washingtonpost.com
Middle Man

By Peter Perl
Sunday, September 29, 1996; 5:00 AM

Through sheer force of will, Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry stands about six feet away from the governor of Maryland and pretends convincingly not to see him.

Curry and Gov. Parris Glendening, his predecessor as Prince George's executive, don't much like each other. So it is awkward when they arrive almost simultaneously outside this scruffy abandoned storefront in Bladensburg. Curry goes about smiling, shaking many hands, hugging old friends and manfully ignoring the governor.

But he has to sit and listen as Glendening opens this groundbreaking for a neighborhood pharmacy with one of those warm, homey and overlong anecdotes politicians love to tell. An anecdote about his youthful days as a drugstore soda jerk.

"It was a good, old-fashioned soda fountain," Glendening says. ". . . You knew one another. You talked."

As Curry listens, his expression ranges from attentive to bored to slightly mischievous, a twinkling look that his mother and his schoolteachers would remember well from a young man known for his sharp tongue and his tendency to tweak those in authority.

When the governor finishes his rhapsody about his boyhood Rexall drugstore and sits down to polite applause, Curry rises. He and Glendening barely acknowledge each other. The two men stand divided over issues ranging from a county budget deficit to state aid for education to the new Redskins stadium going up in Prince George's. Beneath the current events, too, lies a much deeper conflict: Each man symbolizes a different stage in the development of a place whose singular history has cast issues of race and class in sharp relief.

"This is my home town," Curry says to the crowd of civic leaders, and then takes pains to remind everybody that while Wayne Curry is a genuine Prince George's County homeboy, Parris Glendening spent his childhood somewhere in Florida. "I don't know if his memory of a soda fountain was in Tallahassee or wherever that was," Curry says. "Well, I grew up right here."

He talks about how he went to Bladensburg Junior High, which used to be right up the street, and worked in the pet shop that used to be just next door. Then he spins an anecdote to top the governor's: During Curry's youth, on this very spot here on Annapolis Road, there used to be a pool hall named the Golden Cue, where a 13-year-old hustler called Geese used to skip school to shoot pool. There was a duckpin bowling alley out back and a roller rink here, too, and the community was vibrant and lively, before it went into decline and delinquents like Geese started getting into serious trouble. Curry concludes by saying how devoted he is to "recapturing" neighborhoods like this, and making Prince George's County better for everyone.

The applause for Curry is decidedly louder. The governor has a fixed smile on his face as he claps.

Outside, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a hearty session of hugging and hand-shaking, Curry is cornered by a cameraman and a TV reporter in the narrow front parking lot of the strip shopping center. Curry quickly delivers a clean sound bite about "the human side of these neighborhoods we have neglected," but in mid-sentence he is interrupted by the blaring horn of a dark limousine. It is Glendening's limousine. Curry is blocking the governor's quick exit, and rather than wait, Glendening's driver chooses to honk the county executive out of the way as he inches the governor's car forward.

Curry has no choice but to stop. The TV crew will have to shoot the whole interview over. Curry scowls as he is forced to step aside, up onto the curb, to let the governor pass.

Wayne Curry does not get pushed aside very often these days. Not anymore.

***

He used to be just about the smallest, scrawniest kid at Bladensburg High School, one of only a few dozen black students in a recently desegregated class of more than 500. Other, bigger guys developed physical prowess, but Wayne, a cheerleader and manager of sports teams, developed a mighty mouth. He was smart, witty and verbally tough, jonin' and crackin' wisecracks that made him popular enough to become vice president of his senior class. His mouth often got him into trouble, too: Sometimes he'd find himself on the wrong end of a stiff right hand, and once even on the wrong side of the Prince George's County Police, who were infamous then for their hostility to blacks.

Prince George's was, after all, white man's country. Even after the Civil War, the tobacco planter aristocracy ruled a county that at various times was a moonshining, bootlegging, tobacco-chewing and largely redneck kind of place. From Upper Marlboro, the white establishment rigidly controlled the lives of black people. Blacks had been their slaves; then they became cheap farm labor and servants in a suffocating environment with "colored only" schools and strictly segregated neighborhoods. A near-majority in the late 19th century, the county's blacks steadily migrated to the District and other cities, dwindling to only 10 percent of the population by 1960.

Over the last 30 years, however, the county has undergone an extraordinary demographic shift: Prince George's has reversed the migration to the point where it has a black majority. In the process, it has redefined the possibilities for an integrated, or at least biracial, middle class. Wayne Curry, the executive now responsible for seeing those possibilities fulfilled, is himself a creature of this evolution.

Prince George's legacy of racism shadowed his youth. Among the very first children to desegregate the Prince George's public schools as a fourth-grader in 1959, he felt the unwelcome stares and heard the racial taunts. Crosses were burned at night outside his elementary school, Cheverly-Tuxedo. He listened to his parents discuss the struggle against housing discrimination, against the unfairness of separate and unequal school systems.

