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Schafer in latest comeback

H. Erle Schafer loves the spotlight. He'll do anything to stay there, even if it means talking about the issues.

Mr. Schafer, one of five candidates in the Democratic primary for county executive, has spent half of the last 24 years in public office. This year, he said, marks the first that he's dwelt upon issues such as education reform and drug treatment for the county's minor criminals.

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"It's not a popularity contest this time," said Mr. Schafer, who was elected to the County Council in 1970 and the state Senate in 1978 and as the clerk of the Circuit Court in 1986.

"This is much harder for me than anything I've ever done before."

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What Mr. Schafer, 56, has done is make a career of political comebacks. The Glen Burnie businessman and former Marine has lost as many elections as he has won. Each time he has battled back, defying the wisdom of political pundits.

Mr. Schafer won a County Council seat on the strength of his involvement in the Glen Burnie Jaycees. As a councilman, he helped defeat an oil company's plan to build a refinery on the Marley Neck Peninsula. He is best remembered for bringing urban renewal to downtown Glen Burnie to clean out the X-rated book stores, show bars and movie houses that had claimed it.

"That area was going downhill," recalled former County Executive Robert Pascal. "Erle did a great job bringing it back to life. He changed the momentum for the positive."

The first of Mr. Schafer's setbacks came in 1974. With four years as councilman under his belt, he set his sights on the District 32 Senate seat. However, with a sound-alike candidate -- William E. Schaefer -- on the ballot, he lost to the Democratic incumbent, Al Lipin, by 144 votes.

After the loss, Mr. Pascal appointed him as the county's first director of urban renewal, a post he held until 1978. That year, he made his second bid for the Senate, and was victorious.

In a campaign that turned on the abortion issue, Mr. Schafer ran against the only member of his 1974 ticket to win public office: Michael J. Wagner, who had won a seat in the House of Delegates.

When Senator Lipin resigned midterm to become deputy secretary of the state Department of Licensing and Regulation, the Democratic Central Committee tapped Mr. Wagner over Mr. Schafer to fill the vacancy, establishing a political rivalry that continues to this day.

"It was a very competitive campaign, nip and tuck all the way to the end," recalled County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks, who was a volunteer for Mr. Schafer at the time and is running for Mr. Wagner's Senate seat this year.

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Factors turning the race in Mr. Schafer's favor was Mr. Wagner's 1978 vote in favor of state financing of abortions, his support of reform for teachers' pensions and his absence during several floor votes on other issues. Mr. Schafer campaigned as someone opposed to abortion, sympathetic to teachers and who would be more attentive than Mr. Wagner.

"Erle's guys played those up real well," recalled Mr. Wagner, who lost to Mr. Schafer to by 250 ballots but reclaimed the seat in 1982. "But I screwed up on things then that you'll never see me screw up on again."

As a senator, Mr. Schafer fought to raise the drinking age -- which had been lowered in 1974 to 18 -- back to 21. He also showed political guile when the state redrew his Senate district's boundaries in 1982 by moving out a key supporter and fund-raiser of Mr. Wagner.

"Erle zapped me out of the district," said Tom Riggin, who was appointed to the county liquor board by Senator Lipin and later by Senator Wagner. "He said, 'I'm not going to give you another shot at me.' "

In 1982, Mr. Schafer announced he would run for county executive amid a circus-like fanfare. With the endorsement of the county's major politicians, including then-State's Attorney Warren B. Duckett Jr., he was considered the front-runner. It was a position he could not hold.

"When he announced, it was like an old-time political rally," recalled state Del. Michael Busch, an Annapolis Democrat. "But he never got on track with any of the issues, and Jim Lighthizer ran on an issue-oriented package that really sold."

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Out of office again, Mr. Schafer concentrated on his many businesses. When he left the Marine Corps and moved to Glen Burnie, Mr. Schafer had started a termite and pest control company, a business now run by the eldest of his three children.

He has since owned and operated a roofing business, a computer company -- with Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen -- and numerous rental properties.

"One of Erle's favorite stories is how he was hitchhiking home after he got out of the Marines and somebody let him off in Glen Burnie," said Phillip Scheibe, Mr. Schafer's campaign manager and a former County Council chairman. "He had only $25 in his pocket, so he stayed, and in the end he made himself into a millionaire."

In 1986, Mr. Schafer surprised pundits who had expected him to run again for the County Council. Instead, he set his sights on a low-profile elective office, clerk of the Circuit Court. Promising to improve the operation of the courthouse, Mr. Schafer won.

Four years later, Mr. Schafer sought re-election. So confidant was he that he would defeat Republican Mary Rose that he went hunting two weeks before the election.

But he underestimated Mrs. Rose, who had placed her name on the ballot at the last possible moment. The former chairwoman of the county's Republican Central Committee portrayed Mr. Schafer as an ineffective manager, unable to integrate computers into the clerk's office and destroying workers' morale.

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Mrs. Rose won, and Mr. Schafer dropped out of politics -- temporarily.

Now, as County Executive Robert R. Neall is retiring, Mr. Schafer sees an opportunity to seize the brass ring that eluded him when he was at his zenith in 1982. He sees a Democratic Party in a shambles, its 1990 nominee, Theodore Sophocleus, facing difficult questions about a 1989 pension reform that benefited himself and his wife. He sees himself as a potential white knight, though many believe his time may have come and gone.

"I've often wondered why he wants to do it," said Mr. Scheibe, for whom Mr. Schafer is also a law clerk. "He's a successful businessman. I don't know why he's not out spending some of that money."

Mr. Schafer said he is equally puzzled by his return to politics. "Part of me says that I should be sitting in Ocean City right now or spending my winters in Florida like some of my friends, but deep inside myself I needed to come back to this."

Mr. Schafer said he spent six months preparing for his fourth comeback bid. When he held a news conference to announce his campaign early this summer, he stood by himself. There were no endorsements from other elected officials. Instead, Mr. Schafer brandished a document which he said previously had been alien to him and his campaigns. It was a position paper outlining his positions on crime and education.

To improve schools, Mr. Schafer said, he would make the school board more accountable by making the county executive accountable for the school board. That, he said, would happen if the executive directly appointed the board, which currently is nominated by citizen groups and appointed by the governor. He also said he favors construction of a new drug treatment center rather than a new county jail in Glen Burnie.

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"Everybody talks about politics, and what politicians are supporting what candidates," said Mr. Schafer. "This campaign is not about politics. It's about issues."


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