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Former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry died Wednesday after a bout with cancer. Curry grew up in Prince George’s – and his tenure as the county’s first black executive coincided with its rise as the most affluent majority black county in the United States. Kojo explores Curry’s legacy with local officials, including Parris Glendening – a former governor of Maryland and the man who preceded Curry in county office.
- Elizabeth Hewlett Chairwoman, Prince George's County Planning Board
- Parris Glendening Former Governor, Maryland; Former County Executive, Prince George's County, Md.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, two local universities power up with solar energy. Why the partnership of a North Carolina firm could be significant for the entire D.C. region. But first, reflecting on the life and legacy of one of the biggest figures in the areas local political universe, former Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry died on Wednesday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe rose to prominence two decades ago, becoming the country's first black executive -- the county's first black executive, at a time when it was emerging as the most affluent majority African-American county in the United States. But his influence extended far beyond the borders of the county where he grew up and long after the days he led its government. Joining us now to talk about Wayne Curry is Parris Glendening. He's former governor of Maryland. He's a Democrat who also served as executive of Prince George's County. He joins us by phone. Parris Glendening, thank you for joining us.
MR. PARRIS GLENDENINGGood morning. Thank you, Kojo. I'm pleased to be back with you.
NNAMDIGood to talk with you again. Also joining us by phone is Elizabeth Hewlett, chairwoman of the Prince George's County Planning Board. Betty Hewlett, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELIZABETH HEWLETTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments -- were you living in Prince George's County or in the Washington region when Wayne Curry served as county executive? What kind of legacy do you think he left behind here? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to email@example.com. Or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Governor Glendening, we spend a lot of time on this broadcast talking about how much the District has changed during the past 30 years. But Prince George's County, the place you and Wayne Curry both led for so long, has evolved a great deal during that time, too. Wayne Curry grew up in Prince George's.
NNAMDIHe had a knack for reminding people that he lived and he breathed Prince George's. How would you say his story relates to that of the county he lived in and led?
GLENDENINGIn many ways he was not only a leader in the change, but he was absolutely reflective of the change. And I say that because when I first met him, one of the first stories he ever said -- and this is true, as Betty will attest, to almost everyone that talked to him -- he was a product of the Prince George's County schools, a graduate of Bladensburg High, which was one of the first schools that was actually integrated, but still went through the challenges of the change in county. And he grew up in that. He grew up tough, but also became very quickly a leader and a leader within a group that went on to run the county for many years thereafter.
GLENDENINGHe also grew, if you will, from kind of being what I would call a brash young man with a chip on his shoulder, quite candidly, who was a part of the County Executive Win Kelly's administration. And when he worked with the County Council, when I was on at that time, he would come down and be pretty aggressive on things. And he would always remind us, you know, that's the way where he comes from. He was used to this type of struggle and fight. And as years changed, he became more polished, more sophisticated, wealthier, but still very aggressive and still had that chip. And it was a good thing for the county. It was what Prince George's County needed.
NNAMDIBetty Hewlett, you worked with Wayne Curry as a young attorney. You worked for him in Prince George's County government. And you say that he leveled the playing field for you and for others like you. What do you mean by that?
HEWLETTWell, Wayne grew up in Prince George's County and he had to struggle for everything that he achieved. Nothing came -- nothing was handed to him. He grew in that enclave in Cheverly amidst activists. So he grew up with that activist spirit that he inherited from his parents and that was engendered by the community he lived in. So when he rose to power, he immediately reached back to help others. And I was one of the many beneficiaries. I was able to practice law with him. And I was able to, in the 80s, and then years later, in the 90s, I was appointed by him to chair the Prince George's County Planning Board of the Commission.
HEWLETTAnd he always looked back. I am one of many people that he helped. But that's just who he was.
NNAMDIBut to the degree that he was a mentor for you, what do you feel were the biggest things you learned from him?
HEWLETTFirst of all, to be assertive -- we had -- but we had very different styles -- but to be assertive. To be a catalyst for change. He really adhered to the mantra of the late Charles Hamilton Houston, who was the organizer and the brains behind the Separate But Equal -- I mean, the desegregation of the schools in Brown versus Board of Education. And he was -- his mantra was, a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society. So it wasn't enough that he just benefitted fiscally, you had to make change. And we have to keep doing that. And now that he's gone, which is a huge loss to Prince George's County, we have to carry on that mantra.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned change, because Governor Glendening, what sense did you have for the changes that were underway in Prince George's County as you wrapped up your time in office there to become governor and he took over as county executive?
GLENDENINGWell, it was interesting, because over the years we worked together, he was a friend, he was a political ally on many causes and elections. He was also a very fierce opponent. When he wanted something to happen, you understood that. And you either helped make that happen or you had a tremendous battle. And in a moment I can tell you one or two of those, which I felt -- still find very humorous.
GLENDENINGBut in terms of the change that was coming, what happened was that in the Washington area, as well as nationwide, Prince George's County became known as the place where young, African-American families, professional, well educated, could really do well. And it started in the 1980s, but Wayne very much helped accelerate that. And it became known then as the largest of middle-, even upper-middle-class African American community in the entire country. And with that went a lot of other changes. Demands for retail store investment of the same quality.
GLENDENINGAs Wayne used to say, you know, that it didn't make any difference to talk about it. It's the color of money, it was green. And we did -- we have that money right here just as much as Fairfax or Montgomery County does. And he was 100 percent correct. And so gradually what happened is we started to gain, under his leadership, not only a sense of pride in the county, but a recognition elsewhere that something dramatic was occurring here. I might add that there's a sad footnote to that whole story.