Life in the Curry household was sometimes volatile -- Wayne's father waged a lengthy struggle against alcoholism -- but it also offered education, discipline, tolerance and love. Ultimately, Wayne Curry emerged from this Prince George's upbringing to become a college graduate, an honors law student, a millionaire real estate lawyer and bank board member, a Democratic Party activist and the first black president of the county Chamber of Commerce.

He then had the audacity to run for county executive without ever having held elective office, and without the backing of the county's powerful Democratic establishment. His victory in November 1994 made him not only the first black executive in the county's history, but also the only black chief elected official of any county in America.

Curry, 45, is a prominent member of a new generation of African American political leadership. Too young to have participated actively in the heyday of the 1960s civil rights movement, he is a beneficiary of it. He also seeks to carry out an agenda that transcends race. He says he wants to be known as more than simply a "first black" leader, and he talks about "not just making history, but making sense." He is strongly pro-business and fiscally conservative, and, in most settings, he doesn't focus on racial issues. He moves comfortably in both white and black circles. Throughout his life, he has benefited from mentors and friends both black and white, including a white real estate developer who put him through law school and hired him afterward.

Now, Curry says his background has helped him develop the considerable political asset of being "bilingual": He can speak "lawyer talk" among Chamber of Commerce types and in Wall Street boardrooms, and "street talk" among his constituents, who come from all social classes and races.

As a politician, he is at once brash and cautious. He believes he is smarter and more capable than his political adversaries, and he shows flashes of being a passionate advocate, particularly among the black constituents who form his political base. Yet he can also appear plodding and reticent, seeming timid because he approaches issues like a careful corporate lawyer who has never before managed a large enterprise. It took Curry several months to pursue the Redskins deal, for example, and then only after the County Council initiated action.

"People will lose sleep if they try to figure out Wayne Curry," says Major F. Riddick Jr., Glendening's chief of staff, who also has been a friend and adviser to Curry for nearly 20 years. Riddick describes him as a tremendously capable man who demands a high level of loyalty, trusts very few people and can be a bit thin-skinned. "He does," says Riddick, "take these things a lot more personally" than most politicians.

He won election after a bitter three-way Democratic primary in which Glendening stayed neutral. Curry had the strong support and financial backing of major real estate and business interests, but the majority of the county's Democratic establishment -- including Congressman Albert Wynn, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and six of the county's seven other senators in Annapolis -- opposed him. His relationships with the legislators remain generally poor, and Curry believes they will go out of their way -- particularly Miller -- to subvert him.

Curry is asked whether he dwells too much on real or perceived political enemies. He smiles. "I don't make the assumption that everybody wants me to succeed," he says. "I know better than that."

Curry's friends say he cultivates a certain outrageousness that his childhood friend John Lally calls "an intelligent belligerence." Curry often declares that "politics is a contact sport" that he enjoys. Curry has learned, Lally says, that "power is something you've got to take. You have to connive, scheme to get it. And that is impressive. You have to get power, real power, because it is not handed to you."

When Glendening left the county with a projected $100 million deficit, Curry handled the resulting fiscal crisis firmly; in negotiations with Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and state officials, he steadfastly refused to contribute county money toward the new $160 million stadium. So far, he's earned generally favorable reviews and generated predictions of a bright political future. He seeks to prove that, in contrast to the neighboring District of Columbia, black leadership can mean prosperity and progress -- not just for his county's 55 percent black majority, but for everybody. He also seeks to quiet the fears of white residents and businesses. "Normally, the mere arrival of an African American majority is like a fire alarm going off, saying, Don't use the elevators! Use the staircase and get out!' " Curry said just after his election. "Well, that's not what we are."

***

Curry likes to call Prince George's, particularly because of its sorry racial history, "the jewel in the crown of the post-civil rights era." He sees it as the place where African Americans, having finally gained substantial political power, can achieve the last milestone of the civil rights struggle: economic power.

Indeed, Prince George's was the first major jurisdiction in the nation to go from majority white to majority black with income and education levels rising rather than falling. In Prince George's, more blacks than whites have college degrees, and more blacks than whites live in households with incomes greater than $50,000, according to the 1990 census. The median household income of $43,127 placed Prince George's more than $10,000 above the national figure and near the top 50 of all counties in America.

Still, the county ranks far below Fairfax and Montgomery, which are perennially among the top 10 richest counties. Prince George's real estate values lag behind all other Washington suburbs, and its public schools' scores on standardized tests rank second-worst among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions. First-class restaurants and major retailers shun the county despite its impressive demographics. Around the Beltway, P.G. just doesn't get much respect. But don't dare call it "P.G." in front of Curry: He, like others, believes the abbreviation is a shorthand way of denigrating the county and a code for racial stereotyping. He always asks newspaper editors to stop using "P.G." in headlines. Why not call Prince William "P.W." or Anne Arundel "A.A."? he asks. Why is P.G. singled out? Curry prefers to call his constituents "Prince Georgians."

