Broadening horizons temper Curry's fire

Executive: Leader known for his headstrong personality is mellowing (a little) as he weighs making a run for a statewide office.

May 13, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

It's a hot May day, and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry looks relaxed in an off-white linen suit. But his staff is displeased.

If he's going to be photographed by the newspaper, he really should be in executive gray. A top aide pleads with him to let a driver swing by his house to pick up a dark suit jacket. Curry resists, pouts, then relents.

That he gives in for the sake of image - the same man whose headstrong nature is infamous in the county - is a telling sign that Curry is indeed positioning himself for statewide office in 2002.

The ambitious 50-year-old lawyer from suburban Washington says he's seriously considering a race against Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer or Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., both veterans of the Baltimore political establishment.

And he hasn't ruled out a Democratic primary race for governor against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose popularity in early polls could frighten off the most determined opponents.

"I'm not going to foreclose any possibility," Curry said during an interview last week in his office, where pictures of him with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore dot the walls. "I can stack resumes with anyone."

Broad support

His support, he added, is already broad: "I got the damnedest bedfellows. I got African-Americans and I got the business folks, who are mostly white males."

A moneyed and well-connected cast of hosts for Curry's forthcoming $1,000-a-head fund-raiser - including former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, bakery mogul John Paterakis, Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder and lawyer Robert Linowes - suggests that Curry's confidence is warranted.

"Anybody who dismisses Wayne as a serious candidate for statewide office clearly underestimates his potential," said Schmoke, who is Curry's entree to Baltimore voters.

Political pollster Keith Haller agrees. "Very few political candidates can command the public stage like Wayne Curry," he said, comparing him to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "At a minimum, he must be taken seriously as a statewide contender."

Some politics-watchers warn that Townsend is unbeatable and that Curry, whose name is relatively unknown north of Prince George's, cannot compete against such Baltimore luminaries as Curran, 69, who says will run again, and Schaefer, 79, who won't say what his plans are.

A statewide poll for The Sun earlier this year found Curry's name recognition was 34 percent, compared with Townsend's 85 percent. In a hypothetical Democratic primary, 59 percent of voters chose Townsend and 8 percent chose Curry. The poll showed her trouncing him in his own county.

But Schmoke and others are not shaken by early polls or conventional political wisdom.

After all, Schmoke pointed out at a pro-Curry organizational breakfast last month, "back in 1994, we helped a virtually unknown candidate from Prince George's County become known." He was referring to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whom Curry succeeded as county executive.

Career "cross-point"

Term limits prohibit Curry from running again for county executive. But he says he probably wouldn't seek re-election even if he could. He's at a "cross-point" in his career, he says. He'll decide whether to run - and for what - based on what his own polls tell him. He'll also consult his wife and two children, ages 5 and 7. If he thinks he'd be neglecting them, he could go back to being a prosperous development lawyer.

In talking to Curry though, the latter option seems unlikely. He's too riled up about what he describes as his duty, both to African-Americans and to the state. "I sort of symbolize the possibilities of a community that's come a long way," he said.

He presides over one of the few jurisdictions in America that over the past 20 years has become more affluent as it became majority African-American. "Prince George's County has a novel demographic," he said. "I recognize that there's a duty that comes with that. I can demonstrate that I can talk the king's English and the parking lot English."

Curry, burly and handsome, speaks carefully about race, but what he calls "the tender issue" has clearly driven him to succeed.

Expected to fail

In stories told with almost mesmerizing animation, Curry laughs and rages at those people, mostly whites, who he says have expected him to disappoint, fail, crack or pander.

When he was working as a development and zoning attorney, he recalls the "where's the lawyer?" questions when he showed up at meetings. And he triumphantly recounts the time he met with skeptical Wall Street executives worried about the county's finances.

"I said to them, `I know what you're thinking: I'm new. I'm a Democrat. And I'm black. To you, that means I'm financially disabled,'" Curry said.

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