By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006
J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), Maryland's longest-serving elected attorney general, will not run again this fall, ending a nearly half-century career in public office during which he emerged as a leading liberal voice on issues of race, the death penalty and gun control.
Curran's decision not to seek a sixth term, shared in an interview yesterday, adds additional drama to an already extraordinary election year in Maryland.
Four statewide seats are now certain to be vigorously contested in primaries in the heavily Democratic state -- a scenario unlike any in recent decades and certain to yield younger officeholders succeeding some lions of Maryland politics.
"As far back as I can look, this is unprecedented," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.
The long-awaited decision by Curran, a member of one of Maryland's most prominent extended political families, has been complicated by the bid for governor by his son-in-law Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).
A formal announcement is scheduled this morning at an event in Baltimore that is expected to draw many of the nearly 400 state lawyers that Curran oversees. His office is charged with providing legal advice and representation to state agencies, from the governor's office on down.
"I thought maybe it's good to leave while you're still respected rather than when people are asking you why you're still around," said Curran, who will be 75 in July. "I feel very young, and I feel very good. I'd like to do a few more things while time is permitted."
Curran said that he looks forward to returning to private practice and that he might also write and lecture about some of the more turbulent battles of the civil rights era and other parts of his time in politics.
Curran's career began in 1958, when, inspired by Sen. John F. Kennedy, he sought and won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. Curran later served in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor during the second term of Gov. Harry R. Hughes (D). Curran won his first term as attorney general in 1986.
During the early part of his career, Curran spoke out on several civil rights issues before the stands were commonly accepted. He called for striking Maryland's law against interracial marriage and for laws requiring the sale of homes to people regardless of race.
Curran ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1968 as a single-issue candidate calling for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. He became a firm advocate of gun control after a 1976 shooting rampage at Baltimore City Hall, in which his father, a City Council member, suffered a heart attack and later died.
Curran's tenure as attorney general included Maryland's involvement in the national settlement with tobacco companies and a push for laws expanding consumer rights and targeting sex offenders, including 2004 legislation that made it a crime to solicit a minor by computer.
Hughes said Curran is most likely to be remembered for his sense of fairness. "He's got the utmost integrity," Hughes said. "There's not a phony bone in his body."
The assessment from the current governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has been less glowing. Ehrlich, Maryland's first GOP governor in a generation, has questioned whether the advice provided by Curran's office has been colored both by his partisanship and his relationship with O'Malley -- a suggestion at which Curran recoiled yesterday.
Curran's announcement comes after a similar decision last year by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), 73, which has produced a crowded field vying to take on Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the likely Republican nominee, for the open Senate seat.
Another long-serving Democrat, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, has drawn two credible younger Democratic challengers this year, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot.
Schaefer, 84, a former governor and mayor of Baltimore, has long been considered invincible. But some analysts are reassessing his vulnerability after several controversial antics, including his instruction this year to a 24-year-old female aide to "walk again" while he stared at her backside during a public meeting.
O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are locked in a primary battle for the right to challenge Ehrlich in November. Curran said his decision to retire was not influenced by concerns that have been raised about potential conflicts that could come with representing his son-in-law's administration.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he concluded after a recent conversation with Curran that Curran might have run again if not for an overriding desire "to do what is best for Martin O'Malley."
Two Montgomery politicians, State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler and County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) have been gearing up to launch campaigns for attorney general in anticipation of Curran's announcement. And other potential candidates might now give the race another look.
Given the two contenders from the Washington area, many analysts say the Democratic race could be attractive to a member of the Baltimore legal establishment. On the Republican side, Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle, who had been looking at the race, has scheduled an announcement for tomorrow.
Curran said he has no plans to endorse a successor.
With a little more than four months before the primary, Democratic leaders were growing increasingly anxious as they awaited word of Curran's reelection plans.
Curran said he had largely put the issue out of his mind during the 90-day legislative session, which concluded in mid-April, so he could focus on initiatives being pushed by his office. Those included a bill calling for increased supervision of sex offenders that died on the final day of the session.
"We'll work on getting that through again next year," Curran said, before correcting himself. "I'm sure the next attorney general and governor will work on getting that through."