Psychoanalyzing the Governor Annapolis Tries to Figure Out Why He Does What He Does

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Annapolis--The House Speaker was scandalized.

"His budget is hanging fire. His land use bill is hanging fire. His re-organization plan is hanging fire and he's off to Kuwait," said R. Clayton Mitchell, D-Kent.

While Gov. William Donald Schaefer was off to the Middle East, the speaker and others in the state capital were engaged, yet again, in the favorite parlor game of Maryland politics: Psychoanalyze The Governor.

This round of the game was initiated by another series of extraordinary events starring the state's chief executive.

Before flying off with the emir and other notables:

He had a State Trooper call Dianne Stenzel of Perry Hall, at 10:30 p.m. -- startling the woman, who feared her children had been in an accident; provoking a shouting match, and setting off renewed charges of Schaeferian intimidation. Her offense: she had written a critical letter to Hilda Mae Snoops, Mr. Schaefer's "first friend."

He had his welfare secretary, Carolyn Colvin, send letters to welfare recipients informing them of cuts in their weekly grants -- and blaming the General Assembly, which knew nothing of his plans.

And as if to prove that almost everything he does any more works out poorly, the governor had trouble stepping off an elevator. As the lift door opened in the State House Wednesday, he found himself face to face with Jaleh Hagigh, a reporter for the Montgomery Journal.

Ms. Hagigh says Mr. Schaefer put one hand on her waist, one on her shoulder and moved her out of the way, referring to her as "little girl." That made the newspapers, too -- though Mr. Schaefer, through his press secretary, denied the event had taken place.

And, of course, there was the famous "s---house" slur on the Eastern Shore. That event -- which occurred as the governor was entering the House of Delegates chamber for a speech -- has been remarked upon in the Midwest and translated into German.

At a political fund-raiser in Prince George's County last week, Mr. Schaefer announced, yet again, that he is running for president. There was laughter from the audience. (During the satirical legislative Follies here Thursday night, Mr. Schaefer's trip to Kuwait was lampooned: "Just what we need," said one of the Kuwaitis in the skit, "another time bomb.")

Here was a governor facing considerable unhappiness among legislators and voters in his own state -- announcing for president. (During the Follies, a mock rollcall was taken at the Democratic National Convention. Maine voted for Schaefer. Kentucky voter for Schafer. Maryland "respectfully abstained.")

Jokes aside, all of these events provokes a renewed effort to understand what is happening in the gubernatorial mind.

Why does William Donald Schaefer do what he does?

Assuming as many do, that he wants what is best for Maryland and his own record of public service, what strategy is he following? Some still insist Mr. Schaefer's occasionally erratic behavior is never without purpose.

For those who think he is disappearing off the deep end, a roll of the eyeballs was comment enough last week.

"It's sad and embarrassing -- for him and for the state," said a former legislator and one of his oldest friends.

Lorraine Sheehan, a former legislator from Prince George's County and former secretary of state, said Mr. Schaefer's performances have undermined his credibility -- though, by now, she said, few are surprised.

Delegate J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick, says her county has done well by the governor -- but some of her constituents find his phone calls and tart letters alarming.

"When the governor carries on the way he does. . . . The phone calls. . . . It's almost an abuse of power," she said.

Why, she wondered, would someone so seasoned in the rough and tumble of public life be so consumed by his critics?

"If I reacted that way," said Ms. Stup, a former council chairwoman in Frederick County, "I'd never leave my house."

And,it would seem, the word is out, far and wide.

A poll by Mason Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia showed Mr. Schaefer's position is almost the opposite of last year at this time when he was still the unchallenged colossus of state politics. Then, more than 60 percent of the respondents gave him an "excellent" or "good" job rating. This year, more than 60 percent graded his efforts as "poor" or "fair."

His relationship with Speaker Mitchell, President Miller and the General Assembly remains rocky -- and threatens to deteriorate. About par for the course, actually. But a sharper than usual decline began a year ago when Mr. Schaefer got into what turned out to be a long-running dispute with Senator Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the important Committee on Budget and Taxation. Mr. Levitan made jokes about the governor on the Senate floor, and his colleagues were delighted.

Does the governor think his tactics will frighten assembly leaders into submission?

Or is he simply indulging a penchant for public expressions of frustration -- and his programs be damned? If the answer is yes, the approach is effective. Virtually none of his major 1991 initiatives is likely to pass this year. A major tax restructuring package, a growth management program, an attempted ban on assault rifles, an additional tax on gasoline -- all are dead and probably beyond resuscitation.

So, of course, he is frustrated and angry.

He sees unmet needs. He hears citizens asking for more services -- and he has always found the legislature short-sighted and slavishly committed to rigid spending guidelines and budget constraints. For its part, the assembly believes collectively that its prudence has prevented Maryland from facing a deficit running into the billions.

Several other related theories are advanced in an effort to divine the governor's thinking:

* Outbursts are hardly a new phenomenon. His press secretary, Paul E. Schurick, insists he has always done what he is doing now -- and became a folk hero for his straightforward, heart-on-sleeve approach.