It is a constant struggle for respect, for the county and sometimes for Curry himself. Many Prince George's neighborhoods inside the Beltway are plagued by poverty, pocked by urban blight, decayed housing and long-shuttered businesses. The county has the worst crime problem among the region's suburbs. It is hamstrung by a 24-year-old federal school desegregation order that adds legal and financial burdens to a struggling school system. It is the only area jurisdiction with a voter-imposed tax cap that limits what its politicians can collect, and it is the only locality to express its distrust of elected leaders by imposing term limits on them.

Against this backdrop, Curry is laboring to improve schools, reduce crime and generate economic development. He faces daunting challenges because the county has struggled with these issues for decades, says Winfield Kelly, the former county executive who hired Curry as a young aide. If he can achieve his basic goals, Kelly says, "he will have created a remarkable county, unlike any in America." Which would suit Curry fine, because, as his campaign slogan boldly declared: "Wayne Curry is Prince George's County."

Actually, the slogan originally proposed was, "Wayne Curry. Why Not the Best?" The campaign staff opposed it, though, on the grounds that it might make him sound too conceited. "But it's true," protested Lally, the candidate's friend and the slogan's champion. "He is the best. And he is conceited."

***

Curry chooses to describe himself more in terms of confidence and self-esteem. Whatever it is, it's a deep part of a proud and complicated man who is very much the son of Juliette and Eugene Curry, a big, tough guy whom everybody called Bull.

"My goal," Juliette Curry says, "was to keep the family together. I didn't want to have to send the children off." She is a pleasant, graying woman of 65, and she is paging through several dusty scrapbooks, recalling a turbulent marriage. She is sitting in the dining room of the little three-bedroom brick house where the Currys raised five children, one daughter and four sons who shared a cramped bedroom with bunk beds. The house is on the wrong side of the railroad tracks near the small black enclaves of Beaver Heights and North Englewood that were separated from the rest of Cheverly, where in the 1950s white civic organizations bought houses as they came up for sale to keep them out of the hands of blacks.

She comes upon an old black-and-white photograph of an attractive, bright-eyed young couple in the 1940s, shortly after they met as college students at what was then the Hampton Institute, near Norfolk. The handsome, smiling man is a football lineman, 6 foot and 220 pounds, who went on to become a drill sergeant in the Army and later an industrial arts teacher in the "colored" schools of Prince George's. He particularly loved woodworking, and taught the craft to his second son, Wayne, who seemed the most interested. Bull Curry eventually rose to become vice principal at all-black Fairmont Heights High School, a man respected and feared by the youngsters he was assigned to teach and discipline.

Bull Curry would spank unruly students with a wooden paddle, as was the custom then. At home, he demanded that the boys make their beds military-style, with the sheets squared at the corners and tucked tight enough to bounce a quarter. For discipline, he forsook the wooden paddle in favor of his razor strop. His most frequent target was Daryl, the eldest. From Daryl's suffering, Wayne gained wisdom, says the elder brother, who is now 46 and a cameraman for WTTG-TV. "He had the experience of seeing me make mistakes that met with severe punishment," and he learned how to minimize his own trouble.

Daryl managed to find trouble when, at 17, he got into an argument with some neighborhood toughs who knew his father: That night in 1967, Daryl was shot six times and seriously wounded. By the next morning, the police had not yet caught the gunman, so 16-year-old Wayne went down to the basement, took his father's shotgun out of the closet, and stalked out of the house bent on revenge.

The image of a black youth carrying a shotgun in 1960s Prince George's still seems surreal to Juliette Curry. She remembers only that a Cheverly police officer spotted Wayne on a railroad bridge, recognized him and brought him home. The matter was never discussed further, she says. Wayne Curry is somewhat taken aback when asked to recall the incident and he is fuzzy on details. All he can say is, "I was angry. I don't know what I was thinking . . . It was obviously incongruent with my nature." Less incongruent was the incident a few years later when he got into a jawing match with a white Prince George's cop. That time, he was arrested, but quickly released.

Juliette and Daryl have vivid recollections of Bull's drinking bouts during this same period, but Wayne does not -- at least not that he shares easily. Daryl recalls his father's heaviest drinking coinciding with Daryl's shooting and, earlier, with the two Curry boys' integrating the elementary school. Bull, apparently because of his pushing for integration, lost his longtime summer job as a handyman and groundskeeper with the county schools, and with it an important chunk of the family income. He had to resort to pumping gas at the neighborhood Texaco.

Juliette recalls that during Bull's intermittent benders, the two older boys had to pick their father up after he fell and hurt himself on various occasions. Daryl remembers that he and Wayne often discussed the impending breakup of the family, wondering if the kids would be sent away to other relatives. Eventually, Bull spent a long time at a Veterans Administration hospital and quit drinking. But after several separations, he and Juliette divorced in 1972.

