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Curry's Touchdown: The County Executive Has Tackled Bigger Foes Than Cooke

By Eugene L. Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 1995; Page C01

Wayne Curry is not, he's quick to point out, "your usual county exec." Nor is he your usual politician, someone with a long resume of elected posts and an insatiable appetite for public life and higher office. He's a well-heeled lawyer -- "a businessman," he asserts, as a declaration of independence. He's been a developer, a bank board member, a chamber president.

But there's more. In his chauffeured Crown Victoria, on his way from a power luncheon of the Washington Board of Trade, his voice is barely audible in the front seat as he struggles to speak of private demons.

Haltingly, he lays it out: "One of my brothers was shot when we were in high school. His son was shot a few years ago. My father-in-law was shot. My father was an alcoholic." His parents' marriage ended in divorce. Another brother living out West has "private challenges"; family members say he has battled heroin addiction.

"I've grown up with challenges and tragedies," says Curry. "I have had both the triumphs and tribulations of a real life."

Indeed, Wayne Curry's life reflects both the triumphs and tribulations, the challenges and tragedies, of the enormous but much-maligned county east of the District that he has led for the past year. His campaign slogan said it best: Wayne Curry is Prince George's County.

Wayne Curry's profile -- and that of his county -- rose dramatically last week, as the jurisdiction that gets no respect landed the Washington Redskins; the football team will build its new stadium just inside the Beltway in Landover. In the process, Curry emerged as the man who stood up to impatient politicians and to irascible Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to wrest the best deal he could for his clients: the Prince George's County taxpayers.

The deal involves no county tax money, but provides for minority participation, season tickets for some Prince Georgians on the waiting list, and, for county youth, $1.5 million in scholarships and $3 million toward a recreational complex to be built adjacent to the stadium.

The stadium issue had dogged him for weeks. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's) had griped publicly, Gov. Parris Glendening privately, at Curry's stubborn resistance to Cooke's entreaties. "Recalcitrance" is what Miller called it.

But Curry's style in office, as in life, is maddeningly methodical, deliberate and unhurried, and -- as brother Daryl attests -- he is "willing to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, because he feels he can do the right thing without having to depend on other people."

Curry's vision played well with citizens, and their support bolstered his resolve. For those who knew him well, the Washington area's first African American county executive was behaving true to form. To them, there was no recalcitrance. There was Wayne Curry of Cheverly, standing up to the big boys.

Growing Up in P.G.

Having succeeded by a wide margin in selling Wayne Curry to the voters last year, he now busies himself selling his county, which, he notes with pride, has evolved from the segregated society of his youth -- one dominated by blue-collar whites and political bosses -- to a land of opportunity for all, but especially for affluent and well-educated African Americans.

Prince George's emerged from the 1990 census with its first documented black majority in 130 years. Today, blacks are 55 percent of its 771,000 people. Moreover, it is the most affluent majority-black jurisdiction in the country, and a place where income and education levels rose rather than fell as blacks moved in and whites fled.

Curry, 44, comes from a black middle-class background, but being black and middle-class here in the 1950s was not what it is today. His parents, Eugene (Bull) Curry and Juliette Harris, met as students at Hampton Institute, a premier black college near Norfolk. He was from Maryland, outside Baltimore; she was from the District, a graduate of Dunbar High, the elite school for blacks during segregation.

They had four boys and a girl, a sometimes stormy marriage and ultimately, in 1972, a divorce. Bull Curry was an educator, a shop teacher and then an administrator at all-black Fairmont Heights High School. He was also an alcoholic who spent three years in a veterans hospital drying out, then managed to remain sober the rest of his life.

"We went through a period that was extremely vexing," recalls Wayne Curry. But Bull Curry came back from the brink. "He's one of my heroes," his son says.

His mother worked mostly as a secretary. She was among the first blacks in a traditionally all-white section of the county school system. She and her husband remained friends after their divorce; he died at age 67 in December 1993.

They lived in a three-bedroom brick house (with the four boys sleeping in bunk beds in one room) in Cheverly, a town off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway bisected by Route 50 and the train tracks. Their home was on the wrong side of those tracks, in the mostly black 4th Ward, where there were no sidewalks and where the black children went to black schools.

But not the Currys. Not Daryl, the oldest, nor Wayne, the next in line. In 1959, when the boys were in fourth and fifth grades, their parents took the initiative to send them to all-white Tuxedo-Cheverly Elementary School. Wayne Curry remembers "the somewhat novel-looking student population" of white kids, and then the startling reality that he wasn't there just to visit. Daryl's memory is a more somber recollection of "our parents taking us over to make sure we weren't refused entry."

Then the Currys enrolled Daryl and Wayne in the overwhelmingly white local Boys Club teams. In Cheverly, populated largely by college-educated government workers, there was no problem. But away games in less enlightened venues led to white protests and a legal battle; the constitution of the Prince George's Boys Club decreed racial segregation. Until the case was settled in their favor, the boys and their white teammates had to wear their jerseys inside out as "contested participants." It was 1961.

