Maryland Politician Still Beloved and Bedeviling

By: - July 18, 2006 12:00 am

After nearly 50 years in elected office, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer is known as the curmudgeonly political dean of his home state, an old-school public servant beloved for his colorful personality and can-do attitude.

But times have changed over a half-century, and Schaefer’s style of politics is no longer in fashion, critics say. At a July 16 rally, Democratic Party leaders and representatives of several minority and women’s groups called on the 84-year-old former governor to drop his bid for a third term as comptroller because of comments that offended Korean Americans at a July 5 meeting.

Schaefer’s re-election bid, as well as his legacy, also could be undermined by other remarks and actions that critics say are demeaning to women and immigrants. Earlier this year Schaefer asked a female aide to “walk again” in order to ogle her backside at a Board of Public Works meeting.

Supporters counter that Schaefer, who came out of retirement to run for comptroller in 1998, is simply an old-fashioned politician who says what he thinks — or “says what you think,” according to a pro-Schaefer bumper sticker.

“There’s no political correctness in him, that’s for sure,” said Tim Maloney , who served in the Maryland General Assembly during Schaefer’s gubernatorial tenure.

“I hope people will remember the totality of his career and not the 30 or 60 seconds that get reported on the news,” said Maloney, who writes a column on Maryland politics for The Washington Post.

A former mayor of Baltimore, Schaefer is being challenged in the Sept. 12 primary by two Democrats who also charge he is too closely allied with Republicans and especially GOP Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr . A trio of lesser-known Republicans also is vying for comptroller, a position that oversees tax collections and holds one of three seats on the Board of Public Works, which must vote to approve state contracts and bond sales.

Schaefer’s political career started in 1955 on the Baltimore City Council, where he served 16 years, including four years as the council president. In 1970, Schaefer was elected to the first of his three five-year terms as mayor of Maryland’s largest city.

As mayor, Schaefer searched city streets and alleys for potholes to be fixed and garbage to be collected. And he helped transform the city’s inner harbor from a decaying eyesore into a shining cultural center.

In 1986, Schaefer won his gubernatorial bid with 82 percent of the vote, the largest winning margin of any contested race for governor or the U.S. Senate that year, according to the Almanac of American Politics. He won a second term with 60 percent of the vote in 1990.

During his gubernatorial terms, Schaefer convinced lawmakers to fund new professional football and baseball stadiums and increase the gasoline tax, and he prevailed on ballot initiatives to tighten gun control and allow most abortions.

Schaefer is known for his political theatrics, including diving into the seal pool of the Baltimore aquarium while he was mayor wearing a 19th century bathing suit. To launch his first gubernatorial term, Schaefer was hauled on board a ship inside a crate labeled “Baltimore’s Gift to Maryland” and emerged on deck in a white officer’s uniform.

He has been a master at political marketing, said Melvin Steinberg, Schaefer’s lieutenant governor. “He got away with a lot of unique things that would have been negative for other politicians,” Steinberg said.

But some of the theatrics have bordered on bullying. While governor, Schaefer once tracked down and wrote a mean-spirited letter to a motorist who made an obscene gesture toward him. Another time, he had state troopers drive him to the house of the author of a critical letter to the editor and personally tongue-lashed the writer.

After Schaefer was elected comptroller in 1998, he regularly berated his gubernatorial successor, Gov. Parris Glendening (D), once calling him a chicken then making “cluck-cluck” sounds while flapping his arms. And Schaefer hasn’t been afraid to lend his support to Republicans, including endorsing President George Bush in 1992 instead of the Democratic nominee, then-Gov. Bill Clinton. More recently, Democrats charge Schaefer has kowtowed to the current Republican governor, by voting on the Board of Public Works for Ehrlich’s proposals to cut property taxes and fund an open-space preservation program.

 Maryland GOP spokeswoman Audra Miller said the two politicians have a good personal relationship: “We are extremely cognizant that Gov. Schaefer has been supportive of Gov. Ehrlich. You can’t ignore that.”

Schaefer spokesman Laslo Boyd said the comptroller “has tried to work with the governor where he could, and he has certainly understood the challenges facing any governor as the result of his eight years in that office.”

But Schaefer sent a letter to the Ehrlich campaign July 6, asking that they strike an ad because it implies that he is endorsing the Republican over the likely Democratic nominee, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. “I have publicly made it clear that I am fully supporting the nominee of my party, the Democratic Party,” Schaefer wrote.

However, this election has focused more on Schaefer’s personal behavior and remarks. In one episode, Schaefer ranted publicly about the poor English spoken by a McDonald’s worker. In the most recent brouhaha, Schaefer brought up North Korea’s test-firing of rockets in the course of questioning a contract to test children learning English as a second language. According to the Washington Post, Schaefer said: “Oh, come on. Korea is another one. All of a sudden, they’re our friends, too, shooting missiles at us.”

David Han, president of the Korean Society of Maryland, said in written remarks: “His comments appeared to confuse South Korea with communist North Korea. The comptroller owes Korean Americans an apology.”

Women’s rights leaders also have taken Schaefer to task over his recent actions. At the July 5 meeting, Schaefer addressed a female newspaper reporter as a “nice-looking little girl,” according to The Sun newspaper of Baltimore.

Duchy Trachtenberg, co-president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization of Women, said her group will send a letter later this week asking Schaefer to resign his post before the election.

Schaefer’s spokesman said the comptroller “certainly is not going to resign or withdraw from the race.”

“He will be meeting with a Korean group [July 18] and there will be a statement afterwards,” Boyd said.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens, one of Schaefer’s Democratic challengers, said: “It must stop. He’s embarrassing himself and the office.”

 Del. Peter Franchot, another Democrat hoping to topple the comptroller this fall, raised questions about Schaefer’s “mental and emotional fitness” for office.

Steinberg, Schaefer’s former running mate, said the former governor still has a strong core of support from his former staff and voters across the state. “I respect his dedication to public service,” Steinberg said when asked if he supports Schaefer’s re-election.

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