BALTIMORE – Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is campaigning for the 13th time, but he is not about to take it easy. On a recent Thursday, he started his evening attending Mass, then shook hands at a glitzy Inner Harbor Democratic fund raiser, spoke at a Columbia church and made a Parkville campaign event for his son.
Even with polls showing the Democrat with a considerable lead over Republican challenger Paul H. Rappaport, Curran, 67, of Baltimore, takes no votes for granted. “I want to keep being your attorney,” he told an audience at the Columbia Presbyterian Church.
A Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. poll conducted Oct. 15-17 showed Curran leading Rappaport, 46 percent to 27 percent, among 821 likely voters.
As he campaigns, Maryland’s chief attorney is also working on the state’s suit against tobacco companies, which attempts to recoup money spent treating tobacco-related diseases.
Since his last election in 1994, Curran has put out several reports, including a crime reduction plan focusing on community policing and a proposal to expand drug-treatment programs that target juveniles.
As part of a 1996 report on the effect of media violence on children, he sent journals to elementary classes statewide, asking parents to watch television with their children and record the violence levels.
But he wants another term: He’d work to keep slot machines from the race tracks and casino gambling from the state. He hopes to persuade the legislature to pass stiffer sanctions for juvenile offenders and tighter gun control. He also would encourage truth-in-sentencing for the most violent criminals, which would require them to serve their full sentences, instead of being paroled early.
A POLITICAL FAMILY
Politics runs in the Curran blood, starting with the attorney general’s father, J. Joseph Curran Sr., a progressive Baltimore City councilman from 1953 to 1976. The father passed the seat to his middle son, Martin E. Mike, who made way for his youngest brother, Robert, elected in 1994.
“We’re the brown-bag Kennedys,” said Martin Curran, explaining the family may be middle class but is just as political as the more famous family from Massachusetts.
But family and friends say J. Joseph Curran Jr.’s 36 years of public service did not prevent him from dedicating time to his two sons, three daughters and wife, Barbara Marie, a homemaker and oil painter.
J. Joseph “Max” Curran III, Curran’s only surviving son, is closely following his father’s footsteps, campaigning for a House of Delegates seat, just as his father did in 1958.
Daughter Catherine Curran O’Malley, a Baltimore County assistant state’s attorney, caught the lawyer bug. But she said she will avoid elected office, having gotten her fill of campaigning as a child.
“With my 7-year-old daughter, we went to help my brother, Max, campaign and she asked me, `Are we going to be doing this all our lives?’ ” Catherine Curran said. “I thought no, it will be over Nov. 3. Of course, but then I thought, `Well, actually it did go on all during my childhood.’ ” ON THE JOB
As attorney general for the past 12 years, Curran has written advisory reports to the legislature on state groups that can help children avoid crime and the connection between casinos and increased crime.
He won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1990 to allow young child-abuse victims to give their court testimony via one-way, closed-circuit television. The case involved a Howard County pre-school administrator who appealed her conviction because she was not allowed to directly face her 7-year-old accuser, who testified over television.
In February 1997, the Supreme Court again sided with Curran, ruling that police can order passengers out of a car for officer safety. The case involved a Maryland Appeal’s Court refusal to allow cocaine seized during a 1994 highway stop to be used as evidence, because Maryland State Police ordered the passenger out of the car.
Following Curran’s investigation of sweepstakes offers targeting seniors, the American Family Publishers settled with the state in September, promising to stop mailing promotional material implying that consumers’ odds of winning are increased by buying magazine subscriptions.
“He is the political conscience of Maryland,” said Ralph Tyler, former deputy attorney general for Curran from 1991 to 1996.
Curran and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend jointly chair the state Family Violence Council, organized in 1995, that pushed through the legislature in 1997 and 1998 laws that increased the maximum length a protective order can be put in place against an abuser – from 200 days to 18 months. The laws also eliminated the one-year waiting period for divorce in marital abuse cases, gave greater protection to abused persons in nonmarital relationships and allowed police to confiscate guns from an abuser.
“The way he talks and listens to people when he travels around the state, such as when we were doing research for the Family Violence Council, is really important,” Townsend said.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County law professor Jane Murphy was associate attorney general when Curran was pushing those measures through the legislature, and his conduct impressed her. “Other people were getting credit for the measure, and when that was pointed out to him, he said, `I don’t care who takes credit for this, let’s just get it done,’ ” Murphy recalled.
Curran filed a $13 billion anti-trust and consumer protection suit in May 1996 against 19 tobacco product manufacturers, seeking punitive damages and compensation for Medicaid dollars spent on treating patients with smoking-related illnesses. Maryland was the eighth state to file such a suit. Settlement talks in New York between tobacco companies and state representatives resumed Oct. 19.
If a deal can’t be reached, the Maryland suit will be heard by a Baltimore Circuit Court jury in April 1999.
Curran said the state’s economists estimated the state has spent $3 billion on treating diseases caused by smoking. Money from a suit or settlement would go to Medicaid and to a campaign to dissuade young smokers.
Bruce C. Bereano, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, said Curran overstepped his responsibilities. “The state has no right to sue the tobacco companies because the state has a vested interest,” Bereano said. “It has taxed cigarettes and relies on the revenue.”
Curran is also preparing for medical questions that will arise as the Baby Boomers’ parents age. A report reviewing state policies restricting what pain treatment can be given to ease end-of-life care will be released within the next four years, said Jack Schwartz, Curran’s director of health policy development.
“We want to be sure that doctors can treat terminal patients for physical pain with the best medications, without having to worry about the law,” Schwartz said. ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
One of the difficulties of campaigning for attorney general is that many people do not understand what the job entails. Curran started a speech at the Columbia Presbyterian Church by explaining that the attorney general gives legal advise to the governor, General Assembly, judiciary and most state agencies. He also represents the state in matters involving Maryland.
Richard Bennett, running mate for GOP nominee Ellen Sauerbrey, said that after 12 years in office, Curran has become complacent. “A change is needed to invigorate the office,” Bennett said.
Rappaport, a former Maryland state trooper and Howard County Police chief, blames Curran for a drop in illegal drugs confiscated by police car searches. Totals have fallen from about 1,038 pounds of cocaine, marijuana and heroin in 1995 to about 166 pounds in 1997, according to Maryland State Police. Rappaport said officers are confiscating less because they fear Curran will not support them in an American Civil Liberties Union suit, filed in 1995. The ACLU alleges that troopers target black drivers that fit a profile of a drug trafficker.
Curran called Rappaport’s explanation of the confiscation numbers “absolutely false,” adding, “He owes the state police and our office an apology.”
Curran has been endorsed by the Maryland Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents state troopers.
Some say the key to Curran’s success is his character. “If he weren’t attorney general, he would have made a very fine village priest,” said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat.