Schaefer refuses to be retiring type
Fund-raiser set for comptroller eager for a new race

By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser
Sun Staff
Originally published June 14, 2001

He left the job he truly loved 15 years ago.

He sits now in Annapolis with only a fraction of the power he once held. There are fewer people to jump at the legendary command of "Do it now!" And, undeniably, less "it" to "do."

It is the twilight of an extraordinary political career.

Still, as he approaches age 80 and another election year beckons, the closest friends and advisers to William Donald Schaefer - former Baltimore mayor, former Maryland governor, current comptroller of the state treasury - say retirement is not an option.

"He was born to be a public servant. He's a good one," said George Perdikakis, who carried out Schaefer's pothole-filling orders as head of the city highway department. "I think he's running again."

Run again.

The wish will be expressed by the hundreds of supporters who will stream into the Marriott Waterfront Hotel tonight. Guests will pay up to $1,000 each to shake hands with the man who conceived of the Inner Harbor that sparkles beyond the hotel windows, who envisioned the sports complex that kept the Orioles and eventually brought NFL football back to Baltimore, who struggles against becoming irrelevant in the city and state where he toiled for decades.

"I'm going to run for something," Schaefer said coyly in an interview this week, leaving open the prospect - however thin - that he would once again try to become governor in 2002. "I don't know what, but I will run for something."

Retirement, he said, is "a terrible word."

"For people who like to retire, who enjoy travel or who have a hobby such as golf or who have grandchildren, that's fine," said the lifelong bachelor. "I don't play golf. I don't do anything at all, except fish, and I haven't been fishing in three years. What the hell is there?"

For Schaefer, there is government work, a profession he has mastered over nearly a half-century. He has countless friends and supporters who are ready to help him continue. If he seeks re-election as comptroller, a position he assumed in 1998 after the death of Louis L. Goldstein, he may raise all the money he needs in one night.

"Ballpark, he'll take in $200,000," said Gene Raynor, a former state elections chief and Schaefer campaign manager. It will supplement the $145,275 that, according to state election records, remains in his account. "Louis Goldstein never raised more than $50,000 in his life," Raynor said.

Schaefer claims to have made the shift from conductor to percussion section in the orchestra of state government, even as he admits that he sorely misses being Baltimore mayor and is jealous of the opportunities facing Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Everybody wanted to know whether I could move from governor to comptroller. And I thought about it before I filed, and I thought about it before I ran, and I was able to make that adjustment to move over from being able to do the things as governor ... that you couldn't do as comptroller," he said. "You're not in charge."

But the transition has not been entirely smooth. Raynor and others concede that Schaefer has felt frustration at times - an emotion that has received very public airings during meetings of the state Board of Public Works.

As comptroller, Schaefer is one of three members of the board, which rules on millions of dollars in state contracts each month. It has become his last remaining stage, and one that often devolves into a theater of the absurd.

Schaefer uses the platform to lash out at the spending practices and policy decisions of fellow board member Parris N. Glendening, his successor as governor. A one-time voting alliance with state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, the third member, has eroded, leaving Schaefer a solo, grumpy and sometimes profane voice.

A discussion this year over plans for the Memorial Stadium site in Baltimore sparked a typical Schaefer diatribe.

Glendening, who had endured a barrage of criticism from the comptroller over his vote for the demolition, spoke up to say his support for the mayor and City Council did not imply any criticism of the company whose plans Schaefer was supporting.

"That is the most asinine statement you've made," Schaefer told the governor. "You make a lot of them, but that's one of the most asinine."

Schaefer continued on at length. Glendening reverted to his usual practice of ignoring him.

Occasionally the exchanges border on low comedy, as it did when Schaefer grilled Del. Bennett Bozman on why the lead problems at a Worcester County school weren't brought to the board earlier.

Schaefer: "Oh, come on, Leonard. You know you can con somebody. You might con him [indicating Glendening], but I'm older than you."

Glendening: "Bennett, it's Bennett."

Bozman: "Well, let me talk about the second ... "

Schaefer: "Leonard, Bennett, Bennett Bozman, whatever the hell his name is ... "

Sometimes Schaefer's rants take an uglier turn, such as when he berates low-level officials or picks a fight with Dixon. At a recent meeting, he engaged Dixon, who is black, in a public argument about the proper way to refer to African-Americans.

