Wearing his woes on his sleeve Unspoken question seems to haunt troubled governor.

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

At a recent ceremony, Gov. William Donald Schaefer told his troubles to an unlikely group of confidantes -- men wearing the felt hats of their charitable organizations, young beauty queens in satiny dresses and children promoting dental health.

Such ceremonies, where the governor hands out proclamations recognizing Marylanders for their accomplishments, generally do not focus on affairs of state. This time, however, Schaefer couldn't help but mention his troubles.

The newspapers were out to get him, he told his guests. People had accused him of wasting tax dollars -- even blamed him for the state budget deficit, he said.

Although his monologue elicited laughter, an unspoken question seemed to haunt the governor: Why are people treating me this way?

Schaefer's frustration, which has been growing for months, has exploded into rage recently. He abruptly left his office in Annapolis last Thursday and stormed across the street to pitch a fit -- complete with vulgar language -- in front of the stunned chairman of a subcommittee that had just approved a minor cut in Schaefer's budget.

"It was the most emotional I've ever seen him," one witness said.

At the Governor's Mansion the next day, Schaefer scolded General Assembly leaders at an uncomfortable breakfast meeting.

Hostility between Schaefer and legislative leaders is nothing new, but some lawmakers are questioning the governor's stability and wondering how he will react to additional setbacks during his second term.

Already, as the General Assembly passes the midpoint of its 90-day session, legislators have given the cold shoulder to Schaefer's most ambitious initiatives of 1991: a major overhaul of Maryland's tax system and a growth-management plan designed protect Chesapeake Bay. Both are doomed for this year, top lawmakers have told Schaefer.

These setbacks come on top of others that frustrated Schaefer last fall, when he found himself faced with something unexpected -- markedly sagging revenues -- and something new -- a decline in his popularity.

"Four years ago, it was in vogue to be a big-time Schaefer supporter, and now it's in vogue to be a Schaefer basher," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-W. Md. "Neither of those swings is healthy."

Schaefer, who gained national acclaim while mayor of Baltimore, seems uncertain at this turn of events. The recession especially frustrates a governor who lacks the money to "Do It Now," as his slogan promises.

A usually decisive man, he has flip-flopped on many budget decisions recently. A man given to quirky publicity stunts, he has been surprised to find his idiosyncrasies -- angry letters to citizens and a recent "joke" about the Eastern Shore -- met by anger rather than bemusement.

"There are a lot of people who are starting to question whether the governor is stable and able," one influential legislator said. "It's a disturbing question."

A loyal supporter, however, sees the governor's actions as those of a man redefining his role and himself, perhaps a bit more publicly than his friends would like.

On the domestic front, Schaefer's longtime companion and official state hostess, Hilda Mae Snoops, appears to be sharing his frustration. Last week she announced her intention of unloading the costly furnishings she had selected for the Governor's Mansion because, she said, legislators just don't appreciate them, or her.

In the midst of it all, the governor, who cannot by law serve a third term, announced his desire to run for president. He has reiterated that ambition -- at times coyly -- but many doubt his seriousness.

Still, the workaholic governor, who has spent 35 years in public office, seems anxious to dispel any notion that he will fade into private life in 1995 when his second term ends.

"I'm not going to retire," he said last week at a breakfast with educators and business executives in Towson. "I'm going to run for president. No Democrat will run, so I'm going to run. I'm not going to win, but I'm going to run."

There was guarded laughter in the room.

HIS POPULARITY SLIDE

Asked to pinpoint when Schaefer's current mood took root, many observers select the election last November. Schaefer's belief that he fell short of a mandate -- he received about 60 percent of the statewide vote, down from the unprecedented 82 percent he won in 1986 -- rattles a man accustomed to accolades.

"He considers his margin of victory a defeat, so consequently he felt his work over the past four years has not been fully accepted by the majority of Marylanders," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

Although always a mercurial man, the governor's post-election mood revealed a greater "depth to his turmoil than in the past," another legislator said.

Schaefer complained of being misunderstood by the citizens he worked so hard to help. Although he could have chalked up the election to the anti-incumbency mood of the citizenry, he took his loss in several counties personally.

He blamed the news media for misleading voters by portraying him as a big spender. "I can't spend one nickel without the legislature's approval," he told reporters, "but you worked me over real good during the election so everyone in the state thinks I spent all the money."

He also blamed the press for disclosing that he had called the Eastern Shore a s---house and had penned nasty notes to constituents. "We're the laughingstock of the country on this remark on the Eastern Shore," he said.

Coping with criticism has never been a strong point for the governor, who admits he is "thin-skinned." Although he said he is "not concerned" about criticism, saying he's had it "since the day I started to run in 1955," he seemed anything but indifferent when he described some recent letters from constituents.

"Some of them are the most vicious I've ever had," he said, "those who are gutless and yellow-bellied and don't have the courage to sign some of their vicious, scum-laden remarks and ** cartoons that they send me."

MONEY WORRIES

Along with criticism, Schaefer has been forced to contend with the state's worst budget crisis in years. Ignoring advice that he stay in his office, the headstrong governor ventured into several legislative meetings recently. At one, he fretted about Maryland's declining revenues and the budget cuts they necessitate. "We're not into the bone, we're into the marrow. Cutting deep into social services, which is worrying me to death," he told legislators.

His worries stretch from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland, right on down to people "old as I am" from his West Baltimore neighborhood who are "struggling to keep their homes," the 69-year-old governor said.

He seems dumbfounded that the legislature would consider budget cuts while rejecting his proposed solution -- an $800 million increase in state taxes beginning July 1. Without a tax increase, he has warned, Maryland could cease to be a leader among states in higher education and economic development.

In addition to worrying about next year's budget, Schaefer has been laboring under the weight of a multimillion-dollar shortfall in this year's budget. To fill that gap, he has announced spending cuts and later reversed himself after public protests, prompting critics to wonder how steadily he will lead Maryland through the dark fiscal times.

In recent months, for instance, he reversed decisions to cut programs that help pay for kidney dialysis and provide counseling to troubled teen-agers. He similarly flip-flopped on a decision to lengthen the 35 1/2 -hour workweek for state employees to 40 hours.

Schaefer said his supposed flip-flopping is a media creation. "Changing when you see there's something better is not a flip-flop. . . . To stand in concrete is stupid."

Others, however, question the quality of the advice he receives from staff and say the governor's "Do It Now" philosophy is not serving him well if his decisions are the product of haste.

THE FUTURE

Although it's too early to know what office, if any, Schaefer will run for next, the idea of retirement does not appeal to a man who has made politics "his whole life," said Del. Paul Weisengoff, D-City. "I'm sure he's nervous about being inactive."

Schaefer has been preparing himself for a leave-taking from his current job for some time. He often avoids the state yacht and other perks of his position, an aide said. "He's afraid of the trappings, since he's not going to have them when he leaves. He doesn't want to get used to that lifestyle," the aide said.

Some say Schaefer's tirades are causing his power to wane faster than it otherwise would. Still, one influential lawmaker said, Schaefer is no lame duck. After all, that legislator and other officials interviewed did not want their names mentioned, itself a testimony to Schaefer's continued influence.

One legislator said he hopes Schaefer pulls himself out of his funk so he can end his term on a positive note. Otherwise, the source said, "I could easily envision a man who feels he gave everything to the state and can't figure out what went wrong."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°