"Wayne, regarding the dark family years, he is a lot more reluctant to deal with those problems. Some of them are not pleasant," Daryl says. "I believed in dealing with them . . . Wayne didn't want to dwell on things he couldn't change."

Wayne chose to become a psychology major when he attended Western Maryland College, partly because he felt compelled to learn more about the vagaries of human behavior, such as he witnessed in his own family. He recognizes now that he is "blocking out" some bad memories. "I don't remember things with the clarity Daryl does," he says. "I simply adopted strategies and principles of how to deal with it. There is some blocking. There is some selective recall. You tend to remember the good things and remember the lessons you learn from the bad things."

Wayne chooses to remember Bull as "an incredibly heroic figure . . . a man of character and intellect" who was frustrated by racial barriers but nonetheless a role model "revered" by young people. Decades later, people still tell Wayne how much they were helped by Bull, who died in 1993. "Projects, and dreams, and goals," Wayne says. "That is something that that man drilled into my head, along with the obligation, despite obstacles, to succeed anyway. Do it anyway!"

Juliette says, "We just taught them to dwell on the positive, don't dwell on the negative, because if you dwell on the negative, you never get beyond it."

Another attitude consistently stressed was racial tolerance, she says, particularly because both sides of the family have white or Native American heritage going back four or five generations, and many light-skinned relatives, including some who chose to pass for white. "I did not want them to hate any part of themselves," she says. "I came to see there was one race, the human race. We tried to teach them to be colorblind. We drummed it into them."

But the message got confused by the realities of Prince George's in the early '60s, the years when it was 90 percent white. When Daryl and Wayne joined the Boys Club football team in Cheverly, the county refused to let their integrated team play against all-white teams. While this decision was being appealed, their team was allowed to play, but only with their jerseys turned inside out. In junior high, Wayne ran for school president and lost by two votes. He is convinced, to this day, that school officials manipulated the vote to block him.

Daryl and Wayne both said they learned to laugh off racist slights and insults, rather than give their adversaries satisfaction. Wayne today often minimizes the impact of these childhood incidents, but others see it differently. "Wayne is very thin-skinned, and I think it's the result of harmful experiences of growing up in a segregated county," says Lance Billingsley, a former law partner, who has known Curry for 25 years. "One of the things that impressed me was how deeply he felt the experiences he had growing up and being discriminated against. I don't think I'd met anyone who felt it as deeply as Wayne did."

"I remember Wayne Curry in diapers," Tommie Broadwater says as he walks through the palatial house he is renovating in Upper Marlboro. "I used to baby-sit him."

***

If Wayne Curry is Prince George's County, then Tommie Broadwater was Prince George's. He was the Muhammad Ali, the undisputed champion, of black politics from the late '60s to the '80s, and he was the James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business, favoring gold rings, gold chains, big hair and flamboyant clothes. Broadwater, then a successful insurance agent and community activist, was the first black politician to crack the inner circle of the Democratic machine dominated by state Senator and future Congressman Steny Hoyer and party chairman Peter O'Malley. roadwater was elected to the state Senate representing the poor inner Beltway communities around Glenarden, and was often the swing vote on the powerful Democratic Central Committee. For patronage jobs, for favors, for issues affecting the then-struggling black community, Tommie B. was the man to see.

Until 1983, when he was convicted of food-stamp fraud at the neighborhood grocery store he owned and sentenced to six months in prison. The conviction effectively ended his political career. After several fruitless comeback attempts in the last decade, he resumed his other lucrative businesses as a bail bondsman, liquor-store owner and proprietor of the Ebony Inn, a nightclub and barbecue joint near the District line that used to be the place for the black politicos of Prince George's to meet.

Outside his mansion, two BMWs, a Mercedes and a vintage Thunderbird are parked in the circular drive. "I paid $1 million and 50 thousand for this place . . . at foreclosure," says Broadwater. "It was appraised at $2.7 million." He escorts a visitor through the house, which sprawls amid 72 acres and originally belonged to the late Ted Hagans, a black real estate developer. "There is not another house in Prince George's that can touch it. It has warmth, it has unique design. Six, seven bedrooms -- I don't even know."

Broadwater brags comfortably about the pool, the six fireplaces, the indoor and outdoor hot tubs, the gymnasium with sauna, the two kitchens, the wine cellar and the wet bar, and he laughs at the delicious irony that a black man's estate occupies land that used to house slaves on a tobacco plantation. "I've been telling my kids," he says, "you never know what the future holds."

Tommie Broadwater was a tough kid from a poor household, and he ran afoul of a high school teacher named Mr. Curry, who had known him for years from the neighborhood. Bull Curry paddled him hard, but the Currys were also fond of Tommie and sort of adopted him, taking him along on family vacations.

