In oft-stormy relations, Schaefer got business to get things done

Unlike some Democratic governors and mayors, at least William Donald Schaefer had a dialogue with Maryland business leaders. If you can call a blistering, hold-the-phone-from-the-ear conversation a dialogue.

"When the governor calls me, I know what's on his mind as soon as he says my name," Furlong Baldwin, who was chief of Mercantile Bankshares, told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. "If it's 'H. Furlong Baldwin,' I know he's about to chew me out. If it's 'Hello, Baldy,' I know he needs something from me."

Schaefer did his share of both cajoling and browbeating business folks, as well as everybody else. If he was more successful at boosting commerce than his successors, maybe it was partly because the national economy crescendoed in time with his long career.

Those were the days of federal urban grants and a reaction against the brutal "urban renewal" schemes of the 1960s leveling block after city block. New thinkers such as James Rouse were figuring out ways for city centers to lure back office and retail tenants.

Schaefer's first decade as Baltimore mayor prepared the city for the Reagan defense boom of the 1980s, which made Maryland one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Economic prosperity made good background music for the National Aquarium, Harborplace and other gems of the Baltimore "renaissance."

The defense bust that resulted from the end of the Cold War didn't come until Schaefer's second term as governor, which ended in 1995.

While mayor, he had a more substantial city to work with than the city's present CEO, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Even as late as 1990, Baltimore had 115,000 (16 percent) more people and 120,000 (26 percent) more jobs than it does today. Even more important, perhaps, was its list of business headquarters. The city had a decent cluster of CEOs upon whom Schaefer could lean for whatever he thought needed to be done — loans, charity, political support, arm-twisting.

Today's mayor would have to dial long-distance if she wanted to deal with the top bosses of what's left of Maryland National Bank, Bank of Baltimore, USF&G, Alex. Brown and other major companies. Even if they took her call, they'd be less likely to do anything extraordinary for a faraway branch town.

But if Schaefer had more raw material to work with, it should be said that he made the most of it. Business leaders complained loudly about Maryland taxes. Schaefer complained loudly about business folks complaining.

"Baldy is a damaging and very negative person," Schaefer told The Sun in 1994 of Mercantile's Baldwin, the state's most powerful commercial banker at the time. "He talks about cutting taxes and rides around in a stretch limousine. He talks down the state all the time."

But behind the scenes, things got done. Schaefer's closed-door theatrics were often as dramatic as the funny costumes he would put on to publicize important projects.

As federal money started to dry up in the 1980s, Mayor Schaefer called a bunch of corporate honchos into his office, Henry "Hank" Butta, who was chief of C&P Telephone in the 1980s, told Schaefer's biographer, C. Fraser Smith.

"I don't have money to open swimming pools, to teach fire safety in the schools, to insulate homes — all this stuff is going unless you guys help," Butta recalled Schaefer saying.

Nothing happened, so the next day Schaefer ordered everybody back to City Hall.

"You weren't listening," he said. "You don't have any idea of what I was talking about. Do you think I asked you over here for a free coke?"

The CEOs started to yell back at Schaefer. According to Smith's book, "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography," Butta intervened.

"Excuse me, Mr. Mayor," he said. "Are you asking us to raise money for things that previously were paid for with tax dollars?"

"Well," Schaefer said. "We've got a genius on the premises."

The corporate suits went on to raise $675,000 to finance city programs and found jobs for 1,200 kids being laid off from federal programs, Smith reports.

It would have been great if William Donald Schaefer had lived to see Baltimore plug the population drain that began when he was a Baltimore city councilman. But it was not to be.

The city lost another 30,000 people last decade — 5 percent of the residents, census results show. More evidence that the heralded Baltimore "renaissance" that Schaefer gets credit for launching is a never-ending task.

But if Baltimore couldn't match Philadelphia in reversing half a century of shrinkage, neither did it come close to suffering like Cleveland, which shed one resident in six in the past decade. For that, maybe you can tip a straw boater, admiral's hat or any other goofy costume lid to William Donald Schaefer.