democratic challenger, Ms. Carey, said she also does not believe that problem would be solved "just by putting people in the state's attorneys offices." But she agreed with other opponents of Mr. Curran that the size and placement of his staff warrants more scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bennett plans to continue his visits to gas stations and pizza shops in other parts of the state, getting "a better feel for what is really occurring on the streets."

He said his travels to date have taught him something else about the job he wants -- that many people don't know who the attorney general is or what he does.

"Very few people know, which tells me this is a wide-open race."

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