Daryl and Wayne were among a handful of blacks who also integrated Bladensburg Junior High and Senior High schools. Wayne ran for junior high president and lost by two votes, was vice president of his senior class, excelled academically and went on to Western Maryland College, where he majored in psychology.

"Many of our friends from that era are gone, a few of them violently," says Daryl, 46, the brother who was shot six times following an altercation over a girl at a high school dance in the 1960s. He went on to graduate and enlist in the Navy and is now a Channel 5 television cameraman. "It is no small achievement," he says, that "neither one of us has been in jail and neither of us is dead."

'Neighborhood Folks'

As a role model, Wayne Curry is out of Central Casting. So there he was one recent morning welcoming to the county building three classes of sixth-graders from affluent Fort Washington -- all but one of the children black. "It's a big job with a lot of important decisions," he is telling the students. Decisions to make Prince George's County a better place. "That's what I do, and when you're adults," he tells them, "that's what you'll do."

Then he is encircled by students seeking his autograph. They turn out to be not exactly strangers. "I went to high school with your dad. Tell him I said hello," he says to a girl. "Yeah, I know your dad, I sure do," he tells a boy. "Tell him I said hello, hear? I saw him a couple of weeks ago." And then they all pose for pictures.

Later, Curry talks about recent funerals he's attended. One was for a woman slain in her home; her daughter works for him. Another was for an old neighborhood friend, dead of cancer. All the homeboys were there, some who'd been in prison, others who were struggling in other ways, all of them touched by the travails of being black in America.

His was not the usual intrusive visit of a county executive making himself visible for political reasons. "The family grew up near me," he says. "They were regular neighborhood folks. It was a different environment than the usual county execs {know firsthand}." But that perhaps is not surprising.

After all, Wayne Curry is Prince George's County.

Diverse Constituency

"I view it as a marvelous place and certainly better than when I was a child," Curry says. "Our greatest challenge is to get our own identity, and to market ourselves favorably." To underscore his point, Curry commands his driver to pull into the parking lot of Americana Grocery, a gritty international food store in Langley Park. Owned by a Cuban immigrant, it has a remarkable selection of spices and huge bags of rice for sale by the cash register. "It's one of my favorite places," says Curry. "This ain't Safeway."

From the bodega, Curry detours to the home of Helen Powell, 89, who presides over a six-acre remnant of her family farm inside the Beltway and whose father was the last operator of the old Adelphi mill when it closed in 1910.

Talk about changes, she's seen them. She's white and she's not happy. "I don't know if we're in the right county," she begins. "Oh, Miss Powell," sighs Curry.

But it's not racial change she's lamenting. It's the immigrants. "There are more Spanish here than anybody else," she says. "They get to talking, you can't understand them. If they learn English, I'll be satisfied."

Curry seems relieved it's not black and white. "Yeah, it's tough," he says. "When they come in, we have to bring people together."

Powell: "We're getting further and further apart."

Curry: "It's not healthy."

The talk turns to values. "All these youngsters today, they're not getting the right kind of direction," he says. "But we're still making progress. It's just one of those things we have to do."

On Lost Ground

Curry came prepared, with remarks. They were about the promise of Prince George's, and the tough decisions he's made as its chief executive, cutting services, abolishing jobs, erasing a startling $108 million deficit he'd inherited. It was an upbeat talk about a county on the move, reveling in its rich mixture of people and landscapes.

Nice sentiments. Nice words. But the reality was this: On the morning after the Prince George's citizens of Takoma Park had voted overwhelmingly to secede from the county, ostensibly to unify the divided city in one jurisdiction, Curry was scheduled to speak in a political venue that was suddenly no longer his.

"I'm delighted to be here under these circumstances," he tells business leaders in an aging pancake house that is soon to be in Montgomery County. But he isn't really.

"It is ironic that this wonderful job of scheduling brings me here to Takoma Park the day after your vote. . . . Now I can sit around and evaluate your performance. . . . I'm frankly going to relish watching the changed {tax} assessments in Takoma Park, what used to be on the Prince George's side."

He's chosen to ignore the referendum, though, he says. "Constantly we hear these ignoble and disparaging views of the county and those people who live in it."

There is in his voice an edge of sarcasm, a tinge of resentment, even hurt, even while he vigorously denies having such understandable human feelings. This is Curry, like his county, craving respect, but more than that, demanding it.

And then comes the other Wayne Curry, conciliatory, controlled: "I'm not dismayed by the kind of chatter going on, or by the unification effort," he says. "We will work together. . . . I'm not beleaguered by challenges. There are always challenges."

The Builder, the Fixer

Welcome to Wayne's World.

He is gregarious but the most private of public persons. His closely guarded "privacy zone" centers on his wife, Sheila, 33, a certified public accountant and a homemaker, and their son, 18-month-old Julian. Having Julian is "leavening" for him, he says. He's "the equalizer" who brings him down to earth. The couple are expecting again in April.

Between them, they own two Mercedeses, two BMW sedans and a pickup truck. Their stock portfolio is extensive.