As the outbursts and asides have grown more frequent and vindictive, the questions have mounted. Is the irascibility that Schaefer was noted for in his 40s, 50s and 60s growing worse? Does it signal a larger problem? Should voters be concerned?

No, say his backers.

"To expect anything different is not to know the guy," said Nelson J. Sabatini, former state health secretary. "That's been his history - of being very outspoken, and not being afraid to confront people that he disagrees with.

"He is not just an undisciplined old man. He knows what he is doing. I personally am convinced his outbursts are planned and calculated. And he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish."

Schaefer scoffs at the notion that his temperament has changed.

"I'm fine," he said. "I had a new knee put in. I'm fine." His irritability, he said, springs from the steady stream of votes the governor wins on the Public Works Board.

"My frustration is the vote is always 2-1, no matter what. Even if it's wrong, it's 2-1," Schaefer said. "I'm not more frustrated than I was. He [Glendening] is enough to frustrate anybody."

Schaefer's open disdain for Glendening has not carried over to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the early front-runner in the 2002 governor's race, associates say.

"He has a positive attitude toward Kathleen," said Gary Thorpe, a top Schaefer aide.

That attitude can be seen in his changed demeanor when Townsend chairs the board in the governor's absence. She seems to have a knack of soothing him with a pat on the shoulder and a soft word. With her in charge yesterday, Schaefer was in such a good mood he promised to start calling Glendening "Mr. Governor" instead of "The Ayatollah."

When Schaefer became comptroller three years ago, one icon replaced another. Goldstein, a former state Senate president, had held the job from 1962 until his death in 1998 at age 85. The 1997 Maryland Manual said, "No one has served in statewide elected office in Maryland longer than Mr. Goldstein." It was an easy decision for Schaefer to toss aside the attorney's job he had uncomfortably assumed after Glendening's 1994 election and return to public life.

Legally, the comptroller is primarily responsible for collecting taxes but also oversees testing of gasoline and diesel fuel and regulates alcohol and cigarettes, among other functions.

Important jobs, yes. But dry, bordering on boring.

As mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to 1986, Schaefer built aquariums, skyscrapers, hotels. As governor, he managed through a nasty recession, and famously did battle with the General Assembly.

Today, it is much tougher to make headlines. Last week, his office distributed two press releases. One announced a change of location of the taxpayer service office in Elkton. Another reminded teen-agers and college students that they "can actually pick up the equivalent of an extra paycheck" from their summer jobs by claiming an exemption on line 3 of Form MW507, the state withholding certificate.

While Schaefer's job may not be ideal, it is better than the alternative.

"There's no question he is absolutely miserable and unhappy when he is not holding public office," Sabatini said. "The thing that is unique about Schaefer is that he has this compulsion and this drive to try to do good things for people. The very nature of the [comptroller's] job limits that. But he sure as hell can do more by being there than by not being there."

It would be wrong to dismiss Schaefer as a has-been, a November lion, his friends say. As if to prove the point, he is allowing his name to be circulated as a possible candidate for governor. His closest supporters have picked up the rhythm.

Thorpe noted that tickets for tonight's event do not specify which office Schaefer is running for. Thorpe would not rule out a run for governor. "You've got people trying to talk him into it, but he's not revealing to anyone what he's going to do," he said.

Lainy Lebow-Sachs, Schaefer's fervent admirer and former chief of staff, said she believes the fund-raiser will finance a run for re-election as comptroller, but admits she doesn't know.

"I want him to do what he would be happy doing," she said. "I think comptroller would be the right spot."

With several other high-ranking politicians looking for jobs in 2002 because of term limits, there is some talk that Schaefer might attract a challenger. Some say Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry is eyeing the position.

Schaefer's response to questions about a Curry challenge reveals two things. First, his stomach still grumbles with political hunger. And, he recognizes that the comptroller's job may well be his last.

"Does it bother me? Anybody that runs bothers me," Schaefer said. "Wayne is a good guy. Smart as a whip. Very, very good guy. He's young. He's going places. Comptroller, that's the end. You're not going to be president of the United States if you're comptroller. I'm serious. I'm not joking.

"If you want to be governor, you don't become comptroller."

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun