Schaefer's 'not nuts,' but finds much in Md. to fault

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some people think he's crazy. His popularity has plummeted. And his legislation is being killed. But William Donald Schaefer says he is not going to change.

Got that? What you have seen before, what you see now, is what you are going to get for the next three years.

"I'm feeling good," Schaefer said, sitting down at a back table at the Towson Inn on York Road. "And I'm not nuts. I'll never have a clearer mind than I have now. Some people would like to use me as a whipping boy to cover their own inadequacies. But I am saner than most members of the legislature."

Big deal. Who isn't?

"The Sunpapers say my popularity is down to 35 percent?" he said. "That's not accurate, but I don't care. Because it's going down to 2 percent! So get ready."

Schaefer spoke for 70 minutes on Friday. He dismissed the rampant rumors that he was depressed because of any personal events in his life or the lives of those close to him.

He sharply attacked the speaker of the Maryland House and the president of the Maryland Senate, saying they were ruining the Democratic Party, and he accused his lieutenant governor of "betrayal."

He also accused the legislature of trying to trap him into instituting taxes next year to make up for an anticipated $363 million deficit. But he said he was not going to fall for the trap: He was going to force the legislature to institute taxes on its own.

But his biggest disappointment, he indicated, was with the people of the Eastern Shore, a place he has considered a second home for 30 years. And when I asked him if he was therefore considering selling his Ocean City residence, he said with real sadness in his voice: "Most likely I will."

And where will you go instead? I asked. Garrett County?

"Well, I didn't win Garrett County," he said with a small smile. "But I won Allegany. And both of them are very beautiful. Very, very beautiful."

He admitted to having made a serious political mistake in criticizing rather than celebrating his 60 percent victory in his re-election campaign. And he also admitted to some depression in the past.

But he said that depression was now over. And his overall tone was not sad or gloomy. It was more like battered yet resolute.

"I go to a National Governors Association meeting and I am a big man," he said. "A big man. The other governors say Maryland has some of the best programs in America. I walk in there, I'm somebody. I was the only governor invited to Kuwait. The president of the United States approved my trip. But you know what they say: You are never a king in your own kingdom.

"For a while I was depressed, down. But now I'm not. Take the nutty things I have been doing. Roger, I have been doing nutty things for 30 years.

"They say I send nasty letters to people? Well, I've sent nice letters to people, too. And I've visited people in their homes for 30 years. I go to old people who can't get somebody to fix their house and I find somebody to fix it.

"I go to people who can't pay their mortgages, and I get the bank to carry them for a few months. I go to people with no heat. I go to people who are having trouble with their kids."

But then why write the nasty letters and make the nasty visits at all? I asked.

"I have written nasty letters to people who have sent nasty letters to me," he said. "They call me 'Governor Sh-tfer,' so I write back 'Numbrain.' Yes, I do it. And you know what?"

What?

"I'd do it again! I'd do it again because I am a human being. I am a human being that cares about people. And I am almost at the end of my career."

But if you keep writing those letters and making those visits, aren't people going to continue to think you're crazy?

"OK, OK, so I know I can't do that anymore," he said and then

paused to pour himself a cup of tea. "But I will do it!" he continued. "And the press will never know. People want me to come and visit them and write them. They say: 'Help me! Help me! I've got a son in prison. I've got a mother I need to get into a

nursing home!'

"And you know the thing that got me in all the trouble, calling the Eastern Shore a sh - thouse? Well I couldn't believe it. People from the Eastern Shore have told me to my face that nothing good ever came out of Baltimore. They have used epithets for black people. They have called me a 'chicken-necker.' And you know what I have done for the Eastern Shore?"

Schaefer recited a long list including the construction of the Denton bypass, the construction or repair of a number of bridges, the creation of jobs, computers for schoolchildren, etc.

"And now they treat me like a dog on the Eastern Shore!" he said.

But you've been a politician for decades, I said. So how come it's a revelation to you that the public is fickle and that people can be ungrateful? How come a savvy politician doesn't know that?