They live in a comfortable but not extravagant home in Enterprise Estates, in Mitchellville, a Prince George's postal address with cachet, on a lot that backs onto county parkland. But soon they will move to Curry's "dream house," an 18-room mansion in the Reserve, a new high-end subdivision in which he's a limited partner. It's just outside the county seat of Upper Marlboro and is his single direct venture into the world of developing. He says the recession took his profits.

The 9,000-square-foot house is nearing completion on a rustic 23.7-acre site. Curry paid $118,000 for the land; he and his wife have a $550,000 construction loan for the house. On Waynesford Drive. This is, after all, his subdivision.

"I'm looking forward to building my dream house in Prince George's County, not in Charles, Anne Arundel or anyplace else," Curry tells the secessionists of Takoma Park.

And what a house it is, with five full bathrooms, four half-baths, four fireplaces, a utility kitchen for catered affairs, a master suite to die for. He wants people to see this most tangible symbol of his achievement as proof positive that you don't have to deal drugs and tote guns to succeed.

A two-story annex resembles a carriage house, but is intended to be nothing of the sort. This is Wayne's future workshop and animal house, his retreat. In his secret life, he is a furniture maker, an animal handler. These aren't Walter Mitty fantasies. They're his relaxation. Growing up, he and Daryl worked part time at an exotic-pet store.

"We found animals to be just a little bit more reliable than people," says Daryl. "You never had to question what animals' motivations were for being around you. It was partly because of the integration thing. . . . You could rely on animals to be there and be consistent, more than people we met sometimes on either side of the tracks."

Sheila will allow only two dogs in the house: Biko, a German shepherd, and Sable, a small mixed-breed. Nor will she allow Wayne to smoke inside. It's the deck or nothing. He's trying to quit, he says, puffing on menthol filters between stops in his chauffeured county car.

He does woodwork, when he can, which he says is rarely these days. He built Julian's bedroom set and has hopes.

"He's so meticulous . . . a perfectionist," says Sheila, showing off the two dressers and cradle. His present woodshop almost fills his garage. Says his mother, Juliette Curry: "Wayne always liked to fix things."

Strained Relations

In Prince George's County there remains much to fix. Curry the fixer has won praise for his efforts, and also received some criticism.

No sooner had he assumed office than he came face-to-face with the unexpectedly large deficit. He deftly managed to blame his predecessor, the governor. And while the D.C. government was spinning financially out of control, Curry was reeling his in, cutting jobs and positions, negotiating union givebacks, being the tough manager.

Or micro-manager, some said -- a man refusing to delegate, confiding only in a close circle of advisers; someone often inaccessible to others.

Relations with the state legislators, most of whom opposed his election, remained testy. When he tried to mend fences with them, County Council members felt snubbed.

And some said Curry was administratively challenged. His chief spokesperson was in a fatal hit-and-run accident while allegedly driving under the influence. A year into his term, Curry hadn't appointed a chief administrative officer. The police chief he inherited who promised to stay a while left abruptly, and the search for his successor dragged on for months.

But his choice, when he made it, was universally applauded and, to some, surprising. He named a white Irish cop to the high-profile post. To those who wondered why he hadn't appointed a black, he simply shrugged. Race isn't his problem, it's other people's, he said.

"I was actually kind of surprised that he ran for office because it puts him in a high-profile area," says Daryl. "And since we were kids, Wayne liked being able to influence things and get things done without necessarily getting a lot of publicity or exposure. He's never been the kind of guy -- like some politicians -- who needs accolades from strangers." In fact, it has taken months to arrange to spend a few hours with him. He seems initially wary of such intimate contact but relents.

"His skin will thicken with every year he's in office," predicts fellow Democrat Anne MacKinnon, who was County Council chairman during his first year. She then goes on to praise Curry, but maybe not enough. "He's going to count up the compliments and criticisms," she says, "and tell me there weren't enough compliments."

Friends at Last

Jack Kent Cooke thought he had a deal on Sept. 5, when the County Council approved zoning for the stadium. But he hadn't counted on Curry. "I said no deal without me," Curry says. "It had to be good for the citizens. I guess people came to see it {my} way."

It all came together Dec. 4. The public and private powers that be convened in Suite 603 of the Landover Holiday Inn, directly across the Beltway from the future site of the Redskins stadium.

The politicians and Cooke rode separate elevators to the Capital Room news conference. Curry, beaming, made the announcement. Cooke thanked a long list of politicians before he mentioned Curry. "And most of all," he said, "I salute the unique and inimitable leadership of . . . my dear friend Wayne Curry."

Curry joked that Cooke in their negotiations managed to outtalk him. "Those of you who know me can admire how difficult that is for me to take," he said. "But I did notice, Jack, you did call me your friend and I'm appreciative."

"I meant every word," muttered Cooke.

"Yes, we are. We are indeed," Curry quickly added. Friends, that is.

As the Redskins had defeated the Dallas Cowboys just the day before, Curry said, so had Prince Georgians emerged "triumphant winners" in the stadium deal. And if the county and its citizens win, so then does he.

After all, as the slogan goes, Wayne Curry is Prince George's County.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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