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Schaefer couldn't leave on his own

In the end, Maryland Democrats wanted no more of William Donald Schaefer.

Whether it was the unseemly behavior that became too much to ignore, or the cumulative effect of years of befriending Republicans, or simply the sense that the 84-year-old Schaefer was a relic of a bygone era, the party that nominated him for elective office since the 1950s had tired of him. When the votes were counted, Schaefer not only hadn't won, he'd finished third out of three, behind winner Peter Franchot and runner-up Janet S. Owens. The message was clear, the rejection resounding.Schaefer's closest friends saw it coming. Many had urged him to step gracefully into retirement, but it was a word he equated with death. When all was said and done, he didn't know how not to run. He couldn't leave the political stage without being pushed.

Like the hero of Edwin O'Connor's 1956 novel, The Last Hurrah, about the final campaign of an aging city machine politician, Schaefer's career has apparently ended in a defeat by a younger rival whose achievements paled beside his own.

A dismayed but proudly unapologetic Schaefer addressed the media yesterday morning, hours after the confirmation of his defeat, while the fresh loss still stung.

He entered a dimly lit conference room down the hall from his Annapolis office to prolonged applause from his staff, which he eventually waved off to gamely play off his post-primary shock, eulogize his own accomplishments, joke about seeking other political offices and jab repeatedly at the media, which he blamed for his loss.

With his arms folded across his chest, he said he would not take anything back and would certainly not apologize for a thing.

"In politics, everyone wants you to make a mistake," he said. "Everyone wants to see you do something wrong."

Schaefer's 50-year career in public service would take him from the Baltimore City Council, to the presidency of that body, to four terms as mayor, two as governor and -- after a miserable four years on the political sidelines -- two as comptroller.

He never married, never had children. His political friends and supporters were his family, and his work was his life.

Even his foes hailed his dedication to public service -- as they suggested it was time for him to go.

His last campaign was a half-hearted one -- devoid of energy, insulated from news media scrutiny and barely visible. His ads praised accomplishments that were undeniable but long in the past. His friends pointed to his integrity, which was never in serious question, while Democratic voters wondered about his judgment, behavior, energy and outspoken support for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

At his few public appearances, he seemed every bit his age. He could still turn on the charm with his longtime supporters. But then he opened his mouth and out poured ugly observations about one of his opponents, not her politics but her appearance. Even those who had stuck with Schaefer for years winced. Many concluded that enough was finally enough.

By then, he was hardly the same William Donald Schaefer who spearheaded the development of downtown Baltimore, who built Camden Yards and led the state through a budget crisis.

But in his time -- and what a time it was -- he was a phenomenon unmatched in Maryland history. Taking over as mayor in the early 1970s, at a time when Baltimore was foundering and dispirited, he infused the city with a sense of energy and pride.

Under his leadership, the gleaming Inner Harbor as it is today took shape, but his achievements as mayor were more than bricks and mortar. He came to power as the city was making a painful transition from white dominance to a black majority. His handling of racial issues didn't satisfy everyone, but blacks of older generations remembered that he appointed the first African-American city solicitor and police commissioner. And long after other whites had fled West Baltimore, he remained in the house he shared with his mother.

Schaefer, a descendant of German immigrants, was born in Baltimore in 1921. He served in World War II and established a career as a lawyer, though the profession never captured his imagination.

He was drawn to politics as a young man and lost two races for the House of Delegates before winning the favorable attention of political kingmaker Irvin Kovens.

With Kovens' support he ran for City Council in 1955 and achieved the first of dozens of electoral victories in an unbeaten streak that came to an end Tuesday.

In 1967, he ran for City Council president and won. Four years later he ran for mayor and won, with nearly 85 percent of the vote.

He was perfect for a town in desperate need of a boost. He was hardworking and solidly middle class, unpretentious in a town wary of wealth, lineage and airs. He could not have come from Roland Park or Guilford.

He took over City Hall three years after riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The steady exodus to the suburbs had increased, draining the city of many middle-class homeowners.

"Do it now!" became his battle cry. His autocratic style drove a renaissance that transformed the city. He became known as "Mayor Annoyed" because of the headlines detailing his impatience over one city problem or another.