"Because it was never true on the Shore," Schaefer said. "You know how long I've been going there? To church suppers? To parades? Up to this year, it's been fine. But this year, I go up to a guy and say, 'Hi, Joe,' and he won't speak to me."

So why did the Shore turn against you?

"The NRA [National Rifle Association] is a major reason," Schaefer said. "The gun lobby really worked me over. The watermen needed a target. The farmers didn't help me. Nobody says thank you for what I did. In Western Maryland, I'm fine. Prince George's County, Montgomery County, they appreciate what I have done for them. Not on the Eastern Shore. OK, I used to be hurt, but not anymore. It's over. I'm fine."

Tell me about some of your mistakes, I said.

"I had a whole bunch of lows there for a while," Schaefer admitted. "I did not have a good election campaign. I had a lot of money, but not a good campaign. We were flopping on our ear, when I took over and salvaged it."

You got 60 percent of the vote in your re-election. Most politicians would call that a landslide, yet you called it a defeat.

"I should never have said that," Schaefer said. "Never. I wasn't satisfied with 60 percent and I should have been. I made a terrible mistake to let people see me so disappointed. I should have run down the street yelling: 'I won! I won!' "

So why didn't you?

"Because I was used to 82 percent," he said. "And, well, my own team let me down."

Who?

"Other Democrats running for office let me down," he said. "They labeled me as a big spender. They didn't point out that in four years I passed only one tax. And that I put more into education than any governor in history."

Let's talk about other Democrats. Let's talk about your lieutenant governor. Is the rift between you and Melvin Steinberg real?

"Yes," Schaefer said firmly. "At first, people were trying to divide us, but we worked exceptionally well together, and Mickey worked exceptionally well with the legislature.

"Then last year, my troops came to me and said: 'Your lieutenant governor has walked out on you.' I said: 'I don't want to hear this! Don't tell me this!'

"So I brought him in and sat him down. I said: 'Mickey, they are trying to tear us apart. They say you are not helping me.' And Mickey says: 'That's right.' He says he can't back things he doesn't believe in. I said: 'Mickey, have you ever told me?' And he says: 'No, I should have.' Well, that caused a little bit of a breach."

The next major breach, the governor said, was over the Linowes commission proposals, an $800 million tax-restructuring plan that Steinberg wanted Schaefer to compromise on.

"I've got 15 witnesses to what I am about to tell you," Schaefer said. "OK, Mickey wanted to do Linowes. He said: 'Let me do the strategy.' Then we get close to the time Linowes has to be introduced and he says he doesn't want to do it. He says he can't introduce it.

"OK. So it is the day before the hearing on Linowes, and we are sitting in his office and for 35 minutes he goes over Linowes: 'We're not going to get it this year, wait until next year, grab half, not the whole thing.'

"So I go around the room and everybody wants to go for the whole thing this year. And I say: 'We're going for the whole thing.' And Mickey says: 'I can't present evidence for it, because I don't believe in it.' And then he says: 'I promise you I won't say a word about this. I won't say a word that I am against Linowes.'

"And then the next day, the day of the hearing, he gives out a release saying he will not testify, that's he's opposed to Linowes and that it's gonna lose."

Schaefer paused and took a breath. "That's a betrayal," he said. "A betrayal."

Surely you confronted him later, I said.

"Oh, sure," Schaefer said. "I went to him and said: 'I can't believe what you did.' And he said: 'I had to do it.' Well. You know, he never raised a cent for the [re-election] campaign. Not a dime. He is saving everything for his own campaign for governor."

Do you think he ever will be governor?

"I don't have any idea," Schaefer said. "I wish him well. He is no dummy. He is smart. But he is used to the legislative branch where he was loved. He got into the executive branch, and it was all new to him."

Schaefer went on to describe how he believes the homeless, the poor, the mentally retarded, the sick and others will suffer if they are denied the benefits of the Linowes plan. Then he attacked Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and an outspoken Schaefer critic.

