Josh Kurtz: Wayne Curry

Posted by on in Blog
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 9633
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print
  • Report this post

By: Josh Kurtz 

For all of his accomplishments, there was an air of unfulfilled expectations and unfinished business surrounding Wayne Curry.

As the first African-American county executive in Prince George’s County history, he was a transformational figure, to be sure – not to mention brilliant and charismatic. But he never went as far as his prodigious and free-wheeling political talents might have taken him.

Curry was a “no regrets” kind of guy, at least in public, but he was aware of the deficit; at the very least, he rued the day he had to yield center stage.

As so many people mourn Curry’s death, it is ironic that another man from Prince George’s County, one with only a fraction of Curry’s raw political talent and force of personality, is favored to become the state’s first African-American governor. How much more fun it would have been if Wayne Curry had been the statewide trailblazer, rather than Anthony Brown!

Curry’s record as county executive was good, but it could have been better. As a symbol, though, of Prince George’s strivings in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Curry was the right man in the right place at the right time.

He inherited a budgetary mess and gamely worked his way through it, and then set about to make Prince George’s County an economic powerhouse. Curry had successes and failures, but he was always in the thick of things, a visible and persuasive cheerleader who put his time as a real estate lawyer to very good use. He also didn’t hesitate to expend his political capital, as he did when he bravely – but ultimately unsuccessfully – sought to lift the county’s property tax limits in 1996.

With his gaudy mansion in Upper Marlboro, built on a street he had named, with no trace of irony, for himself, Curry was in many ways the epitome of the prosperous African-American he was trying to attract to the county. Curry’s lifestyle was a message to other black families living in and around Washington, D.C.: Come on in, the water’s fine.

Curry’s tenure from 1994 to 2002 was noteworthy not just for the rise of the county’s African-American political establishment, but for the rise of an African-American business establishment – one that was able to co-exist with the well-entrenched white business establishment.

Curry’s relationship with the county’s white political establishment was a little shakier – but the friction was less about race per se than it was about turf and influence.

Dating from his days as an aide to former County Executive Win Kelly (D) in the 1970’s, Curry knew every political player in the county when he became county executive. But by the time he took over, Curry had grown disenchanted with some of the stalwarts of county politics, and felt he didn’t need to rely on their help. He was especially dismissive of Parris Glendening and Mike Miller, and the feeling was mutual.

Curry blamed Glendening, his predecessor who went on to become governor, for the county’s budgetary woes, and felt he was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the crisis instead of trying to move the county forward. Imagine how much Curry, Glendening and Miller could have accomplished for Prince George’s if they had worked in harmony instead of spending so much time sniping at each other.

But that’s the way Curry was. He liked to court danger, and he didn’t always engage in the niceties of politics. As a result, he didn’t run his government – or plot his own political career – with as much discipline as he might have.

Then again, many Prince George’s voters loved it when he played hardball with the likes of Jack Kent Cooke, or publicly condemned powerful white officials like Glendening and Miller. Curry’s influence in the county is visible everywhere today, from FedEx Field to the Bowie Town Center to the end of the county’s long, painful history with mandatory school busing. Curry became a trusted adviser to the current county executive, Rushern Baker, and many of his top aides now hold influential positions in Baker’s administration. Baker’s aspirations for the county are in many ways an extension of Curry’s.

Curry came to power at the same time Doug Duncan was elected Montgomery County executive, and together they became a potent force for the D.C. suburbs at a time when power in Maryland began shifting away from the Baltimore region. Though their personalities and governing styles couldn’t have been more different, and while they were never as close as the media tended to portray them back in those days, together Curry and Duncan personified the growing influence of the D.C. suburbs in Annapolis – a march that continues to this day.

Could Curry have fulfilled his statewide ambitions if he had played his cards a little differently? Like Duncan and Dutch Ruppersberger and even Martin O’Malley, Curry in 2002 found himself blocked by the perceived advantages of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in that gubernatorial election, which seem laughable in retrospect.

Alliances were talked about broadly among the would-be alternatives to KKT; Curry also had the option of running for comptroller, or even attorney general, in 2002. But his ego couldn’t handle a lesser role, and the anti-KKT forces were too splintered to ever gel properly.

Insurgent campaigns rarely go far in Maryland. But it remains delicious to this day to speculate about how a Curry-O’Malley ticket, or an O’Malley-Curry ticket, may have fared against Townsend in the 2002 Democratic primary.

Later, after he had been out of the spotlight for a few years, Curry was invariably talked about as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate – as a Democrat or as a Republican – or for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Bob Ehrlich. But for whatever reasons, he never became a candidate again.

Everybody who knew him has a favorite Wayne story, and many have been told since he died on July 2. Mine involves a fundraiser he held at his mansion one warm evening in 2000 or 2001, when speculation was still high that he might run for governor. Most of the state’s top dignitaries were there, and Curry stationed himself by the gate of his estate to greet the arrivals.

Every time a particularly noteworthy eminence showed up, Curry would bound over to a small group of reporters, with child-like excitement, just to make sure we had noticed who was paying tribute. I especially recall his joy when John Paterakis, of all people, came in.

Several politicians gave speeches that night; Curry, his bushy mustache, glasses and expressive eyes working overtime like a latter-day Groucho Marx, played the zany MC, with barbs for everyone. When it was Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s turn to speak, she was so rattled by Curry’s shtick that her knees were literally knocking. The episode revealed a lot about Townsend – and about Curry.

That’s part of what made him so fun to watch. Groucho led Fredonia – imagine what Curry could have accomplished governing all of Maryland. It may not have always been pretty, but you can be sure a lot of taboos would have been broken – mostly for the better.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Rate this blog entry:

Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.