The return of the 'New Schaefer'


When William Donald Schaefer starts praising The Sun -- his favorite punching bag -- you know strange things are about to happen.

Had we been smart journalists, we'd have recognized something was afoot. It took place early in the General Assembly session that concluded last month. His comments, however lighthearted, signaled a sea change in attitude by the governor, one that would carry him to one of his best sessions since he came to the State House in 1986. It also could signal a determination by the governor to repeat this strong showing next year in his final session.

Mr. Schaefer loves to chide this newspaper. We can't do anything right. We're an easy target for his ire when he gets criticized or is having a bad time with the legislature or is just feeling cranky. He's always right; we're always wrong.

And yet there he was on Jan. 14, standing before the General Assembly, in the opening minutes of his State of the State address, heaping praise (of sorts) on The Sun.

"You know, I never thought I'd say this, but the Sunpaper is doing better," he told legislators. "I never thought in my time that I'd say that but I've seen a change. I used to read the stock page, and then it got so I couldn't see it real good, and so I stopped, and all of a sudden they decided to make it bigger and I don't have to use that magnifying glass anymore, and I really appreciate that. Thank you very much."

This clearly was a "new" Don Schaefer. He showed himself adept at getting what he wanted not through ranting and raving -- his style of past sessions -- but through compromise and consensus, using a combination of tough public talk and conciliatory back-room chats. It proved a brilliant strategy.

Sure, he took his lumps. But he never lost his cool or plunged into one of his deep mid-session depressions or declared war on the legislature or The Sun. Even in defeat, he kept coming back. He worked quietly with legislators and his cabinet secretaries on specific issues, letting them take the lead in public. And he retained a viable relationship with House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell that worked to his advantage.

What does this bode for the future? This isn't the first time a "new" Don Schaefer has surfaced. In the past, the "old" Schaefer soon returned, quashing hopes that the administration would gain mastery over the legislature. But 1994 is likely to be special. The "new look" Schaefer might reappear.

It will be his last hurrah, his final chance to make a lasting imprint on the state of Maryland -- and the state's history books.

What will Don Schaefer pick as his final monument? He tipped his hand last week when he said he would name a commission to write a new school-aid formula so he can boost support of local schools.

That's the kind of big-budget, high-impact item Mr. Schaefer loves. And it is the kind of farsighted proposal he's famous for bringing to fruition. What a wonderful way for the governor to bow out.

It could take all his persuasive powers to make it happen. Historically, several years are required to gain the kind of understanding and consensus need to pass a new school-aid plan. Mr. Schaefer won't have that luxury.

He first needs a commission chairman with political savvy who can devise a new aid package that narrows the gap between rich and poor subdivisions but also shores up education budgets in every jurisdiction. That's essential. Lawmakers won't give a school-aid plan serious consideration unless they can go home big winners.

Mr. Schaefer may have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to pay for this large increase in education support. Suddenly, that $150 million in estimated annual savings from the Butta commission's report on efficiencies in government looks more enticing. The governor might have to make a major effort next year to get these proposals enacted.

But also, Mr. Schaefer needs some luck. This year's revenue estimates are intentionally conservative. This cautious approach means that any upturn in the state's economy early next year could produce a big windfall and enough new tax revenue in 1994 to support an enlarged school-aid package.

Mr. Schaefer will have to go all-out to educate legislative leaders and the rank-and-file well in advance of the 1994 session. He'll have to strike a deal with budget committee leaders beforehand. He's got to organize a "grass-roots" lobbying campaign to impress on lawmakers that voting for this package would help, not hurt, at re-election time. And he's got to come up with a package that doesn't require a rise in taxes.

A tall order? Absolutely. Impossible? Not for Don Schaefer. Too many of us sold him short last legislative session. He's one

lame-duck governor who doesn't look very lame.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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