(AP Photo)

Over the years, I've made no secret of my admiration for William Donald Schaefer. I've used this space on a number of occasions to showcase the unabashed man-crush I had for him. Along with H.L. Mencken, he was one of the fiercest and most outspoken Baltimoreans of the 20th century. (I can't help but wonder what their eternal debates will sound like.)


In his own right, Don Schaefer is an icon. But taken in the context of the dreck littering City Hall and the State House these days - the man, his deeds, and his legend are all the more tremendous. He wasn't a politician. He was a public servant in a politician's office.

A few years back I wrote a piece to commemorate his 87th birthday. Under the circumstances, it's a fitting eulogy for the man who once called being mayor of Baltimore the best job he ever had.


For newer Baltimoreans, Schaefer may not be more than a name on a city plaque, a portrait in Annapolis, or a whisper of antics past. But for anyone who's called Baltimore home over the last few decades, they've had the opportunity to witness the most memorable character in state politics in his natural habitat: the spotlight.

A lively self-promotionist and political free-spirit, he was "mavericking" when John McCain was still taking final exams at the Naval Academy. Schaefer's political career started in 1955 when he was elected to the Baltimore City Council. It never stopped: over the next 50 years, he didn't lose an election. He ascended to the mayor's office in 1971. He took over the governor's mansion in 1987. He succeeded Comptroller Louis Goldstein - a legend in his own right - in 1999.

During his career, particularly as the mayor of Baltimore, he oversaw ambitious projects that would forever change the face of the city. The Inner Harbor still stands as his crowning achievement. From Harborplace to the National Aquarium, the reconditioned waterfront gave Baltimore instant tourist appeal and national credibility. He also helped remake the face of city government, most notably, hiring Bishop Robinson as the city's first black police commissioner.

But his resume doesn't tell the whole story. At times, Schaefer's larger than life personality eclipsed his impressive record. His flamboyant stunts - from wading in the Aquarium's seal pool in a striped onesie to popping out a box labeled "Baltimore's Gift to Maryland" to celebrate his being elected governor - established him as a consummate showman.

His gruff, rough and tumble demeanor won him fans - and plenty of detractors. Count among them the Eastern Shore of Maryland. All of it. Feeling slighted by its voters, he referred to the region as an outhouse using more colloquial, less printable language.

And then there's Schaefer's response to a woman who flipped him off while driving. He matched her tag to an address through MVA records and mailed her a personal note expressing his disappointment:

"Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face. Have a nice day."

Schaefer does not suffer fools gladly, even in his own party. Ask Democratic Governor Parris Glendening who earned such pet names from Schaefer as "despot", "pile of manure", and "ayatollah."

His irascible persona ultimately led to his reluctant retirement. A younger, more sensitive voter base began to tire of his anachronistic views, particularly when it came to women. He offered no apologies for his public appreciation of pretty aides' back sides, peppering Comptroller candidate Janet Owens with insults about her looks, and referring to women of all walks as "little girls." In 2006, he was voted out of office.

A blunt man in soft times, he harkens back to blue collar Baltimore. Yet his colorful language and mercurial temperament stand in stark contrast to his leadership. He was and remains a measured, common sense Democrat. Perhaps that's why there's no longer a place for him in a party that's become a caricature of itself, a gaggle of slap-fighting semi-socialist blowhards publicly jockeying for position–when they're not standing on the docks of Annapolis, dumping our tax money into the dark abyss.

As a Baltimore Democrat, I've grown a bit sentimental for better times, a better Democratic party in Maryland. The party of Don Schaefer.


M.M. McDermott can be reached at mcdermott@jhu.edu or @mmmcdermott.