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Old Folks Boogie

Dusty Dems Schaefer and Curran Still Know How to Party

Sam Holden
Donkey's Years: Democratic attorney General J. Joseph Curran has held state office since 1958.

By Van Smith | Posted 8/7/2002

In 1955, a well-connected West Baltimore attorney named William Donald Schaefer was elected to the City Council. Three years later, J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Northeast Baltimore law student from a prominent political family, won a seat in the House of Delegates. In the decades since they have managed between them to hold every top statewide office--governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general. Schaefer, 80, and Curran, 71, are the Maryland Democratic Party's old school, bringing to their offices deep roots and long memories. And each wants to keep his current title--Comptroller Schaefer and Attorney General Curran--for another four-year run around the track.

The two solons' statewide popularity is imposing to challengers. But that's not to say that either has a free ride to re-election. The biggest wrinkle is for Schaefer, who is faced with a serious primary challenger in John Willis.

Willis, Maryland's appointed secretary of state and Gov. Parris Glendening's chief political strategist, filed to run just before the July 1 deadline. Schaefer immediately denounced the challenge as a spiteful trick engineered by Glendening, with whom the comptroller has feuded for years.

The only major public poll on the race, taken in mid-July, shows Schaefer leading Willis 62 percent to 18 percent. The challenger notes, however, that in the 1998 Democratic primary Schaefer garnered 55 percent in a six-way race--meaning that almost half of Democratic voters wanted an alternative to the ex-governor's ascension. By Willis' reckoning, those voters represent the "progressive core of the Democratic Party" in Maryland. Schaefer backed the elder George Bush for president in 1992 and has strong ties to two state Republican stalwarts: former congressperson/current congressional candidate Helen Delich Bentley and U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, the GOP gubernatorial front-runner. (Ehrlich's campaign spokesperson, Paul Schurick, is a former Schaefer press secretary.)

While probable Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is backing Schaefer, Willis maintains many loyal party members may resent Schaefer's ongoing GOP flirtations, and his famous skepticism of environmental causes such as Smart Growth and state purchases of land for preservation. Schaefer's big-tent approach may work well in general elections, Willis acknowledges, but in a party primary it can work against a candidate--if there is a viable alternative. Willis--who denies acting as Glendening's agent and says he's been planning the comptroller run for "a long time"--aims to set himself up as that alternative, calling on the experience and contacts among a statewide network of civic, political, and business leaders.

"I'm more qualified than him," Schaefer barks when asked about his challenger. "I was in office before he was born." Actually, Willis was 9 when Schaefer entered public life, but the point is clear: Schaefer believes his long political career as City Council member, Baltimore mayor, governor, and comptroller make him unassailable by anyone with a shorter, less grandiose résumé. And Schaefer does not expect his occasional Republican tendencies to hurt him among primary voters. "I mostly vote Democrat," he says. "I think people know I'm honest. They may not agree with everything, but they don't think I'm going to pull anything on them."

Only one other Democrat has filed for comptroller: Lih Young, a curious woman from Potomac who runs for office at seemingly every opportunity. (She has run for Congress, state Senate, mayor of Rockville, and comptroller in the past.) Young often cites "the Vaughey-Ward social epidemic" as the root of many ills. The reference, it turns out, is to Montgomery County District Administrative Judge Cornelius Vaughey and his clerk, Jeffrey Ward, but beyond broad declarations of sinister designs, the nature of their transgressions in Young's eyes remains unclear. After listening to a recitation of Young's explanation of the epidemic that partly bears his name, Ward asks, "How can you comment on that?"

A Green Party candidate, Beth Hufnagel, filed for the race but failed to obtain the 27,000 petition signatures required for third-party candidates to get on the statewide ballot (Campaign Beat, July 31). She says she is "considering a write-in campaign. I've not given up."

The Republicans have a primary in the comptroller's race, with Augustus Alzona and Gene Zarwell facing off. Alzona made a name for himself during the past General Assembly session, when he passed around leaflets bearing the images of pro-gun-control legislators in Nazi uniforms at a committee hearing. The stunt drew a public scolding from Michael Steele, then-chairperson of the state GOP and now Ehrlich's running mate, and other Republican leaders. Zarwell, a marketing executive who has previously run for comptroller and both houses of Congress, claims Schaefer as a "mentor" and "a friend" but is nonetheless itching to take him on in the general election.

Two Republicans are also vying for the chance to take on Curran, who is getting a free pass in the Democratic primary. Towson attorneys Edwin MacVaugh and Jeffrey Pritzker both filed at the last minute--to one another's apparent surprise. (Disclosure: Pritzker periodically provided legal counsel to City Paper from its inception in 1977 until it was sold to its current owner, Times-Shamrock, in 1987.) Both say they don't know anything about the other, and both say they're not sure what the key issues will be in the primary--other than the pros and cons of Curran.

Pritzker, in a written statement, says he was so outraged over Curran's decision to spend large sums of state funds to have Orioles owner Peter Angelos' law firm rather than state-employed attorneys handle Maryland's tobacco litigation that he decided to bone up on the Office of the Attorney General's bailiwick. That's how he learned that among the AG's functions is handling allegations of misconduct by state officials. Curran, Pritzker suggests, is too much a part of the "'cozy relationship' . . . between the politicians in all branches of Maryland government" to carry out this watchdog aspect of his duties.

Curran says his office investigates public corruption "if a matter comes to our attention and we get authority from the governor" to proceed. Typically, he says, such charges are handled through the State Ethics Commission or the state special prosecutor's office, neither of which have the attorney general's power to subpoena witnesses and documents. What they do have, he says, is "the perception of being outside government," which lends "more credibility" to their work. The AG's overarching role, Curran contends, is "protecting Maryland"--and "our hands are full with what we do already."

MacVaugh asserts that Curran has "carved a niche out for himself" in the business of "chipping away" the rights of Marylanders, citing expanded powers for state troopers to order people out of their cars as among the four-term attorney general's most egregious sins. Curran says he is "very proud" to have done "something to protect officers" in what he calls one of the most dangerous situations they face. MacVaugh also criticizes the attorney general for shoddy "housekeeping," citing an April 2002 state audit that found fiscal problems in Curran's office. The audit, a routine once-over by the State Office of Legislative Audits, revealed a lost $175,000 check due to poor internal controls, $1.4 million in "improperly transferred expenditures," and $850,000 in unspent funds sitting in idle accounts.

Curran attributes the lost check to "human error" but says his office's financial controls are shipshape, and that the critiques were based largely on procedural changes in the way the auditor wants the office to track its funds. "We've always gotten pretty much a clean bill of health from the auditor," he says, "as I think this one was too."

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