"Levitan announces that the [Linowes] bill is 'dead on arrival' and he never gave it a fair hearing," Schaefer said. "That kind of chairman should not be in charge of a major committee."

Your gasoline tax has just been defeated also. What is that going to mean?

"Just after the defeat, a senator came to me," Schaefer said. "And he said: 'We've got to have this road in Montgomery County. We've got to get it fixed.' I said: 'I'm for it, but I can't do it. There is no money.' But they don't believe me.

"The legislature is digging me into a tremendous deficit for next year. It's going to be $363 million starting off next year. And so next year, they'll say: 'You're going to have to put in taxes.'

"Oh, it's very clever of them. But I'm not going to do it. Let them put in the taxes.

"The legislature is hurting the poor. They are hurting the elderly. They are hurting the mentally retarded. And they have done this to me every year. They have whipped me around and beaten me up."

When you were first elected, did you have higher hopes? Did you feel you would be able to get more from the General Assembly?

"No," Schaefer said, shaking his head. "Harry [Hughes, Schaefer's predecessor] had let them go too far. My philosophy was fight for money for education, for trade, for economic development. Harry didn't fight for anything. Ben Cardin and Mickey were the leaders in the legislature then and they fought for good things. But without them, the state would have stood still."

The leaders in the legislature now are House Speaker Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Mike Miller, and. . . .

"I'm not going to even talk about them," Schaefer said. "But remember when Miller made that dumb remark about Baltimore? [In 1989, Miller called Baltimore a 'goddamned ghetto.'] I defended him. Now, he gives me a kick. I did him a favor not long ago, I'm not saying what, now he doesn't remember.

"Mitchell and I used to be good friends. Now, he hasn't spoken to me for 30 days. OK, fine. I'll tell you something: Mitchell, Miller, Levitan, they are killing the Democratic Party in Maryland. And the Republicans are sitting on the sidelines applauding."

Anybody else you're not entirely pleased with?

"The Sunpapers," Schaefer said. "There is a deliberate effort on the part of the Sunpapers to discredit the governor. You tell me why. On one day, they had five negative articles on me. I'm a man from Baltimore trying to help the state, and you tell me why they are trying to discredit me."

Uhm, some people say you're thin-skinned.

"People expect me not to be human," Schaefer said. "They expect me to have skin like an elephant. Well, I go to Wendy's. I go to McDonald's and Burger King. And people come up and say: 'Don't you change, governor!' I walk on the streets of Baltimore. People come up to me, Korean people, black people, Italian people. They shake my hand. But not on the Eastern Shore. There, they are not friendly."

At your lowest point, did you ever think of quitting?

Schaefer smiled. "If I wasn't the best person for this job, I would think about doing something else," he said. "But I am the best person for this job. And I've got the best staff and the best programs in America."

OK, then did you ever think of changing your behavior?

"Nope," Schaefer said. "I'm going to be the same. I am not insane. I look you in the eye, Roger, and I say to you, I am stronger now than ever before. And I have not stopped helping people, even those giving me a hard time. But I need the tools to do it.

"I will predict what is going to happen next. We do not have enough money to build the schools we need to build. We have $60 million, but we have $130 million in requests.

"So people in some areas are going to scream that because they didn't vote for me, I am not building their schools. Well, I'm going to tell them: 'If I get the money, I'll build your school. Write your legislators.' "

Did it ever occur to you that politicians sometimes have to handle people a little? I asked. That they have to pander to the public sometimes, and, well, kiss a little ass?

Schaefer sat back in his chair.

"I'll line them up each day," he said. "I'll line them up in the window of Macy's or Hecht's. I'll ask them if they want to stand on a chair or I'll just walk over to them to do it. Because I kiss ass every day."

And you are not an unhappy man? You are not unhappy about the popularity polls or over your battles with the legislature or the press? You are not down?

"I am not down," he said. "And you know why?"

Why?

"Because nothing else can happen," Governor Schaefer said. "What worse can happen to me now?" And then he laughed -- the laugh of a man with three more years in his term and no more elections to win.

He laughed the laugh of a man not about to change his ways.

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