In the early 1970s, Wayne Curry, a recent college grad who favored a high bush hairstyle and dashikis or flowered shirts, asked Broadwater's help in landing his first job in government, as an aide to then-County Executive Kelly. When Curry later was dissatisfied about being frozen out of decision-making in a virtually all-white office, he again went to Broadwater, who spoke to Kelly, touting Curry's intelligence and writing ability. Curry was given more and more responsibility, including a sensitive job as liaison between the black community and the county police.

Later, when Curry decided he wanted to attend law school, he asked Broadwater for a loan, and while Tommie demurred, he instead hooked him up with Ken Michael, a white man who was one of the most successful developers in the county. Curry "had one of those Afro-American haircuts and he was very cocky," Michael recalls, " . . . and I recognized he was brilliant." Michael recalls that Curry "originally said he wanted to be a defense attorney. I asked why and he said, I want to help my brothers.' I said, That doesn't help me.' I said, If you want to get a degree in real estate law, I am interested.' " Curry turned him down, Michael says, but later called back and agreed. Curry worked for the county by day and commuted at night to the University of Maryland law school on his motorcycle.

"I ended up helping him through law school," Michael says. "He didn't have to work. I was paying his salary with the understanding he would come to work for me . . . He worked some, but it was primarily to report every semester that he was getting A's."

Once he graduated, Curry took charge of Michael's office. "I had clients I considered rednecks who would look at me like I had lost it," Michael says. "But it didn't take Wayne long to impress them, too."

Broadwater was happy to help Curry, whom he came to consider his top political lieutenant. Curry quickly learned the nuts and bolts of fund-raising, door-knocking, raffles and voter registration. He also was a savvy adviser. "Wayne plays it like it has to be played," Broadwater says. "The short haircut. We had arguments about that. He told me to take off the rings. The newspapers blasted me as flamboyant, and Wayne would say, 'Cut your hair lower. Take off your rings.' "

***

Now, Broadwater has advice for Curry, although the two men are no longer close because Curry would not support his repeated runs for office after his release from prison. Says Broadwater: "I would say to him: Don't forget where you came from, and don't forget the people less fortunate than you.' " Particularly as more affluent blacks continue moving to high-priced subdivisions outside the Beltway, Broadwater says, the county could easily ignore the substandard schools and run-down housing that plague its poorer communities.

"Prince George's, to me, is a mini-America," Broadwater says. "It is big enough for everybody . . . The key is not thinking about P.G. being black, but as a place where everybody who wants to live good can live. It's up to people like you and I -- the Waynes, the ministers, me and you, to remind people, Yes, you have made it, but you have to remember where you came from.' That is a political issue and a religious issue and a community issue. People think they have arrived. They bought the house, bought the Mercedes, and then they lock the door and say, That's it.' We must not let people forget there are people less fortunate."

Broadwater pauses shortly to take a call on his cellular phone from his bail-bonding business. Somebody less fortunate needs money fast.

***

Curry has this "privacy zone," and he protects it fiercely. He is not a big fan of the news media, and he makes a point of not being easily accessible. A new security system on the fifth floor of the county administration building requires visitors to go through police guards and closed doors with combination locks, a setup that has displeased not only reporters, but some County Council members as well. Curry rarely holds news conferences, rarely meets with the council.

He is explaining some of this, somewhat uncomfortably, in his spacious wood-paneled office when the telephone rings and the county executive confronts a minor emergency. His 2-year-old son, Julian, is running a high temperature and must be taken home from the county-run day-care center down the street. His wife, Sheila, 33, an accountant and homemaker, is off with their newborn daughter, Taylor Ann, at the pediatrician's office.

Minutes later, the stocky man in the dark blue suit is tiptoeing through a darkened classroom, stepping around nine children who are napping on colorful molded-plastic cots. "Hey, man. How you doin', Petey?" Curry says as he hoists Julian into his arms, calling him by his nickname. "You got a fever, Petey?"

Julian will visit Dad's office until Mom gets back, and Curry's mood lightens dramatically. His curly-haired, bright-eyed son is a ready-made photo op in his striped overalls, crooked baseball cap and tiny Nikes. "He's so photogenic it's disgraceful," Curry says with a broad smile. "He was our secret weapon . . . During the campaign, we reached the point of saying, Elect Julian's Dad' on our fliers."

The sudden presence of the little boy makes the father look larger. The father has thick arms, thick eyebrows, thick mustache and a receding hairline, much as Bull did. Wayne Curry takes Julian through his back-room study and out the sliding glass door onto a concrete terrace that overlooks scenic Schoolhouse Pond, home of stocked fish, migrating geese and families of turtles. Curry lights a Benson & Hedges 100 Light -- although he would prefer that people not know about his smoking, and the county office building is, by law, a no-smoking zone -- and starts to reflect at length on some of the challenges of office. Julian, playing quietly, stops by and rolls a yellow toy truck gently atop his father's head.

***

Curry sees the school system as "the defining institution" that will determine the future of Prince George's on issues ranging from crime to real estate values. Without quality schools, he says, the county will suffer "bright flight" as parents of all races continue abandoning the school system in favor of other counties or private schools. But he says the county cannot pay for meaningful change unless it repeals the 1978 law known as TRIM (for Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), which limits taxes to $2.40 per $100 of assessed property value.

