OCEAN CITY -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer began saying goodbye yesterday but made it clear there was life and fight in the old man yet.
In a rambling, hourlong speech at the Maryland Association of Counties' annual summer convention, Mr. Schaefer spoke his mind on a broad array of topics, including London Fog Corp.'s plant closings in Maryland, his problems with the legislature and, of course, politics.
In a barely veiled reference to Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, the Democratic gubernatorial front-runner, Mr. Schaefer warned officials about election-year "rhetoric" and "promises" made by gubernatorial candidates.
He also dropped two nuggets of "news." The first was that he is initiating a study of state government's taking over full operation of the Circuit Court system. The other was that the state has finally met the goals the legislature ordered for recycling trash.
In one of his last major speeches before leaving office in January, Mr. Schaefer offered grandfatherly advice on the importance of public service, poked fun at himself and took shots at the news media.
At one point, which he described as "the nostalgic part," he warned the audience that he had "a lot of things" on his mind.
And, in Mr. Schaefer's classic stream-of-consciousness style, he let the audience of state, county and local officials know exactly what was on his mind.
He seemed keenly aware of his own political mortality, calling himself an "old man" and peppering the speech with references to the past. And yet, as he nears the end of his second and last term as governor, he also put the message out that he was far from retiring and would take an active role in this year's elections.
Mr. Schaefer even half-kiddingly suggested that he might seek public office again, saying, "I'm over running -- for the present."
But his speech took a somber turn by the end, when he concluded his remarks by singing the first line of "So long, It's Been Good to Know You."
In announcing a 17-member commission to study the possible state takeover of the Circuit Court system, Mr. Schaefer touched on an issue that has long been a high priority for local officials because of the burdensome costs of maintaining and operating the courts.
The commission -- which will report to the governor Oct. 15, in time for the recommendations to be dropped in the lap of the next governor -- will be headed by retiring Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat widely viewed as a legislative and fiscal wizard.
The annual cost of a takeover has been estimated at about $40 million for the court system's operations budget statewide. The capital costs of new construction and repairs would add "a couple of hundred million" dollars if the commission also recommended a state takeover of that responsibility, Mr. Schaefer said.
As for recycling, another subject dear to those in local government, the governor said the state had surpassed its legally required goal of recycling 20 percent of all solid waste by the end of 1994. All 23 counties and Baltimore have met the goal, and the statewide recycling rate is now 26 percent, he said.
Once the business of announcements was over, Mr. Schaefer praised his staff, department heads and the programs they have initiated, and his press secretary, Page W. Boinest, whose last day working for the governor was yesterday.
"One thing I'm sorry for -- a great team, a great team will fall apart," the governor said as his administration nears an end and appointees seek employment elsewhere.
In singling out his Cabinet members, Mr. Schaefer praised Mark L.Wasserman, secretary of economic and employment development, for his efforts abroad and for his more recent negotiations with London Fog, which announced Friday that it would close three plants in the state and eliminate 700 jobs.
Though he had high praise for Mr. Wasserman, the governor took a swipe at the company, bemoaning the loss of jobs.
"This did not have to happen," he said, holding up a copy of The Sun's article on London Fog. "This one makes me mad."
Mr. Schaefer said that of the three plants, "only one plant had to close," and he indicated that there was a glimmer of hope that something might come of continued negotiations.
Another regret, he said, was that the state's budget deficits -- brought on by the recession and the economic downturn during his second term -- forced him to raise taxes. That, he said, was one of the campaign promises he made in 1986 that he was not able to keep.
He acknowledged in his remarks that "in certain areas of the state I know I was not exactly the most popular man," but he said in an interview later that news reports of his unpopularity were "horse manure."
He was responding -- or not responding -- to the question of whether he would endorse any gubernatorial candidates in the primary or general elections and whether he thought such an endorsement would help or hurt the candidate.
Mr. Schaefer would not say whether he would throw his support behind a candidate.
There is speculation that he might get behind U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican, in the general election. Mrs. Bentley, who is ahead in polls by a 4-1 margin over her competition for the GOP nomination, said yesterday that she would not seek Mr. Schaefer's support but would not say whether she would seek his endorsement in the general election.
Mr. Schaefer said his nod "could make a difference" in a close race.
One candidate who could get the governor's endorsement in the Democratic primary is state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, who was encouraged to run by Mr. Schaefer. The governor would not endorse him yesterday but said he considered him a viable candidate.
Mr. Schaefer did not mention Mr. Glendening by name but made oblique references to him in his remarks and in the later interview.
He cautioned the local officials to look closely at "promises" made by candidates, particularly in light of the state's tight budget. Mr. Glendening has been criticized by opponents for making at least $200 million in promises in return for political support and endorsements.
Mr. Schaefer also dismissed "this whole baloney of cutting government" as a way to increase spending for certain zTC programs. "Where you gonna go" for the cuts? he asked.
One candidate's "promise" -- made by Mr. Glendening to Montgomery County officials -- that the governor called "impossible" to fulfill is full state funding of Social Security payments for teachers, librarians and community college employees.
The state stopped making those payments when it cut state aid to local jurisdictions by $147 million in the fall of 1992 as a way out of the budget crisis. The cuts caused a sharp rift between Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Glendening, who, unlike other county executives, criticized the governor harshly at the time.
Montgomery County benefited the most from the Social Security program.