The power of integrity

May 09, 2006

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is not your average politician, and his decision not to seek re-election demands that we take stock. Certainly, it calls to mind those qualities we have so long admired in Mr. Curran - his dignity, humility and, most especially, his integrity. The 74-year-old son of a Baltimore city councilman will leave office as Maryland's longest-serving elected attorney general. Voters obviously respected his honest and forthright brand of politics, too.

Mr. Curran's decision has already touched off a great deal of speculation about who will take over his post. Added to Paul S. Sarbanes' choice to leave his U.S. Senate seat at the end of the current term, the shake-up in Maryland's political landscape is reaching seismic proportions. The potential candidates would do well to pledge a continuation of the independence Mr. Curran (and his predecessor, Stephen H. Sachs) demonstrated in this increasingly challenging post.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. claims voters should now elect a "lawyer to represent me." But that is exactly wrong. Voters need an attorney general to represent them. Governors have their own lawyers.

Mr. Curran treated the office as a top-flight law firm, not a job center for partisan hacks. He knew he was elected to direct the state's legal affairs and ultimately answered to its citizens.

Mr. Curran's sincerity was evident long before he was first elected attorney general in 1986. He's known to take principled, if sometimes controversial, positions. Mr. Curran opposed the Vietnam War when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1968, and he came out for gun control in the 1970s. A devout Catholic, he is also pro-choice. Some of these stands went against the political grain. But there's little doubt that his motivations were pure. He simply isn't one to make decisions based on polling data. Nor was he much on spinning the press.

After an exemplary 50 years in public service - as a delegate, state senator, lieutenant governor under Gov. Harry R. Hughes and attorney general - Mr. Curran could probably have been re-elected to his job for life. But son-in-law Martin O'Malley's candidacy for governor had sparked criticism. Could Mr. Curran still be independent? In a sense, he was trapped by his own formidable legacy. His decision to step down avoids even the appearance of conflict.

There's little doubt that Mr. Curran will be missed from the public stage. Even there, nice guys can sometimes finish first. That is the power of integrity.

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