Curry's Style Wins Few Capitol Friends
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 1998; Page C01
This week's defeat by Maryland lawmakers of a special school construction plan for Prince George's County was driven, in part, by a widespread belief in Annapolis that County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) is too combative, arrogant and unwilling to give members of the General Assembly proper respect.
Having no prior experience in elected office, lawmakers said, Curry is unfamiliar with the decorum of the state legislature and often wary of making even basic phone calls to the governor and top legislative leaders to win their support.
"He's too proud to ask for what he wants," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), one of many lawmakers who have jousted with Curry.
In the nearly four years since he was elected county executive, Curry, who seldom visits Annapolis, has yet to endear himself with the powers that be in the city. All but one of the elected representatives in the county's House and Senate delegations supported Curry's opponent in the Democratic primary in 1994. And since then, Curry has not warmed to local legislators, and they have not warmed to him.
Meanwhile, his relations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who himself hails from Prince George's, are at a low ebb after Curry launched an unusually sharp attack on the governor last week for his failure to secure passage of the school construction plan.
Because county legislators, the governor and Curry are not always on the same page, some lawmakers believe that Prince George's has not always gotten as much as it could have out of the General Assembly.
State leaders say that the Montgomery County delegation and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), for example, are more organized and get better results. It's no accident, they say, that Montgomery has received far more money for school construction than Prince George's in recent years, even though the needs in Prince George's are arguably greater.
Legislators, almost to a person, acknowledge that Curry is smart and has done an able job managing county affairs. But they give him poor marks on managing people and say he does little to hide his disdain for the legislative process. Curry's background as a businessman, and now as county executive, is at odds with the slow and sometimes meticulous art of deal-making in Annapolis, legislators said.
"I don't think he understands the legislative process down here," said Del. Joan B. Pitkin (D-Prince George's). "He thinks we're small cogs in a big wheel down here. So much of this place is process-driven. People who are used to getting things done get frustrated with the process."
Curry does not deny that his desire is to get things done as quickly as possible. But he flatly denies that he does not know how to build consensus, having done so as head of the county's Chamber of Commerce and as a member of various bank boards. Legislators, he said, are more likely put off by his "confidence."
"I have an enormous respect for the legislative bodies, and legislative luminaries," Curry said. "There is a big difference between being arrogant and confident or informed. I'm really sorry that some people regard confidence as arrogance. I think a lot of people would prefer that I could act like Tinkerbell, but I just can't."
Curry's blunt approach has certainly paid off at times. His sharp criticism, along with Duncan's, of last year's special schools package for Baltimore helped bring the legislature around to a new funding package this year for Prince George's and other suburban jurisdictions.
But Curry's manner has not come without its costs. His opposition to special treatment for Baltimore gave city lawmakers an opening this year when Curry and other county officials demanded special treatment for the county in how the state handles school construction costs.
The chairs of the two budget committees in Annapolis are from Baltimore, and they -- like many other city lawmakers -- remembered well Curry's stance last year.
"They did it to Baltimore last year," said Del. Tony E. Fulton (D). "We saw an opportunity to reciprocate."
But Fulton parts company with colleagues who dislike Curry. "He's not intimidated," Fulton said. "Wayne Curry intimidates passive African Americans and threatens white institutions. But he has learned how to deal with the white power structure. I wish we had county executives all over the state like him."
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, also likes Curry's style.
"He is the shrewdest negotiator on the scene in Maryland," Flanagan said. "He's willing to upset people if he needs to."
But Prince George's legislators say that Curry must get them more involved earlier to press his legislative initiatives, rather than assuming they will rubber-stamp them. Del. Pauline H. Menes (D), a 32-year member of the legislature, said Curry's relationship with the delegation is much like the one it had with Glendening when he served as Prince George's county executive.
Menes said Glendening, like Curry, often clashed with the delegation because he erroneously assumed that building a consensus with 188 legislators from across the state should be as easy as dealing with nine County Council members in Upper Marlboro.
"An executive doesn't know the process down here unless they come from here," said Menes, a former chair of the county delegation.
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