He was Baltimore's indefatigable cheerleader; his antics on behalf of the city were legendary. When construction of the National Aquarium lagged behind schedule, he made good on a promise and donned an 1890s swimsuit and, with a straw boater in one hand and a rubber duck in the other, went for a swim in the seal pool.

After winning his fourth mayoral term in 1983, Schaefer came under pressure from close allies to run for governor in 1986 against Stephen H. Sachs, the liberal attorney general. Schaefer, then at the height of his statewide popularity, balked at leaving a job he loved. But he agreed, soundly beating Sachs in the Democratic primary and cruising to victory in November.

The first four years in Annapolis are remembered as a time of some of his greatest accomplishments -- especially winning approval for the stadium complex at Camden Yards. Economic times were good, and Schaefer was a builder. After some rough early dealings with the General Assembly, he mastered the art of legislative relations and established himself as a strong governor.

His second term would not go as smoothly. He won re-election with about 60 percent of the vote in 1990 -- a victory most politicians would revel in -- but he took his decreased majority as a personal affront and went into an extended sulk.

"Life is funny," he once said. "You can hear 10,000 clapping, but the boo comes in the loudest."

His loss in the Eastern Shore counties would prompt him to label the region with a vulgarity that remains part of Maryland political lore.

Schaefer found himself in the middle of a budget crisis brought on by economic trends beyond his control. Suddenly, the governor who reveled in building and taking care of people's needs had to slash programs and raise taxes.

Perhaps it was the economic recession of the early 1990s or the fact that 40 percent of the electorate turned against him in the 1990 election. Whatever the reason, his mean side began to show in public.

After a motorist gave him a thumbs-down, Schaefer traced the person's license plate just to write him a sarcastic and, some would say, juvenile note: "Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face. Have a nice day!"

By March 1993, his once-soaring approval rating had plummeted to 16 percent. And when he left office in 1995, it was without accomplishing one of the major goals of his second term -- attracting a National Football League team to Baltimore to replace the Colts, who fled Baltimore for Indianapolis on his watch as mayor.

Schaefer spent the next four years as an unhappy retiree from public life. It only compounded the misery when Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a successor he heartily disliked, landed the NFL team that would become the Baltimore Ravens. Just when he seemed to be a spent force in Maryland politics, state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein died suddenly after four decades in office, a few days before the election filing deadline in 1998.

Schaefer leapt into the race to replace Goldstein. With name recognition no one else could match, he swept into an office with far less power than he used to wield.

But one of the perks of the comptroller's position is a place on the Board of Public Works -- a three-member panel chaired by Glendening. During his first four years, Schaefer would use the board's meetings as a bully pulpit to bedevil Glendening.

In 2002, Schaefer won re-election and found himself serving on the board with Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in more than three decades.

From Ehrlich, Schaefer received the deference and respect he never felt from Glendening. He became a consistent ally and outspoken admirer of the Republican governor.

Schaefer was praised for leading a turnaround of the state's scandal-ridden retirement system, taking over as chairman of the state pension board in the last year of the Glendening administration. Once a laggard in its investment returns, the system has performed strongly over the past three years.

But on the Board of Public Works, Schaefer was still picking fights -- though his targets were groups that made up a large part of the Democratic base, including minorities, women and gays.

At yesterday's press conference, Schaefer backed off none of it.

"I'm me," he said. "Do you think I'm ever gonna change and keep my mouth shut and be politically correct?"

His staff, crowded into the back of the room to listen, applauded loudly, particularly at remarks like this. At other times, they stood silently, with lips pursed to bite back tears.

At one point a reporter asked Schaefer how, in a word, he'd like to be remembered.

"Two words -- and I've thought of this a long time," Schaefer responded. " `He cared.' That's all. It says a tremendous amount, and it really means something."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Stephanie Desmon and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

A political chronology

1950 --William Donald Schaefer, a graduate of the University of Baltimore law school, opens downtown practice. Runs unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates from West Baltimore.

1954 --Fails again to win seat in House of Delegates.

1955 --Wins campaign for Baltimore City Council.

1967 --Runs citywide and is elected City Council president, serving with Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III.

1968 --Helps direct National Guard to quell riots after killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

1971 --Wins Democratic primary for mayor with 56 percent of vote against three candidates, easily wins general election.

1975 --Re-elected mayor with slogan "Mayor Schaefer --Worth Repeating."

1978 --Defeats opponents of Harborplace in a referendum.

1979 --Re-elected to third term.

