Bouncing back to life in politics Schaefer spends week restarting his career as public servant


Gene M. Raynor -- who spent this week in the eye of Hurricane Schaefer -- rocked back on a stool at his Fell's Point bar and wondered when he last saw his old friend, the former governor, this happy.

"This happy?" puzzled Raynor, a former city and state elections chief. "When he was mayor, he was this happy."

For a generation Maryland politics swayed to the winds of William Donald Schaefer's notorious moods. As governor and Baltimore mayor, his highs filled a million potholes, laid a billion bricks, lighted up a struggling city. His lows blew down everything in his path, eroding popularity it took decades to build.

Schaefer, at 76, is again happy -- a mood that Gov. Parris N. Glendening discovered is as potent as any tirade. Eastern Shore political cartoonist Rick Kollinger captured the moment with a movie metaphor -- Donzilla.

A giant lizard with Schaefer's face stomps through a city in a recent cartoon in several papers on the Eastern Shore -- which Schaefer once called a "s- - -house." Fleeing citizens in the cartoon scream, "He's back."

Trampled underfoot this week were Glendening, his comptroller pick, Michael D. Barnes, and any of the governor's advisers who thought -- wrongly -- that a sitting governor trumps a retired one.

Sweet moment for Schaefer

The drama began when Louis L. Goldstein, Maryland's comptroller for four decades, died of an apparent heart attack July 3 -- three days before the deadline for candidates to get on state ballots.

Saturday morning, Schaefer's phone rang off the hook with friends urging him to run. Sunday he was interested. Monday he filed. By Thursday, Schaefer had triumphed. Glendening's original pick, Barnes, withdrew so that the governor could endorse Schaefer for the job.

The moment was especially sweet since Schaefer -- despite endorsing Glendening -- had often felt slighted by him.

Thursday, Schaefer leaned against the podium and looked around slowly like a man returning from a near-death experience. (Though he usually answered his phone by saying, "Superman," his friends say retirement was like dying to Schaefer.)

"I like this room," he noted at the press conference, savoring the moment, glancing up at his portrait hanging among those of other ex-governors. "I've been here before."

But the unanswered question of this extraordinary week is: Do the voters want him back?

Three-fifths of Maryland voters rated Schaefer's eight years of governor as "only fair" or "poor" in a Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll in January 1995, the month he left office. Thirty-one percent rated his performance as "pretty good"; just 8 percent called it "excellent."

Schaefer fared worst in Montgomery County and the Eastern Shore and best in Baltimore, where he was mayor for 15 years and a city councilman for 16.

Interviews around the state yesterday suggest voters -- even those who have voted for Schaefer in the past -- have mixed reactions to his return to politics.

"Schaefer has a winning personality, but I think he's too old to run for public office," said Glenn Baughman, 67, of Towson. "He should hang it up."

Reuben Goldstein, 58 and no relation to the late comptroller, is from Montgomery County and would have preferred Barnes, who represented the county as a congressman. Schaefer "has had his day. He should go. He's acting like a child."

But it's clear Schaefer retains enormous capital as a political celebrity -- rooted in his image as a plain-spoken, common man.

"I think he's a man of integrity," said John Stephens, 54, as he ate lunch on a park bench in Westminster. "He speaks his mind and he doesn't mince words."

Does he really want this job?

Many voters recall Schaefer's knack for political theater -- his many costumes, his comic timing, his occasional outbursts. Part of this week's excitement was surely nostalgia.

In an age when leaders rarely appear in anything other than suits, Schaefer was the guy who donned an old-time bathing suit to plunge into the seal pool at the National Aquarium.

Schaefer's many political friends -- reunited this week after being scattered in 1995 when he left office -- are convinced that he has a lock in the comptroller's race. One longtime ally called it "a coronation."

That assumes that Schaefer has gained popularity since leaving office -- a reasonable assumption since all ex-presidents, even unpopular ones such as Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, seem to enjoy a resurgence in public respect in retirement.

But Republican consultant Carol Arscott of Ellicott City thinks Schaefer may be in for a fight.

"Public opinion may have softened," she said, "but it doesn't necessarily mean that folks want Schaefer to be an elected official again, just as I'm not sure folks want Jimmy Carter to be president again."

There is one other question lurking just below the surface of this week's Schaefer craze: Does he really want the job?

Schaefer swears that he does, and made a point of saying so at Thursday's press conference. He dismissed suggestions that he wants to be governor again, saying, "We're going to have one governor. One governor, not two. And one comptroller." His vision of the comptroller's job is based on his interests. Sure, he'll collect all the taxes and watch every penny as one of three members of the powerful Board of Public Works.

The Maryland Constitution describes the comptroller as a sort of super-accountant having "the general superintendence of the fiscal affairs of the state."

Happy to solve problems

But what Schaefer really seeks, say his friends, is a bully pulpit, a piece of the action. The agenda includes Maryland's business climate, higher education and senior citizens issues.

Schaefer might be able to remake the comptroller's job into a post that more resembles the Baltimore mayor's office than the governor's office, with its many unwanted chores and the demands of 188 legislators. In the comptroller's job, he could focus once again on tangible problems he cares about most.

His friends -- emboldened by a week that served up the dual pleasures of Schaefer's return and Glendening's comeuppance -- imagine a new Age of Schaefer, a final act in a political drama they believe ended too soon.

It's a role Schaefer couldn't be happier to play.

"When he's in charge of solving problems he's alive," says

former aide Daryl Plevy. "That's why he's here."

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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