In Curry's first two years, he has tried to get the county's legislative delegation in Annapolis to give him authority to override TRIM for school funding. But the lawmakers, led by Senate President Miller, have refused to touch the tax cap, which passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Miller, among others, criticized Curry as being too timid to put himself squarely in favor of scrapping TRIM by a voter referendum.

Curry has spoken out frequently against TRIM , but it was not until July -- and then only because the County Council virtually demanded it -- that he went before the council to seek a repeal referendum. That is now scheduled for November, along with an opposing referendum, sponsored by citizens, that would make it even harder to raise property taxes.

On his sunny terrace, Curry, evidencing his tendency to speak of himself in the third person, says, "The issue is not Wayne's desire to raise taxes. The issue is the inherently suicidal nature of this structural arrangement" of frozen tax rates. "You can unelect me, but don't kill yourself. It's like being anorexic. It takes you a while to die, but you do."

Selling the public on higher school spending -- particularly when only 24 percent of Prince George's households send their children to public schools -- would be a huge challenge to anyone's political skills, Curry says. "If it was just razzmatazz, I'd be fine. Can Wayne rap? Can he dance? Can he take a punch? If it was just that, I'd be fine. But we are talking here about structural changes." Most voters don't even know that the county executive has no direct control over schools or the school board, he says, making his task all the more difficult.

Curry says he gets frustrated by the distraction of "sexy and superficial issues," such as the controversy last spring over the school system's inviting -- and then disinviting, and then reinviting -- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to speak at a graduation. While the story made headlines, Curry repeatedly refused to be quoted on his opinion. Now, he says, "you don't need a rocket scientist to know most black Prince Georgians do not respect Clarence Thomas," but school officials were wrong in trying to silence the justice. Even so, says Curry, "I didn't see much need to speak just because the media jumped on it."

He often brings conversations around to his adversaries, which may be why some people say he can be petty. When Bea Tignor, the former state senator who ran against him in 1994, took a job with Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, Curry hit the ceiling and told Duncan that his "enemy" should be required to move there.

Miller is a frequent target of Curry's ire. In this conversation, he dismisses the Senate president as a "bully." Personality conflicts, of course, are hardly rare in politics, but in this case the name-calling reflects something of Prince George's place and time.

"There is a personal dislike there," says Curry's chief administrative officer, Howard Stone. "Wayne Curry doesn't take any {expletive}, and a lot of people don't like that. It's easier to accept an unassuming go-along, get-along kind of person." Stone adds, "It is hard for the Mikes of the world when you keep reminding them that this is the most affluent, educated black jurisdiction in the world, and that's a lot different than the Prince George's of tobacco fields and pickup trucks."

The two men clashed most sharply over the Redskins stadium, which Miller strongly backed. "My constituents never asked me to help build a stadium for a billionaire with public money," Curry says. During the negotiations, "with all those people against me, ferociously so, it was insidious and hateful in some cases. The tactics and pressures used by other politicians to advance the stadium deal were incredible. It was, Do what we tell you, or we'll jack you up' " when you need help from Annapolis.

Miller, for his part, says Curry is "a show horse" rather than a workhorse who gets things done, and that Curry nearly blew the deal because of his "bunker mentality."

On the stadium, he did move very slowly. Critics said this reflected his timidity, but friends said it was part of a cagey bargaining strategy with the impatient 83-year-old Cooke.

Curry had spent two decades working on complex deals in real estate and as general counsel to Dimensions Health Corp., which operated the county's public hospitals. He studies issues carefully and is "very thoughtful and extremely deliberate" before deciding his positions, says Greg Wells, Curry's campaign manager and a former roommate from their bachelor days. When grappling with an issue, the executive often spends many hours sitting in his back study, reading all the relevant documents and memos, smoking a cigarette, occasionally reading a Bible given him by a friend. He'll usually consult with his few close aides, particularly Stone, before making his decision.

"A good rule for understanding Wayne," Wells says, "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 Curry does take a stand, Wells says, he does it forcefully, "with the confidence a lawyer should have," and this assertiveness often leads people to label him brash.

" Recalcitrant' was the word they chose to describe me" in the stadium deal, Curry says. "Implicit in this was that all these years of being a transactional lawyer didn't matter." Implicit in that is that, once again, the issue came down to one of respect.

***

In the pulpit on a bright Sunday morning, Curry is rocking. His voice is soaring, fluttering and dropping dramatically. More than 700 members of his home church, First Baptist of North Brentwood, are paying close attention, occasionally shouting their support with an "A-men!" or a "Yes, sir!" or a "That's the truth!"

Curry is giving a rousing sermon, slamming the governor and the state establishment, attacking TRIM and stirring his all-black audience with a racially tinged message quite unlike his conventional stump speech. It is Education Sunday at First Baptist, an annual tribute to graduating students, some of whom get handsome scholarships from the middle-class church.

