Wayne K. Curry, an African American power broker in Prince George’s County whose election as county executive in 1994 symbolized the Washington suburb’s transformation from a predominantly white, blue-collar farming community to an enclave of black prosperity, died July 2 at his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., his brother Daryl Curry said. He was 63.
Mr. Curry died of lung cancer that had been diagnosed last summer, his family said in a statement. He had told friends and business associates in April that he was ill.
Mr. Curry, a real estate and corporate lawyer, was one of the country’s first black popularly elected county leaders. The Democrat served two terms as county executive in the first major city or county in the nation to go from majority white to majority black with income and education levels rising instead of falling.
A champion of black affluence, he believed that economic power was the last milestone of the civil rights struggle and worked to ensure that black county residents benefited from government contracting. He methodically fought to gain respect for Prince George’s, a jurisdiction that he said got too little of it from its counterparts in the region.
“Mr. Curry led the county through one of the most transformative periods in its history,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said. “I witnessed his tireless advocacy on behalf of the people he served and his fearless efforts to advance causes beneficial to Prince George’s County and the African American community statewide.”
During his tenure, his biggest public face-off was with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who wanted the county to offset the cost of the $175 million stadium he planned to build in Landover. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Mr. Curry’s predecessor as county executive, and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. — both Democrats — balked at Mr. Curry’s resistance to closing the deal.
Mr. Curry, who was seen as a brash and sometimes contentious leader, didn’t care. He refused to use the financially strapped county’s money to help build a football stadium. The state ultimately paid for the facility, which opened in 1997 as Jack Kent Cooke Stadium and became FedEx Field two years later.
“A good rule for understanding Wayne,” Greg Wells, Mr. Curry’s former campaign manager, told The Washington Post in 1996, “is that when he is talking to you, probably 99 percent of the things he talks about he has thought out at great length beforehand.”
Once Mr. Curry takes a stand, Wells said, he does it forcefully, “with the confidence a lawyer should have.”
Mr. Curry liked to call himself “bilingual” — he could speak “lawyer talk” among Chamber of Commerce members and in Wall Street boardrooms and “street talk” among his constituents, who spanned races and social classes.
Sometimes he found himself speaking “lawyer talk” and “street talk” in the same setting.
He once recalled his first trip to Wall Street as county executive, when he tried to preserve the county’s bond rating amid a $108 million budget deficit. After his presentation was applauded, the analysts said the downgrade was still possible.
Mr. Curry pounced: “If you downgrade us, I’m going to The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and every other newspaper I can find, and I’m going to call you a straight-up racist. Because I’m fixing it, you applaud it, and you’re going to downgrade me instead of the guy [Glendening] that did it.”
Two days later, Mr. Curry received a call from Wall Street. The analysts reconsidered, and the bond rating remained unchanged.
“Throughout his life and career, Wayne fought for the county in which he was . . . raised and that he loved so dearly,” Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “Wayne never shied away from a fight when Prince George’s County’s future or its standing were on the line.”
Prince George’s experienced progress during Mr. Curry’s tenure, including the end of court-ordered school busing and a reduction in crime. But the county continued to struggle to attract quality retailers and improve its school system, which consistently hovered near the bottom of the state’s rankings.
Alvin Thornton, senior academic adviser to the president of Howard University and a former political science professor, said Mr. Curry is likely to be remembered less for a building that was constructed or law that was passed during his tenure than for the social and political role he played at a critical juncture in county history.
Thornton said Mr. Curry “played the role that had to be played . . . with a presence and sophistication. . . . If you fail at that, leadership of other communities won’t listen to you, they won’t follow you, they will caricature you. I think Wayne avoided all that. He was very capable and very able to articulate the interests of the emerging black community.”
The second oldest of five children, Wayne Keith Curry was born Jan. 6, 1951, in Brooklyn and grew up in a racially segregated neighborhood of Cheverly. His mother, the former Juliette Harris, was a school system secretary. His father, Eugene “Bull” Curry, was a former football lineman turned shop teacher who became vice principal at all-black Fairmont Heights High School.
Wayne Curry told the Baltimore Sun that his father was a disciplinarian who “used to have a razor strap he hung on the door that could translate everything he wanted us to know into a language we could understand.”
The elder Curry’s alcoholism eventually led to the breakup of his marriage. Wayne Curry recalled that his parents pushed hard in the 1950s for their children to receive strong educations. They fought for him and Daryl, his older brother, to become the first black students to integrate Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary School. For their trouble, the Curry family found a cross burning on their lawn, he said.
After graduating in 1968 from Bladensburg High School — a school he helped desegregate — Mr. Curry received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1972 from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in Westminster.
He worked at a day-care center and then explored the country in his red Volkswagen Beetle before returning to Prince George’s for a low-level job with County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.
Kelly told the Sun that Mr. Curry showed up on the first day dressed in jeans, a flowered shirt and moccasins.
“He came walking through the door with cornrows and lugging a gallon jug of distilled water,” Kelly said. “He was on some sort of water diet. I kept asking, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ ”
But he proved skillful at handling constituent complaints, mostly centered on disputes between the police and black residents. He soon became a top assistant to Kelly, an experience that launched his political ambitions.
Mr. Curry began attending night classes at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore. After completing his degree in 1980, he worked as a real estate lawyer for one of the largest real estate development companies in Prince George’s.
He later became a partner in the Riverdale law firm of Meyers, Billingsley, Shipley, Curry, Rodbell and Rosenbaum. His clients included the county’s hospital system, developers and the parents of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986.
Mr. Curry served as president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce before seeking the county executive post in 1994 after three-term incumbent Glendening vacated the job to run for governor.
It proved to be a bitter race, with Mr. Curry drawing support from real estate and business interests while another black candidate, state Sen. Beatrice P. Tignor, won the backing of the county’s Democratic establishment — including Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Senate President Miller and much of the county’s Annapolis delegation. Mr. Curry prevailed.
“We had pulled off something historical,” he said in an interview in June. “We had won against the odds. And I, for my part, was somebody who was essentially homegrown, who was being given both the honor and duty of carving my initials in the hometown tree. . . . It was a fulfillment of dreams and principles I had as a child when everything was segregated.”
After leaving office in 2002, Mr. Curry returned to practicing law and joined the Baltimore firm headed by William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. He also served as chairman of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp. Before his death, he was president of the same real estate company where he began his legal career, NAI Michael.
Survivors include his wife, Sheila Mills Curry, and two children, Julian Curry and Taylor Curry, all of Upper Marlboro; his mother, Juliette Curry of Ninety Six, S.C.; and four siblings, Daryl Curry of Largo, Md., Leslie Curry of Ninety Six, Kevin Curry of Riverdale, Md., and Denice Taylor of District Heights, Md.
As a lawyer, Mr. Curry became a millionaire and built an 18-room mansion for his family in Upper Marlboro, where — years earlier — he had once been refused service at a restaurant because of his race.
“I wasn’t born on third base,” he told The Post in 1992, when he first announced his plan to run for county executive. “I practiced and I scrimmaged and I hit a triple. . . . I’ve never inherited anything, and I’m proud of the achievement.”
DeNeen L. Brown and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.