GLENDENINGAnd that is that with the successful development in much of the District of Columbia, one of the unfortunate realities is that many people, generally of color, are being forced out of existing neighborhoods into the poorer sections of Prince George's County. And so just as Wayne fought so strongly, joined by many others, to pull the county up, we are again seeing a reconcentration of poverty in some parts of our county.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about Wayne Curry, the former Prince George's County Executive who died yesterday. We're talking with Parris Glendening, former Governor of Maryland, who also served as Prince George's County executive, and Betty Hewlett, Chairwoman of the Prince George's County Planning Board. If you have questions or comments or memories of Wayne Curry, feel free to call us at 800-433-8850. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I spoke with Wayne Curry on this show back in 2000, and here's what he said about how the demographic changes in Prince George's County were affecting the perceptions people have of the county.
MR. WAYNE CURRYPrince George's County is the only place in the history of our country to have gone from virtually all white when I was a child there, small and rural, largely Dixiecrat, to being huge, cosmopolitan, majority black where income and education have gone up and not down. As a consequence, nobody knows how to look at us.
NNAMDIBetty Hewlett, what do you make of what he said? People didn't know how to deal with us? That's what he seemed to be saying. Oh, Betty Hewlett, are you there?
HEWLETTI am here.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, please.
HEWLETTI think that's absolutely true. People didn't know how -- what to make of us. I think his very first trip to Wall Street, he had some challenges and they were threatening to downgrade the county. And he, in turn, threatened Wall Street, the rating agencies. And because he was trying to improve the situation in Prince George's County and did. So ultimately he was successful in maintaining that bond rating. And also, during his -- when he won the election and we had his inaugural ball, the headline in The Washington Post at the time was The Ugly Sister Has a Ball. We could not believe that.
HEWLETTIt was a slap in the face as compared to, you know, they were comparing us to Montgomery County and the other counties and saying we were the ugly sister. So he worked really hard to change that perception. And he made this county more business-friendly. He demanded integrity. He bought -- he worked hard to bring businesses and developments like Bowie Town Center and obviously FedExField. And not only that -- not only did he take on Jack Kent Cooke, but he also got the Sports and Leaning Complex out of it -- seed money from Jack Kent Cooke.
NNAMDIGovernor Glendening, it seems that so much of Prince George's County story, from the time you and Wayne Curry led it to the present, is about a kind of struggle for respect. How and when do you think the county will get the kind of respect that Wayne Curry wanted so badly for it? Or has it gotten it now?
GLENDENINGIt is much better. It is respected, I think, for a variety of the different reasons now, including, quite candidly, in the state, just for its political muscle. You can't win statewide if Prince George's County swings dramatically against you. And so sometimes -- and Wayne understood this -- respect comes from power as well. And there is that political power that is very clear there. There is a recognition of the growing wealth of the county.
GLENDENINGYou know, the sad news is that we're sandwiched between two of the best known and most wealthy communities in the country, Fairfax and Montgomery. If Prince George's was freestanding, if you will, just about anyplace else, I mean, it would known as an absolute center of not only wealth but of significant intellectual capital. So it is getting that. But it has a long way to go. And it still continues, I think, to be dissed, I guess, is the right word, by so many people. I mean, you have to make an extra push to get the right type of retail in the county.
GLENDENINGYou have to make an extra push to have people understand that when you're building a new Metro Line, for example, it is not all right to say that the Green Line, as was the case in my administration, will be built last. And the same thing with things like the Purple Line. It's not okay to say, okay, we're going to push that to the backburner. These things need to be done now. And slowly that is coming about. But we still do have a way to go. And part of that is still our own challenges as well. Our school system still needs a dramatic improvement. And we still have problems of public safety in some areas of the county.
GLENDENINGBut, am I optimistic about the future for Prince George's County? Absolutely. And when people in the future are standing there with a great deal of pride looking around, they're going to know that in part they're standing there because they're standing on the shoulders of people like Wayne Curry, who made such a dramatic difference.
NNAMDIBetty Hewlett, what do you feel are the most important things for the current generation of political leaders in Prince George's County to do if they are to continue to build on the foundation he set for them. In a way, I guess, I'm asking you, what do you see as your own future tasks in the county?
HEWLETTWell, one of the things is Wayne never shied away from a fight if he thought it was beneficial to the county. Even if he disagreed with them if he thought it was beneficial to the county, he would fight for it, as Gov. Glendening just said. And Wayne espoused the Frederick Douglass mantra, that power conceives nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
HEWLETTSo he said, you cannot be complacent. You have to continue to fight and push forward. And he went a long way to instill a pride and to cultivate activism amongst many of us. And I think we have to carry that forward. I intend to carry that forward. As they say, God willing and the creek don't rise, as long as I'm here. And there are so many others like that as well who want to -- every time somebody disses Prince George's County, we're going to call them on it. We're not going to accept that.
HEWLETTWayne Curry had tremendous pride in this county and he instilled it in so many others, he stayed here, he closed his eyes right here in this county. And we're not going to let that legacy go to waste.
NNAMDIElizabeth Hewlett, Betty Hewlett is the chairwoman of the Prince George's County planning board. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIParris Glendening is a former governor of Maryland, a Democrat who also served as Prince George's County executive. Governor Glendening, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, two local universities power up with solar energy. Why their partnership with a North Carolina firm could be significant for the entire D.C. region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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