Watchdog Schaefer too rabid to be heard


IT'S NOT about the fountain.

It's about personal and political slights. It's about real disagreements between two men who might have used their experience to give Maryland the best available government.

Instead of cooperation, though, we get dialogue on the order of "So's your mother" and "Did so!" "Did not!" "Did so!"

You can hear it at the Board of Public Works meetings as embarrassed state workers wait and wonder when they'll be caught up in the crossfire.

Comptroller (and former governor) William Donald Schaefer can't stand being in the same room with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He misses no opportunity to prove it.

The comptroller believes the governor will leave Maryland deeply in debt.

He believes no legislative leader, no leading citizen, no interest group will speak that truth. He believes it's his responsibility to fill the outrage gap.

He believes the state will be in debt even as it has failed, under Mr. Glendening, to provide adequate funding for Medicaid and community mental health programs.

He disagrees with Glendening decisions that increase union pay, thereby increasing the cost of school construction in Maryland.

He thinks the governor has failed to address the transportation needs of the state, particularly Montgomery County's.

The list goes on.

Mr. Schaefer voted "no" recently on the purchase of land for conservation purposes. Couldn't support that as the state stares into a deep budget hole, he said.

He accuses the governor of violating the state's spending affordability limits - a practice that has helped push Maryland into serious deficit.

Mr. Glendening, of course, says the comptroller is wrong on all counts. But he hardly needs to respond at all because the infuriated medium, Mr. Schaefer, torches his own message.

And the impassioned comptroller seldom prevails. He's almost always outvoted on the public works board.

Its third member, Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, once allied with Mr. Schaefer, now sides with the governor. He calls Mr. Schaefer a "quirky clown."

The governor's press apparatus skillfully parries and redirects almost every thrust. Once so good at public theater, Mr. Schaefer now finds himself in the role of fool - cast by himself as well as by his enemy.

He can't grasp the fact that he's not the governor now, the Glendening team says. So sad.

Mr. Schaefer gets more furious with each encounter.

Some of his closest allies and friends worry that he seems nothing more than a crotchety old man intent solely upon public tantrums.

"It's not what you're saying," they tell him, "it's the way you say it." He sulks a bit, agrees - and then does it all over again as soon as he can.

He succeeds mostly in making some people (almost) sympathetic to a governor who is not a big favorite among many politicians.

More of them might line up with Mr. Schaefer, but they want to steer clear of backwash from his antics.

Oh, yes, and the comptroller thinks the governor is vindictive and vengeful. It's a year when legislators know the governor will be drawing new election district lines and could put them in districts where re-election will be tougher.

Mr. Glendening's decision to turn off the fountain outside the governor's mansion was a reaction in kind. The lovely, funky fountain was a pet project of Mr. Schaefer's longtime friend, the late Hilda Mae Snoops. So the governor knew he could hit a nerve. Petty, of course, but Mr. Schaefer has defined the battle in such a way as to make the fountain gambit seem a reasonable reposte.

When Mr. Schaefer was governor and before that mayor of Baltimore, he could fume and pout and recover because he had the power to redeem himself. He was in charge. He convinced a generation of Marylanders that he had their best interests at heart. His record against great odds was spectacular.

The outpouring of affection for him on his 80th birthday last week shows that he still has an audience. He could and should make his points, particularly the ones about spending and impending debt.

The General Assembly will convene in less than two months, and many of its members will want to proceed with spending the state cannot afford in the midst of a recession. So will the governor.

Someone will have to police this rush toward deeper trouble, and Mr. Schaefer could be one of the sheriffs.

His position as comptroller gives him every opportunity to be a ferocious - maybe even effective - fiscal watch dog.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun and author of William Donald Schaefer: A Political Profile (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

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