Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry walked across his ceremonial office, through a door to his inner sanctum, the cluttered backroom where he negotiated deals, maneuvered through crises and plotted his many battles.
From this perch in Upper Marlboro, Curry came to know the glory and burden of being Prince George's first black county executive, an eight-year odyssey that will end tomorrow when fellow Democrat Jack B. Johnson is sworn in. Curry is facing his departure with peace and no small amount of melancholy.
"It's a good time to go. I feel very good about what we did," he said. "It's an awkward period. It's a parting. You know everyone's life is about to change."
In leaving office, Curry passes on to Johnson a county that is far different from the one he inherited in 1994. He brought a measure of notice and respect to the nation's largest black middle-class enclave. But he also was criticized for failing to solve some of the county's mammoth challenges, from poverty to troubled government agencies.
For Curry, it's an oddly quiet departure for a man whose political prospects once seemed so bright. Only 18 months ago, at a lavish fundraiser, guests talked of his potential as a gubernatorial candidate.
But unlike his predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who vaulted from Upper Marlboro to Annapolis, Curry is returning to private life, perhaps practicing law or working on development deals. Term limits barred him from running for reelection.
"Here was a guy who had all the tools -- he was bright, overloaded with charisma and he was pro-business while also being involved with civic issues," said Joel Rozner, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist. "In the event that he doesn't run again, the question will be, 'What happened?' "
While Curry's future remains uncertain, his record is more clear.
A 30-year-old school desegregation case ended, and a plan to build 26 schools was hatched. The Washington Redskins left the District and built a new home in Landover. After decades of talk, a sprawling shopping mall rose in Bowie, and there are plans for another retail center at the Capital Centre and a hotel and conference facility at National Harbor.
At the center of all this was Curry, a corporate lawyer whose penchant for business and the bottom line reflected the pragmatism of a new generation of post-civil rights black leaders. Even his harshest critics laud him for steering the county through a $108 million deficit left by Glendening.
Yet Curry was more than a number cruncher. With his Upper Marlboro mansion and flamboyant oratory, he became the chief cheerleader for Prince George's, personifying its quest for respect and its aspiration to become a nationally known haven of black affluence.
Curry railed against Prince George's becoming a dumping ground for the District's poor and against strip malls and cheaply made townhouses -- "plastic houses," he called them. Instead, he championed new executive-style housing in affluent pockets such as Mitchellville.
His upwardly mobile aesthetic occasionally provoked the scorn of community activists who wanted him to focus more on pumping up poorer communities. But to his acolytes, Curry was seeking to elevate Prince George's to a level on a par with its more affluent neighbors. "Wayne brought a sense of pride to the community," said Hubert "Petey" Green, president of Prince George's Black Chamber of Commerce. "He made us feel like we were somebody."
At the same time, the county's public schools continue to be crowded and rank among Maryland's worst. The federal government is investigating the police force on allegations of brutality.
And there are subtler issues of respect. Residents, many of them earning more than $100,000 a year, bristle at the notion that they must drive to Montgomery and Fairfax counties for an elegant meal or a designer suit.
Because of his business background and his lifelong connection to Prince George's, Curry's election encouraged many blacks that police misconduct would be a thing of the past, that he would deliver A-list restaurants and that a new generation of black entrepreneurs would prosper.
"The main thing I feel is disappointment," said Dana Stebbins, a prominent black zoning attorney who lives in Woodmore. "There was great expectation that he would make dramatic differences in the economics of the county, that African Americans would start to partake in wealth-building. To a large degree, that did not happen."
Yet fulfilling those expectations was a formidable challenge, particularly in a county still in the throes of a demographic shift. Although blacks hold seats of power, whites still dominate business and real estate. "People expect black elected officials to move mountains, and they don't have the resources or the political clout to do it," said Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
Curry's often turbulent relationship with the county's political establishment didn't help. His first term was defined by endless wrangling with Glendening over budgetary issues. The feud grew so ugly that in 1998, Curry endorsed a Harford County Democrat, Eileen Rehrman, in her challenge against the governor for the party's nomination.