Curry has been asked to speak, and he has chosen to hammer home his message that Glendening has let down his county by awarding only $5 million in state aid for school construction this year. Montgomery County, the state's richest jurisdiction, received $36 million. (Curry's critics contend that his county did poorly partly because his relations with legislators are so strained and other county executives outlobbied him. State officials also stress that Prince George's still got more total state aid for schools than any jurisdiction outside Baltimore.)

This is all a mundane topic for a sermon, but Curry livens it up by describing an elaborate "dream" that he says he had the night before. In the dream, Curry saw a meeting among a Governor, a Comptroller and a Treasurer. The meeting in Annapolis was interrupted by "a Minion" hurrying to see "the Sire."

"Sire, we got trouble," the Minion said.

"What do you mean?" the Sire asked.

"There is commotion down there in Prince George's County . . . The people down there did this unusual thing. They had an election and they elected some fella with a big mouth, and he is running all over Prince George's County talking about education and how he wants to help and improve it."

In Curry's dream, the big-mouthed County Exec is eagerly awaiting big money because the Sire has promised a record $135 million in statewide school construction aid, and Prince George's has the biggest school system. "Aw man, this mus' be gon' be good," the Executive says. (Curry is laying on the slang and the deep Southern accent so thickly that he interrupts his dream to apologize: "Now, you teachers out there, forgive me. I'm chattin', I'm not trying to have a dissertation.")

The Minion tells the Sire that the Prince Georgian is complaining publicly about the Sire's leadership.

"Does he not know that that would displease me?" the Sire thunders, and Curry's nostrils flare as he makes a foolish face, which makes the audience laugh. "I thought I told you to tell him that would displease me!"

"Sire, we sent people down there to tell him, just like his Daddy did: Boy, you know that mouth of yours is gonna get you in trouble.' " ("My Daddy used to tell me that," Curry says in an aside.)

The frightened Minion says the uppity Executive has ignored the entreaties and instead talked about how unfair it was that richer counties got more school aid. The Executive also has been saying the Sire was elected narrowly and would be defeated next time without support from Prince George's.

Cheers and applause resound as Curry turns somber.

"I may be widely persecuted for telling it like it is. In the dream, the Minion left Annapolis and rushed to Upper Marlboro to alert the offending Executive that he would be dealt with," Curry says, his voice rising. "The Executive said he has heard that all his life. He's heard that when the schools had to be desegregated and his neighbors and friends and family stood up and made a stand. And the Executive said he heard that when the police department had to be desegregated and his neighbors and friends and family and people of goodwill stood up and made a stand.

"The Executive said he heard that when everybody said they were gonna jam a stadium into Prince George's County on their terms. So the Executive is not terribly moved by your Minion coming down and telling him he is gonna get dealt with," Curry says, as if now addressing the Sire directly.

"We have more important things to do than deal with somebody's Minion," Curry booms. "Especially because I am a living manifestation of the reality, of the real dreams. I know that Wayne Curry is not surviving as your county executive because of his personality, his intellect or his wisdom. Wayne Curry is surviving as your county exec because God's hand is in this game. Only God could take a wayfaring little knucklehead off a little bridge in North Englewood and drag him to the county executive's office. Only God can do that! Only God can take someone like me and, one day, over all that cynicism and pain and despair and all that stuff that you go through, deliver me to the White House, where I can rap to the president of the United States! Wayne can't do that. God does that!"

Now the applause and cheers are thunderous.

Curry launches into a race-conscious critique of TRIM , which was enacted when the county still had a white majority. " TRIM was adopted so people wouldn't have to pay two tuitions -- one to the private school they sent their kids to, and the other {for} somebody else's kids. And whose kids are these that we are discussing? Who are these 123,000 kids we are not educating right? Whose kids are they?"

"Ours!" the audience cries.

He concludes by saying that both Annapolis and America seem off course. "We're living in a place where they burn churches, and dissolve black congressional districts, and where jail is the biggest growth industry we got going, and where the Supreme Court has liberalized search-and-seizure laws so police can go in your car when they feel like it. They got probable cause to stop a black child in an expensive car, just because the car is expensive . . . Now I know y'all know that politicians are not popular. But has it occurred to you that you might not be in vogue either?

"Somebody has got to get it together, and do what was done before. Somebody has got to invest in the children. Somebody has got to build some schools, and that somebody is the most powerful person in America, and that person is you." He points to someone in the audience as the congregation roars its approval.

"And you," pointing to someone else. The applause and shouts intensify.

"And you," more pointing. "And you . . ."

***

Wayne's world is moving. Over the summer, after several years of planning, he and Sheila finally started relocating from their substantial split-level in Enterprise Estates in Mitchellville to their new 18-room, custom-built mansion in Upper Marlboro. It is a spectacular 9,000-square-foot brick house on 24 rustic acres in one of the most exclusive subdivisions in Prince George's, The Reserve, which was developed by Ken Michael's son, Gary, in partnership with Curry. The house dominates a street named for him: Waynesford Drive.