1980 --Harborplace opens to rave reviews. Schaefer revels in the praise heaped on the Inner Harbor, including a Time magazine cover story that features Baltimore's revitalization efforts.

January 1981 --Declares that the new aquarium under construction at the Inner Harbor is progressing well. If it doesn't open on time, he announces, he'll "jump in the tank."

March 1981 --With President Ronald Reagan cutting the federal budget, Schaefer goes to Washington to plead for aid. When legislators don't respond sympathetically, Schaefer says, "I'm so angry I can't see."

1981 --Calls in business executives and persuades them to begin "Blue Chip-In," a program that raises $400,000 privately in first year to fill gaps caused by federal budget cuts.

July 1981 --Before television cameras, Schaefer -- dressed in old-time bathing costume and carrying an inflatable duck -- steps into National Aquarium's seal pool.

1982 --Columnist George Will writes: "Schaefer embodies his community more completely than even Richard Daley or Fiorello La Guardia embodied Chicago and New York."

1983 --Re-elected mayor; in general election, wins 93 percent of vote.

1984 --In an article that captures Schaefer's manic management style, Esquire magazine runs a cover story declaring Baltimore's leader "the best mayor in America." Staff are later chagrined to find the article depicts the mayor as a noodge who patrols alleys for trash.

1984 --Baltimore Metro opens.

1985 --Appoints himself "supreme commander" and launches an "assault on trash," naming four aides top generals in a military-style effort to clean up the city. City Hall reporters are called "war correspondents visiting the front."

May 1986 --With longtime companion Hilda Mae Snoops at his side, Schaefer declares candidacy for governor.

July 1986 --In a campaign interview, Schaefer calls his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Steven H. Sachs, a "dumb a----," among other things.

September 1986 --Defeats Sachs in Democratic primary.

November 1986 --With 82 percent of the vote, he beats a little-known Republican to win the gubernatorial election. It is the biggest margin of victory for any governor elected that day.

January 1987 --The day before his inauguration in Annapolis, Schaefer climbs inside a box at Harborplace, is raised to the deck of a ship and emerges in a white naval uniform. The box is labeled "Baltimore's gift to Maryland."

1987 --Wins legislative approval for the construction of two new stadiums in Baltimore.

September 1990 --Wins Democratic primary with 77 percent of the vote against little-known gun-rights advocate. He is said to be "on the rampage" because almost a quarter of the voters rejected him.

November 1990 --Re-elected with 59.6 percent of the vote. But over the next several months, he settles into a funk, angry at losing more than half the state's counties.

February 1991 --At a State House ceremony, Schaefer asks two Eastern Shore delegates: "How's that s------ house of an Eastern Shore?" Many Shore residents are outraged. After a week of stonewalling, the governor apologizes, insisting it was "a joke."

April 1991 --A tabloid newspaper, the Star, calls Schaefer "the wackiest governor in America."

April 1992 --The General Assembly passes a package of $500 million in tax increases to bail state out of budget crisis.

May 1992 --First leg of light rail opens, connecting Timonium and Camden Yards.

October 1992 --Flies to Missouri to endorse Republican President George H.W. Bush for re-election. State Democrats are outraged.

October 1993 --Saying that state taxpayers spend nearly $2.3 million a year on salary and perks for Schaefer, Money magazine rates him "the most pampered governor in America."

January 1995 --Schaefer retires from elected office.

July 1998 --Longtime state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein dies at age 85, shortly before election filing deadline. Within days, Schaefer enters comptroller's race.

November 1998 --Elected comptroller with 62 percent of vote.

November 2002 --Re-elected comptroller, by a margin of more than 2 to 1. In second term, he is chairman of the state pension plan, a position he took over the year before, and leads a turnaround of the scandal-ridden retirement system. Once a laggard in its investment returns, the system performs strongly over the next three years.

June 2003 --The state Court of Appeals delivers the comptroller's office a victory, ruling that companies that establish holding companies in Delaware owe taxes in Maryland. The state collects millions.

February 2006 --At state Board of Public Works meeting, stops a female aide who had just given him a mug of tea and walked away, commanding her to return and "walk again" as he watches.

April 2006 --Votes with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to cut the state property tax by 2 cents, over the objections of Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat.

Sept. 13, 2006 --Acknowledges defeat in Democratic primary.

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