Md. Comptroller Stickers It to 'Em

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page B01

An unrepentant William Donald Schaefer offered no regrets yesterday for the political grass fire he sparked two weeks ago with comments about Spanish-speaking restaurant workers and instead handed out this bumper sticker:

"Schaefer: He says what you think."

The former Maryland governor, now in his second term as state comptroller, may be moving more slowly through the State House hallways. But, at 82, he still hasn't lost a step when it comes to grabbing headlines.

He did so with a flourish two weeks ago, complaining about an awkward encounter with a Spanish-speaking clerk at McDonald's. The attention his remarks drew intensified after his political ally, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., rushed to his defense and called multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap."

Despite a tide of criticism from immigrant groups and editorial boards, Schaefer (D) said he's convinced the gripe resonates with most Marylanders.

"All I said is, if you're going to be in this country, speak English," the comptroller said during a rambling 30-minute commentary yesterday focused largely on the reaction to his remarks.

Just as he had two weeks earlier, Schaefer launched into a soliloquy during the opening moments of the Board of Public Works meeting, where he joins Ehrlich (R) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) twice each month to dispense with the dry business of state spending.

Schaefer partakes vigorously in the meeting's laborious agenda. But sessions that were once rendered lifeless by the minutiae of procurement policy have now become something else entirely.

"Open-mike night" is how one state employee at yesterday's meeting described it, saying he would not give his name for fear of angering the man who votes on his agency's spending proposals. "It's the most bizarre form of political theater."

Of course, this is nothing new for Schaefer, who was known as the acid-tongued Mayor Annoyed during four terms in Baltimore City Hall, and who was even less of a wallflower with his emotions when he arrived in Annapolis as governor.

Perhaps his most famous barb came in the winter of 1991, when Schaefer compared the Eastern Shore to an outhouse. When the remark circulated, Eastern Shore residents erupted in protest, even hoisting wooden outhouses and bags of manure on their pickup trucks and heading for the governor's mansion.

His reputation only grew when he returned to Annapolis as comptroller and turned the Board of Public Works meetings into ground zero for his long-running feud with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) -- or, as Schaefer frequently referred to him, "Ayatollah."

At one meeting, the comptroller filled a pause in the action by clucking and flapping his arms at Glendening, then calling him "a chicken." At another, he squished up his face, puckered his lips and began shooting sarcastic kisses at then-Treasurer Richard N. Dixon (D), who had angered the comptroller.

These days, Schaefer's warm relations with Ehrlich have sent him out in search of new targets for his musings. A frequent subject is Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).

Yesterday, Schaefer blasted the mayor for going on the radio and reminding the comptroller -- in Spanish -- that "few of us would be here if our non-English-speaking relatives hadn't struggled for a few years, or decades, to learn English."

"He ought to stick his nose into the Baltimore schools," Schaefer said. "See how well they're teaching English there."

But the bulk of the comptroller's comments were directed at the state's newspapers, which by his count had written 68 stories referencing the McDonald's remarks in just 14 days.

He had some particularly sharp jabs for the Baltimore Sun, which published a cartoon that called him a "geezer" and an opinion column that assessed Schaefer as "a cranky Democrat past his political prime."

Schaefer said the paper "will do anything to make a person who speaks out look bad." Then, the longtime master of the visual image took out a toy fish and wrapped it in a copy of yesterday's edition.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company