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Schaefer: Politics as performance art

VehiclesExecutive BranchElectionsHomesNewspaper and MagazineWilliam Donald Schaefer

I stepped into his City Hall office to ask William Donald Schaefer, the mayor of Baltimore, a question. He was watering his African violets and did not appear to be soothed by that labor of love. In fact, he was upset about the reason for my visit — an audit had turned up lots of billing errors at what was then called City Hospital, now Bayview — and he avoided eye contact with me.

I was there to get a quote. A special auditor had resigned, saying the books at City Hospital were a mess and that the Schaefer administration had not been cooperative with his inquiry. Did the mayor have any reaction to that?

I stood on the carpet, pen perched over my rookie reporter's pad, awaiting words I had been asked to gather for a story in The Evening Sun.

The mayor of Baltimore erupted into a Vesuvian tirade, suggesting that the special auditor do something I knew to be physically impossible. Schaefer uttered a few angry sentences, each of them laced with the type of words we didn't print in a family newspaper. It was a remarkable performance. I walked out of City Hall shaken, stunned — and without the quotes I had been told to get.

Thus my first encounter with William Donald Schaefer, Willie Don, Mayor Annoyed, Don Donaldo, Mayor Do It Now.

A national magazine once declared him the greatest mayor in America, and later, when he started sticking his tongue out at people in public and insulting whole regions of the state he had been elected twice to lead, a supermarket tabloid declared him the "wackiest governor in America." For my money, he was the most entertaining elected official ever, one who saw politics as performance art. No one was more dedicated to public service and to his hometown. No one more effective.

He wore silly hats. He dressed in costumes. He mugged for the cameras. His kooky tirades, his eruptive behavior — he liked making a splash in public. But his performances were informed by genuine passion in defense of his city. Only fools dared say anything bad about Bawlmer in his presence, or in this newspaper.

He was the city's biggest cheerleader during the toughest times — he was elected mayor three years after the spring riots of 1968 — and his commitment to the city's renaissance was total, even during a protracted period of white flight. His peers looked on with amusement and wonder from the suburbs. People in Timonium and Catonsville, Glen Burnie and Pasadena viewed him as their mayor, too. For more than two decades, he was our Wizard of Oz, conjuring up potions to make Baltimore feel better about itself and, in time, make the world feel better about Baltimore.

He was tireless. He was a believer. This was a man who in 1976 stood on an empty street, a long block of abandoned rowhouses on both sides, and declared, "This is a great day for the city of Bawlmer!" He was there to announce that the 125 vacant houses behind him soon would be sold for a dollar each to give the city's new homesteading program a boost. A lot of people thought Schaefer was nuts. That area is now one of the city's best neighborhoods.

He believed in Baltimore when few believed the city had any chance of recovery from the loss of so many middle-class families in the 1960s and 1970s. He believed in the waterfront at a time when most people around here regarded it as post-industrial no-man's land. He gave us Harborplace. He gave us the Convention Center. He donned a Victorian bathing suit and straw boater, clutched a rubber ducky and took a dip in the seal pool at the National Aquarium.

The big stuff happened on his watch, but Schaefer never forget his roots in constituent service as a city councilman. As mayor, he made sure the potholes got patched. His do-it-now action memos to City Hall staffers got trash pulled from alleys and abandoned cars towed to the city yard on Pulaski Highway.

"People," he used to say, "people, people, people." Not a lot of eloquence there, but that's what government was all about, he said. That's why he made a career of public service.

He could have been mayor for several more years. Instead, he ran for governor in 1986. I think he did so, at least in part, to keep Steve Sachs from becoming governor.

Sachs had been a strong attorney general, pro-consumer and, therefore, viewed as anti-business by Schaefer's numerous business buddies. So he ran — and, after defeating Sachs in the primary, Schaefer took the general election in a landslide. He dressed up as an Admiral of the Chesapeake and stepped inside a box labeled "Baltimore's Gift To Maryland." A crane lifted the box to the deck of a boat and it sailed off to Annapolis. I'm not making this stuff up.

As governor, Schaefer got the General Assembly to authorize construction of the new stadiums in downtown Baltimore — one of which would be for a professional football team to replace the Colts.

The city had lost its beloved Colts in the middle of a snowy night, on Schaefer's watch, in 1984. The mayor went into a long, pouty-faced funk. To snap him out of it, his staff came up with a scheme to get Schaefer and the city "in the pink" after a long period of blue. So Pink Positive Day happened. Curbs were painted pink. Local TV personalities wore pink. There were pink balloons everywhere. Schaefer emerged from City Hall and waved to a crowd from the balcony. Hundreds of people wore pink and cheered from below. It was one of the most bizarre tableaus ever — like something the Argentine people might have done in tribute to Juan Peron in the good old days.

His first term as governor was fun. He had his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, buy drapes for the governor's mansion, and she commissioned a Victorian fountain, adorned with images of the flora and fauna of the Chesapeake, for the Government House lawn. The dedication — indeed, the blessing — of that fountain was one of the most peculiar moments in the long and peculiar life of William Donald Schaefer.

A large crowd formed on a rainy day. A clergyman in surplice spoke with British affectation, calling to mind Monty Python's Michael Palin leading a prayer in the chapel at an English boys school ("Oh, God, thou art so big — so very, very huge"). The reverend invoked "ye fowls of the air" and "ye beasts and ye cattle." He also used the phrases "cloven-hoofed" and "hooven" a lot. At the precise moment the fountain was unveiled, the reverend chimed: "Oh, God, thou art ever flowing with goodness." After that, Hilda Mae invited us all into the mansion for a boxed lunch of fish sticks and baked beans.

Through his second term as governor and, later, his stint as state comptroller, Schaefer was not as much fun. He became sour and frustrated. He said inappropriate things, and then finally slipped out of public sight. A whole new generation of political leaders had emerged by that time — a whole new generation of Marylanders, for that matter — and they could not appreciate what this cantankerous old guy had achieved years ago, in Baltimore, when he seemed to be the only true-believer standing in the street.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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