By David Nitkin
Originally published June 25, 2002
His golden days as Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor have passed,
but state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer won't walk away from a
career in public service.
Schaefer, 80, plans to announce tonight that he is seeking re-election
the state's revenue collector and fiscal guardian. Reflecting his status as an
elder statesman of Maryland Democratic politics, no challenger from
either party has made plans to run against him.
"You never finish in public life," he said yesterday. "There's always a
Schaefer briefly tried a different path. After completing two terms as
governor in early 1995, he joined a law firm and became the host of a
radio show - typical pursuits for a politician past his prime. He says he
was a lousy lawyer, bored by the work. His foray into broadcasting was
So when Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein died in office four months before
the 1998 election, Schaefer mobilized his sizable army of supporters,
raised more than $600,000 and won with 62 percent of the vote.
It is not a glamorous job, and associates say Schaefer was initially
frustrated at its lack of power, compared with mayor or governor. But he
has found a niche.
Calls to his office are answered with the greeting, "Schaefer service line.
Can I help you?" He rushes checks to residents owed income tax refunds,
and he has cracked down on illegal sales of alcohol and tobacco.
"He complains a lot, but deep down, he really likes it," said Robert
Douglas, an attorney and former Schaefer press secretary.
Most visibly, Schaefer has played foil to Gov. Parris N. Glendening at
meetings of the Board of Public Works, the body that authorizes most
Schaefer, one of three members of the board, has continually criticized
Glendening administration budget decisions, painstakingly questioned state
bureaucrats on details of projects large and small, and peppered the
governor with insults that go unanswered.
"He has been in many respects a watchdog for us," said Michael S.
Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "He's made
arguments the party has made on a number of issues on how the governor
has prioritized his spending.
"I think Schaefer has been a good little pit bull, and I admire him for
Some observers are troubled by Schaefer's outbursts. They say he has
grown more erratic, and that his comments sometimes border on the
"I don't think I'm too old," he said yesterday. "I've got a good memory."
Last August, it was Schaefer who flushed out Glendening's relationship
with a deputy chief of staff for all to see.
At a public works meeting, he said that in an attempt to persuade
Glendening to turn on a fountain built during Schaefer's tenure, he wrote a
letter to the "big boss," Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer E. Crawford.
Two days later, the Washington Post published a lengthy article
completed weeks earlier detailing reporters' observations of a relationship
between Crawford and Glendening, who was separated from his wife at
Glendening divorced Frances Hughes Glendening in November and
married Crawford in January. The couple is expecting a baby this
Despite his run-ins with Glendening, a Sun poll in January found Schaefer
to be one of the most popular political figures in Maryland.
"He's an icon. He's an institution. He generates emotion," said Del.
Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. "He's the kind of elected
official that some people love to hate, and others love. It just so happens
that more people love him."
If he wins, Schaefer will likely enjoy better relations with the next
He says he will not "try to hurt" the Republican gubernatorial candidate,
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., during the campaign. But in all likelihood,
Schaefer will endorse Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and be part
of the Democratic ticket.
"We've been very pleased to be campaigning already with the
comptroller, and we will do many more events with him over the summer,"
said Michael Morrill, a Townsend spokesman. "He has been a great
With his political career into its fifth decade, Schaefer holds a perhaps
unparalleled position in state politics.
When state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick was flirting with
the idea of switching parties and running for lieutenant governor on the
GOP ticket, Schaefer played a key role in bringing her and Townsend
together for a luncheon and clearing of the air.
Schaefer's candidacy raises a troubling prospect, however, for some party
members. With Townsend virtually certain to be the gubernatorial
nominee and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. seeking re-election,
the Democratic Party may again field an all-white slate of candidates for
statewide office this year, depending on Townsend's choice of running
Maryland's population is 29 percent black, and in two of its four largest
jurisdictions - Baltimore and Prince George's County - African-Americans
are a majority.
"It is a concern," said Rawlings. "But my main interest is getting
Schaefer's announcement will be made during a $1,000-per- person
fund-raiser at Martin's West in Baltimore County. He hopes to collect
$200,000, adding to the $268,000 balance reported in his campaign
account in November.
Steele, the GOP chairman, says he has spoken with Kenneth R.
Timmerman, president of the Bethesda-based Maryland Taxpayers
Association, about running against Schaefer. But Steele concedes that
winning such a contest - against a popular figure in a heavily Democratic
state - would be a "tall order."
"Sometimes it's not a matter of winning," Steele said. "If you are the
opposition party, it's not the best thing in the world to have your opponent
Schaefer said he expects competition.
"I've never had a free ride in my life," he said.
His future, he says bluntly, depends on staying in office. Schaefer, a
lifelong bachelor with no immediate family and few hobbies, said
retirement is not an option.
"To do nothing, I'd be dead in a year."
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun