Josh Kurtz: Wayne’s World May Be Another Planet

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Toward the end of last week’s big birthday bash for Wayne Curry, which so many Maryland political insiders are still buzzing about, the band played a long, soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s classic, “What’s Goin’ On?”

It was a fitting coda to a perplexing evening.

Just what is going on with Curry, the talented former Prince George’s County executive? Is he planning to challenge Gov. Martin O’Malley in the Democratic primary? Might he be tapped as the running mate for former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) if Ehrlich runs again?

After reading a very political speech, with veiled threats to O’Malley and the Democratic political establishment for ignoring African-American voters and Prince George’s County in particular, Curry — who usually delivers speeches off the cuff — wouldn’t divulge his plans.

One thing was painfully obvious: Curry was sure enjoying the limelight. And the event, which drew upwards of 2,000 people to the garish Camelot catering hall in Largo, across the street from the Six Flags amusement park, had all the trappings of a political rally, even though the proceeds were ticketed for Haiti. The crowd was full of big shots: powerful pols, deep-pocketed developers, lawyers and lobbyists, union leaders.

But it was hard to gauge the meaning of it all. Curry is perhaps the most gifted natural politician in Maryland — sharp, funny, charismatic, spontaneous, a strategic thinker, and tough when he needs to be. But he’s teased us all before. One man there recalled a fundraiser nine years earlier at Curry’s mansion in Upper Marlboro, which attracted most of the powerbrokers in the state. Curry charmed his way through the evening, excitedly flagged down reporters every time a big-time Baltimore business baron turned up, and reminded the world how important he, Prince George’s County and black voters were. It seemed like the launch of a statewide Curry campaign. But in the end — nothing happened.

“There’s nothing happening,” this man told me. “If something was going to happen, it would have happened at his house. I was there.” (So was I.)

So is history — or the absence thereof — about to repeat itself? The turnout at Camelot was genuinely impressive — there was no place to park and people stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the ballroom. But as impressive as the crowd was, as chock-full of top-flight political talent as it was, the event also had a whiff of yesterday’s news.

The roster of speakers and pols who served as sponsors of the party was like a Who’s Who of the most promising politicians of 1997, there to salute one of their own. Kurt Schmoke. Doug Duncan. Janet Owens. Albert Wynn. Former D.C. Councilman (and mayoral contender) Kevin Chavous. Kevin Chavous?! What’s he been up to all these years?

Some people looked at the array of leaders and concluded, if Curry can attract a former mayor of Baltimore like Schmoke and the former executives of Montgomery and Anne Arundel like Duncan and Owens and former and current Members of Congress like Wynn and Donna Edwards and Elijah Cummings, then O’Malley clearly has something to worry about, because his base is fractured — or at least willing to flirt with a potent potential challenger. Or were we just witnessing a nostalgia show?

Wayne Curry was a successful county executive for a host of reasons. He was a trailblazer — the majority-black county’s first African-American executive. He followed Parris Glendening in Upper Marlboro, so he was bound to look dynamic (and being followed by Jack Johnson has certainly helped to burnish his reputation). He had an “open for business” sign on his office door — and managed to enrich both black and white businesspeople, who remain loyal. And he presided during the flush late 1990’s — so of course he was able to deliver some goodies.

But none of that easily translates into a plausible rationale for a gubernatorial run in 2010 — even considering that many of the things he says about O’Malley and Democratic leaders taking African-American voters and Prince George’s County for granted are true.

Still, people are getting ready, just in case. Curry did raise some campaign cash in the past year — almost exclusively from lawyers and developers and apartment complex companies (the latter group despises Johnson). He reported a lot of miscellaneous political expenditures in his latest campaign finance report. He had about $14,000 in cash on hand in mid-January — a far cry from O’Malley’s $5.7 million.

Curry used Wayne Clarke, an energetic Prince George’s political consultant, to help him put together his birthday party. Clarke told me he’s holding off on signing other clients for this election cycle until he determines whether Curry is going to need him for a statewide run. He said he expects Curry to announce his plans shortly after the General Assembly session ends in April.

All well and good. Maybe Curry will run — if he does, he will surely give O’Malley a run for his money. As a national Democratic strategist who attended the Curry affair observed, in the current political climate, where a Republican nonentity can win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, why wouldn’t Curry have a shot of knocking off O’Malley?

But count me as skeptical. Curry has been out of public office for eight years. He hasn’t run a campaign for 12 years. He hasn’t done a lot publicly, that we can tell, in the interim.

As I walked out of Camelot thinking about Curry, it wasn’t Marvin Gaye going through my head, but a line from a song of another R&B legend, Stevie Wonder: “If you really want to hear our views, you haven’t done nothin’.”

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. Contact him at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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