In the past, Mr. Schaefer always seemed to be angry as he pursued something for Baltimore, which he served for 15 years ** as mayor. He was like the slightly eccentric uncle who wore striped bathing suits, spoke his mind -- and brought presents: in his case, a rehabilitated city, a new stadium, a rail line.

Now, though, his tirades are too often directed at the unsuspecting and defenseless. And he seems to be attacking without any public purpose. No one seems sure what he is out to prove.

Does he feel misunderstood or underappreciated or unfairly vilified by people who should revere him, or all of the above?

Which leads to another theory.

* He has never come to terms with what he regards as a paltry margin of victory last November. He might have declared victory after taking 59 percent of the vote. To him, though, the margin should have been bigger. His popularity had always been "godlike," to quote pollster Keith Haller, of Potomac Survey Research, and suddenly it was merely mortal.

* His long time friend and would-be adviser says he is still reacting to the death of friends over the last year or so and to his own coming birthday. He is about to become 70 years old -- a concept hard to fathom for those who see him charging through the State House corridors with all the fire and energy of a man at least 30 years younger.

He knows he may be running through his last term in public office. This theory is akin to the one about the election of 1990. As much as he insists he is not a lame duck, he may feel like one in his heart of hearts. So, to some extent, his behavior is a form of raging against the Fates.

But everything he does is not lacking form, substance and rationality.

His Linowes tax plan, named for R. Robert Linowes, chairman of a two-year study of the state tax system, was in trouble from the very start. Most members of the assembly were absolutely certain the electorate wanted no new taxes -- and made that desire clear to them when it gave the boot to unprecedented numbers of incumbents in last November's election.

Mr. Schaefer seemed to ignore the message. Urged on by the Baltimore business community, he insisted that the assembly pass his program. He appeared himself to testify for the bill -- after Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg refused to accept the chore.

"What he should have done," says Delegate Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, "was declare victory and withdraw."

That is not his way.

As much as he blustered, however, he has not worked as hard for the Linowes package as he might have. He wants it and says so. But he has not unleashed the panoply of gubernatorial blandishments -- the appointments, the capital projects, the judgeships, the highway projects and the local pressure artists known as county executives arriving at the door of their assembly delegations, hat in hand, demanding a Linowes vote.

In other words, he knew as well as anyone the bill could not pass in 1991.

So this year's fight was for next year's bill. By demanding all $800 million in Linowes revenue -- refusing to accept any compromise -- Mr. Schaefer kept the entire package alive for 1992 when the economy may be even more in need of rescuing.

xTC He may also find it easier to achieve his real objectives -- building more projects -- if the Linowes money is not diverted to fill budget gaps in a recession. Had he settled for half the Linowes loaf, he would certainly have undermined the plan's purpose -- to achieve tax fairness the entire package must be passed, according to its adherents. And if he had settled for half a loaf this year, opponents in 1992 would have looked back and said, "We already did that last year."

The Schaefer record of 1990 tended to prove another truism of Annapolis: no matter how much they may dislike his proposals or style, legislators inevitably want to associate themselves with a governor, his power and ability to make things happen. Despite Mr. Schaefer's hectoring this year, he apparently won some support for Linowes.

When the plan was formally killed in House and Senate committees, leading members of each committee uttered assessments of its future which might well have been written in the governor's own press office. Certainly, the bills would have to pass eventually. Yes, of course, the state would need more money. We simply need time to study and reflect before acting.

Despite Mr. Schaefer's studied impatience, the assembly almost always insists on taking its time with major proposals. In his first -- years in Annapolis, that preference was pushed aside with the help of legislators who admired the executive's urgency. In most of the early sessions, his program would be in serious difficulty -- and then pass overwhelmingly.

Little by little that cycle of success has run down. This year, few if any of the proposals are likely to survive. Voters have said they don't want new taxes -- and everyone but Mr. Schaefer was listening.

Yet he may still be the winner. Next year is probably the earliest the tax bill could have passed. And next year is the year of redistricting, a year when the legislative district lines are redrawn, making virtually every member of the assembly nervous and giving Mr. Schaefer, the master redistricter, considerable leverage.

Also, 1992 will be one more year beyond the election -- and voters may have begun to focus again on the things they want and need, things $800 million can buy.

Which leaves this question: Will Mr. Schaefer, himself, be the biggest obstacle to a happy outcome? One of his legislative advisers worries that he might peevishly insist that the legislature take responsibility for the tax package, demanding that the Linowes-Schaefer label be replaced by Mr. Mitchell's, for example.

That sort of condition -- which could no longer be called unexpected -- might squander an opportunity to achieve what the governor says he wants.

So, by the end of last week, Speaker Mitchell may have been one of the few in Annapolis who lamented the governor's departure for Kuwait.

"Not entirely a bad thing," said not one but two administration officials with a wink.

The governor could use the quiet time, they said, and so could the state.

Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
25°