Curry sometimes gives guided tours of his county to government officials, to business prospects, occasionally even to reporters. On a summer day, he stops first in Mitchellville to change from a dark business suit into a polo shirt, denim shorts, sandals and his Prince George's Tricentennial baseball cap.

"You have to promise not to write about the squalor," Curry says as he turns the key to enter the house, which is, of course, spotless and comfortable. Before leaving, he takes a moment to display a few prized creations of his woodworking hobby, among them a chest that he designed and crafted for Julian, using the carpentry techniques that Bull Curry taught him. The chest is made of solid, rich red oak with intricate dentil molding, a smoothly swinging front door and five dovetailed drawers that glide in and out. It shines and it feels custom-made.

Woodworking is his hobby and his escape, when he has the time. His big garage has been transformed into a fully cluttered workshop with a drill press, table saw, radial arm saw, router table, surface sander, shaper, band saw, jointer-planer, chop saw and piles upon stacks of wood. The workshop is also the home of Biko, a huge 10-year-old German shepherd that Curry named for the South African apartheid martyr Steve Biko.

Now Curry's police-chauffeured Crown Victoria sets off on a journey that traces his life in Prince George's. There's his childhood home, and the neighborhood park where he used to play and fight. There's the modest Addison Chapel apartments, where the Curry kids briefly lived with their mother when their parents' marriage was on the rocks. There's the more modest place in Capitol Heights, where as a college student he lived briefly in a subsidized apartment, next door to a woman who lost two children to violent deaths. There are some seedy neighborhood landmarks, such as the boarded-up shell of what used to be the Funky Donkey nightclub, "where I can't tell you how many people got shot up."

This is the old, poor Prince George's. There is the faded brick Fairmont Heights High School, "the temple to which my father dedicated his life," Curry says, "to surmount insurmountable odds when things are stacked against you." Curry likes to revisit these places. He says he resents "the assumers" who don't know his background but assume that because he is now a wealthy man, he has lost touch with the community's struggles.

"These are people I have known all my life, and they are proud people," he says as the car cruises along a poor section of Sheriff Road, which, Curry points out, has been recently outfitted with modern lighting, new curbing and paving stones. "These are wonderful people who were fighting against the odds. Everybody struggling to take care of their family . . ."

Curry says he is proud of initiatives he has pushed in poor neighborhoods inside the Beltway, such as a major renovation of the Eastover Shopping Center on the border of Southeast D.C.; such as a new $25 million federal program to extend home loans to working-class families who usually make just enough money to be disqualified; such as a new redevelopment law that will allow the county to condemn and renovate some blighted spots. "These are not sexy issues," he says, ". . . but we need this to avoid decline and degradation."

As he leaves some of his old haunts, Curry says, "People went off to make their fortune, and I said I was going to stick right here." Those who have made their fortunes tend to leave the county, or, like Curry, to gravitate to the big subdivisions outside the Beltway in places like Mitchellville, Woodmore and The Reserve, where houses start above $300,000 and go into the millions.

In an earlier conversation, Curry described his new home as "yet another expression of the opposite of timid; which is, putting your money where your mouth is, standing for something . . . I have always believed this is a county on the ascent, and it always baffled me that all these people who made scazillions of dollars getting rich off Prince George's would then disparage Prince George's . . . This community has been good to me. I have made a lot of money and had a successful career here as a lawyer, and I think it is incumbent upon me to put my money where my mouth is. I should install my dreams here if I am making my wealth here. There is nothing wrong with that."

Now, Curry is ready to end his guided tour. Hesitantly, he agrees to a quick detour to his new home. Again, there is an admonition at the doorway. "I'd prefer you not write too much" about it, he says.

The Curry mansion is only about a mile from Tommie Broadwater's new place. It, too, is in the final stages of construction. But as voluble as Broadwater is in showing off his home, Curry is reticent walking through his, like a reluctant landlord showing the place to a prospective but unwelcome tenant. He moves quickly through the rooms, each of which is beautiful. A staircase rises from the foyer in a dramatic curve, a domed ceiling looms over the dining room, a second kitchen is available for parties. There are large living and family rooms, five bathrooms, four fireplaces, a spacious master suite and an in-law suite as well, among many amenities. It feels like what it is, the home of a wealthy and successful man.

Outside, there is a separate two-story carriage house, which Curry has built for his workshop. It has nine-foot ceilings to accommodate his lengths of fine wood and all his machinery. Here, he lingers, long enough to explain that he will at last have a real workshop to pursue the hobby that he never has enough time for anymore. Here, he says, long after he has left government, he will try to find the time to practice the things his father taught him. All he has to do first is finish fashioning Prince George's into a sparkling jewel.

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