His second term was marked by often inexplicable public silences at critical moments, such as earlier this year when the school system was paralyzed by a verbal war between the Board of Education and Superintendent Iris T. Metts. For days, Curry remained out of view while the battle raged.
On many issues, Curry proved unable to rally the public and politicians around a common vision, including most dramatically when his campaign to overturn the county's property tax cap failed. Nor did Curry seize the opportunity to groom a successor, saying that he did not view himself as a "political potentate."
"Wayne had all the ingredients to create a new civic consensus," said Doyle Neimann, a former school board member and a newly elected state delegate. "Instead, he isolated himself. In the end, he's undone by his own personality. He's a control freak who tends not to trust people, who thinks he's smarter than everyone else."
Sealing the Legacy
On a Thursday night last month, Curry hosted a farewell reception at the University of Maryland, among a series of events in recent weeks that have given him the chance to define his accomplishments for audiences. As usual, he talked of school construction, the new stadium and improving the county's bond rating.
Watching Curry mingle and joke with guests, the image of the successful lawyer in his dark suit, Rasran Amon applauded the county executive's CEO-style polish. While former District mayor Marion Barry was a well-known target of corruption inquiries, Curry passed two terms without any significant brush with scandal.
"He showed that a predominantly black county with a black leader can succeed," said Amon, vice president of the Lake Arbor Civic Association. "He didn't have to say, 'I'm black, and I'm proud.' "
Invariably in his farewell speeches, Curry recounted his political battles, often casting himself as a football player fending off an endless swarm of tacklers. "Politics is a contact sport," he said at his final State of the County address. "I wasn't intimidated."
Later, in his office, Curry brushed aside suggestions that he could have better helped forge consensus. His candidacy had been opposed by most of the county's political establishment, including Rep. Albert R. Wynn and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who once described Curry as "one of the most arrogant people I've ever met."
"You think everyone sitting around here was a Wayne-ite?' " Curry asked, displaying his penchant for referring to himself in the third person. "I was punished for winning."
His failure to overturn the property tax cap, he said, was partly the result of "career politicians who were not going to do anything that would make Wayne look good."
As for his opposition to Glendening, a decision that allies agree damaged his political prospects, Curry made no apologies. The governor's actions, he suggested with a smile but no elaboration, have validated his decision.
"Lots of things that were problems attributed to my so-called prickly personality have been dispelled," he said.
Curry rejected the notion that he could have used his office as more of a bully pulpit. When the spotlight came his way, he said, pacing with his hands in his pockets, it was often rigged to reflect poorly on him.
"The odds of getting attention are largely tilted towards getting negative attention -- so why seek it?" he said.
The county's successes, he said, were often eclipsed by forces that he views as beyond his control, such as the long-running soap opera starring Metts and the school board. He said he regretted not intervening to settle that feud before it exploded publicly.
"Every time a banker in Fairfax read a headline of the style they were generating, he had to say, 'Geez, who wants to be around there?' " Curry said.
The police force was also a problem. For much of his tenure, Curry cited crime reduction and his hiring of additional officers as accomplishments. Yet police shootings and allegations of officers' misconduct often trumped those claims.
Curry's responses -- impaneling a task force, beefing up scrutiny of officers, installing video cameras in squad cars -- were often deemed too tame. "He should have been a leader and said we won't tolerate it," said Eugene W. Grant, a Seat Pleasant activist and member of the police chief's advisory board. "Instead, we had too much vacillating."
Curry said he never "saw the prudence in running against my own police department."
"We were a convenient horse to whip in the great debate over racial profiling," he said. "Our imperfections got exaggerated, and whatever virtues we had got ignored."
The New Constituent
In the end, Curry's point of view is grounded in a lifetime spent in Prince George's. He recalls a place of tobacco farmers, as well as a police force so brutal that blacks from elsewhere avoided driving through. Those days, he said, are gone.
But many of his constituents do not share those memories. They are more recent arrivals to Prince George's, and they want only a county that works.
Curry said he has set a solid foundation.
"People don't laugh anymore when they talk about Prince George's being a jewel or a place to be," he said.
His advice for his successor: "Be faithful to the ideals -- don't be bullied and brow-beaten," Curry said, rising to greet his next appointment.
"The crown," he said, "is heavier than it looks."