A job in search of a purpose

June 23, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THERE'S a statewide campaign under way that has little to do with the office for which the candidates are running.

It's the campaign for attorney general, the state's top legal officer, and it's tough to recognize the job description from the issues being raised or by the manner in which the candidates are selling themselves.

Part of the problem is the job itself. It's pretty cut and dried, following a narrow legal prescription laid down in the state constitution. For in truth, the attorney general has little to do beyond giving legal advice to the governor and the General Assembly and representing the state in court. (By law, the attorney general must be a lawyer.)

But to hear Eleanor M. Carey tell it, the attorney general should be a RoboCop drug czar as well as a kind of a super-inspector general with oversight of every agency in state government. Ms. Carey should know better. The Democrat used to be deputy attorney general. And this is the second time she's gone after the top job.

Now listen to Republican Richard D. Bennett. He's the former top federal prosecutor in Maryland who's accustomed to dealing with white-collar criminals and drug lords.

Mr. Bennett would immediately reassign many of the attorney general's 300 assistants to fight crime because, according to his radio ads, "Maryland is now the second most dangerous state in the nation." Mr. Bennett has the endorsement of the 13,000-member Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police.

Then along comes Pat Smith, Democrat of Rockville, with the thickest press kit in the contest for attorney general. He managed Paul Tsongas' 1992 Maryland campaign for president, and he'd make economic development the centerpiece of his attorney generalship.

And what about the two-term incumbent, J. Joseph Curran Jr.? He's big on gun control, a long-time pro-choicer and heavy into consumer protection -- a position that's earned him the enmity of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who views being pro-consumer as anti-business.

Beyond the irrelevancies attached to the campaign, there are still other unrelated issues. Mr. Curran has formed "Women United for Curran," an all-volunteer organization assembled to prop up his campaign against a gender attack by Ms. Carey. Mr. Curran has a strong record on women's issues and has been endorsed by the National Abortion Rights and Reproductive Action League (NARAL).

Ms. Carey was among 10 women endorsed by Harriet's List, an organization that gives money to liberal women Democrats in Maryland.

For his part, Mr. Smith proposes a 60-day sentence in a boot camp-style prison for any student convicted of toting a gun onto school property. Mr. Smith has been endorsed by the 45,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, which endorsed Ms. Carey in 1986 and Mr. Curran in 1990.

Much of the background noise in the attorney general's race is calculated to assert leadership and to create the appearance of distinction from the pack. But when it comes to the actual responsibilities of the office, there is really very little to disagree on except personal style.

The real problem begins when candidates and incumbents alike talk of broadening the functions of the attorney general's office.

In truth, there is very little to campaign on, since it's the General Assembly that makes the laws and it's the voters who ultimately must approve changes in the constitution, which defines the attorney general's duties.

Ms. Carey's proposal to give the attorney general oversight of the procurement functions of every agency of state government, for example, could be a hindrance as well as a help. Besides, that's a function the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services performs.

And Mr. Bennett's gangbuster approach to the attorney general's office might work well at the federal level, but its application in state government is questionable. Moreover, that's what cops and state's attorneys do.

Mr. Smith should know better when he talks about the incumbent Mr. Curran being soft on crime. In fact, the attorney general goes to court only when he's told to by the governor or the General Assembly.

And how about Mr. Curran? He's accused of being a hard-liner on consumer protection. Well, it's not the folks in jail who turn the tides of elections; it's the buying public.

It's true, though, that crime and violence have moved to the top of the pop charts in the ranking of campaign issues. And relevant or not, whether symbol-minded candidates employ guns, boot camps or capital punishment, the concern over personal safety is likely to remain very much a part of the political environment.

So forget about what's right or wrong in the contest for attorney general. There's a campaign in progress.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes from Owings Mills on Maryland politics.

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