Three for 3
Curran decides to run again, and two decide to challenge him in the primary
Published: August 3, 2011
Last week The Baltimore Sun revealed that City Councilmember Robert Curran (D-3rd District) had advised residents at a community meeting to fib to 911 operators. Curran suggested they say “there is a gun involved” when reporting an emergency, even if it isn’t true. He said it would speed police response time. The remark drew a good deal of ire from the Police Department, which pointed out that such behavior could prevent police from responding to more dire emergencies. But Curran, who is running for re-election, is unapologetic.
“I may have used a poor choice of words,” he says. “But if what I’ve done is bring to a head the issue of resources in the Northeastern Police district . . . well, then I’ll take the consequences.”
It’s not the first time Curran has been in the news for apparently sidestepping the rules. During the massive snowstorm of February 2010, WBAL-TV reported that Curran had pushed to get his own street plowed, though it was a private road. (The job reportedly took nine hours.) Curran defended his actions, saying that he’d actually been advocating for his entire district to be plowed.
It remains to be seen if these episodes will have any effect on the upcoming Democratic primary. Curran, 61, has served on the Council for 15 years and is facing two political neophytes: former school-board member George VanHook Sr., 57, and attorney Jerome Bivens, 51. Curran says he’s raised about $25,000 so far. VanHook says he’s done “pretty well” but did not provide a specific number; Bivens says he hasn’t raised anything.
The former stomping grounds of Gov. Martin O’Malley—who is married to Curran’s niece, District Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley—the 3rd District occupies a large swath of Northeast Baltimore, with Harford Road its main thoroughfare. Though there are pockets of poverty and blight—including almost 1,500 vacant houses—the district has, on average, a lower violent-crime rate and a larger middle class than the city as a whole. According to 2010 Census data, the district is 62 percent African-American and 33 percent white.
Curran, a resident of Original Northwood, hails from one of Maryland’s most prominent political families, one that has represented the 3rd District for more than half a century. His father, J. Joseph Curran Sr., was elected to the seat in 1953. Upon his death, Curran’s brother, Martin E. “Mike” Curran, was appointed and remained there until the mid-1990s. Upon Mike Curran’s retirement, Robert Curran was elected to office. (A third brother, J. Joseph Curran Jr., is a former Maryland attorney general.) But Curran says his tenure as a councilmember speaks for itself.
“I have a record to stand on, not just promises,” he says. Curran is chair of the Health Committee, and one of his proudest accomplishments is the smoking ban. In 2007 he was lead sponsor of the bill that prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants. “I still get thanked for that today,” he says. Curran’s signature issue of late has been animal welfare; he serves on the mayor’s anti-animal-abuse advisory commission, has advocated for changing the city animal code to more stringently punish those who abuse animals, and worked to ensure that the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter did not lose funding in the face of budget cuts.
In the 3rd District, Curran says Hamilton and Lauraville “have really turned the corner the last several years,” in part because of his efforts to give the neighborhoods joint designation under the city’s Main Streets neighborhood revitalization program. If re-elected, Curran says he would focus on the “continuing revitalization” of Harford Road, as well as the Northwood Shopping Center. “I’m proud of my accomplishments and I want to continue that,” he says. “I’ve always taken my mantle as to empower the community through land-use issues.”
VanHook takes exception to this description of a councilmember’s role. “Yes, land use has an effect on people,” he says. “Yes, zoning can impact the life of a citizen. But the conversation with a citizen is basic.” And in that, VanHook claims, Curran has failed. “I don’t think [Curran] goes out of his way to engage citizens in the process,” he says.
VanHook, a resident of Hamilton Hills, has lived in the 3rd District for more than 20 years. He’s running now because he’s “absolutely fed up.” The foundation of his platform is community engagement, a skill he says he honed during his six years on the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. (His term ended in 2010.) VanHook says the position taught him to work with political leaders, to negotiate, to build consensus, but above all, to “engage communities by enlisting the support of stakeholders, everyday citizens, to come together with a coordinated strategy for changing our community for the better.”
VanHook gained some notoriety late in his tenure on the board, when he publicly referred to the closing of failing city schools as “neoslavery.” The reason he did so, he says, was that he was angry the school system “did not listen to community leaders” who wanted to come up with alternatives to closing down the schools. “The reason I made that statement was that I wanted to point out that when you deny people the opportunity to determine their own destiny . . . you begin to make them weak and powerless,” he says.
VanHook says he has the professional training—a master’s degree in public administration—and the work experience for the job. He currently works for the state’s Department of Human Resources providing support for state intern programs, and says he’s worked “in the public arena” for more than 30 years. If elected, he says he would work toward finding dollars for the city’s schools, either within the budget or through fostering public/private partnerships, as well as encouraging elected officials to directly engage with children “to educate a new group of citizens.” He would also like to revitalize Harford Road, but says the progress there has been one-sided. “We need to have members of all races be able to compete, to establish businesses, and be successful,” he says. He says he would help such entrepreneurs secure funding and technical assistance.
Prior to his run in the 3rd District, criminal trial lawyer Jerome Bivens’ claim to fame was that he represented Jerome Williams, one of the defendants found guilty in the 2007 murder of former City Councilmember Ken Harris. Bivens says that particular case has nothing to do with his run for office, though his concern about citizens’ reluctance to serve on juries does. “I think most people think the system is going to function without them,” he says, “and that is not true.” If elected, he says he would “educate people” on government participation. Other concerns of his: high property taxes, traffic congestion on Harford Road, and the loss of the middle class to surrounding counties. He proposes lowering the property tax, and trying to “bring some of these other big stores in,” like the Walmart that’s planned for Remington.
But his drive to run for office is mainly about “new faces, new blood,” he says. “My big issue is change. You don’t have to vote for me, because there are one or two other people running in the 3rd District,” he says. “But we need to change all the faces down in City Hall and see what happens.”
Not long ago, a new face in the 3rd seemed certain. The last time Curran ran for re-election, in 2007, he told City Paper that the race would be his last. “I want one more term,” he said at the time. “I feel I can get everything done in one more term. And then I want to groom someone to follow in my footsteps.” Though Curran was the first to file for candidacy in the 3rd District this year, he says he decided to run again because he didn’t feel there was an adequate successor in the race. “I don’t believe that the folks that have filed outside of myself would be who I would want to have continue the progress that I’ve made in the 3rd District,” he says.
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