Time again to re-elect the rude dude


THE CRITICS are right. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer can be rude. He can be profane. He can be a bully.

So? What's not to like?

In this age of political correctness, a little intemperate railing goes down like a tonic. If he's off the deep end, why aren't the rest of us following him? Oh, of course. We are following him: to the Inner Harbor, to the Ravens stadium, down the improved Route 50 to Ocean City and to Camden Yards. We know they weren't built by Miss Manners.

Yes, he amuses himself by hanging descriptive (mocking) titles on people who displease him: A Baltimore leader who talks more than he acts Mr. Schaefer calls Huffnpuff.

But he's an equal opportunity offender. His friends, his allies, his best workers are called "junior" or "little girl" or worse.

Worst is what he calls Gov. Parris Glendening. And it's not because Mr. Glendening, in a fit of pettiness, turned off the Governor's Mansion fountain built when Mr. Schaefer was governor.

The antipathy goes way back, back to when Mr. Glendening was county executive in Prince George's and Mr. Schaefer was governor. The state was in a financial free-fall and state aid to counties was in jeopardy. Mr. Glendening, who understood the state's duress all too well, publicly aimed a few self-serving shots at Mr. Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer never forgot.

The fountain thing was personal, of course, but turning it off was an affront to the entire state. Why not close Camden Yards? Mr. Schaefer built that, too, didn't he?

As he leaves office this year, Mr. Glendening wants to inflict the Big Hurt. He wants Mr. Schaefer out, too. So, he's got his own candidate in the Democratic primary for comptroller, John T. Willis, a decent, scholarly sort who served Mr. Glendening as chief of staff in Prince George's and later as secretary of state.

The Glendening-Willis combine says Mr. Schaefer must go because he fails to show sufficient respect.

"I treat people with respect if they deserve respect," Mr. Schaefer replied. "Glendening deserves no respect from anyone. ... I have no respect for him because he ran the state into a $1 billion deficit."

Actually, Mr. Schaefer has too much respect -- for people, for government and for doing your best. So he can't control his worst inclinations. To his way of thinking, Mr. Glendening ignored Maryland's health care crisis for eight years, politicized the Board of Regents and bullied it toward giving him a $350,000-a-year job.

Mr. Schaefer blames him for allowing the state's financial health to decline. And, the comptroller says, Mr. Glendening sacrificed transportation needs such as the Intercounty Connector to suit his political needs. Federal investigators are examining at least two aspects of government under Mr. Glendening: the state pension fund and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Reports suggest the state's system of caring for foster children suffers from neglect as well. So, the fountain is the least of it.

No one who knows William Donald Schaefer -- none of the "girls" and "juniors" who would walk through fire for him -- believes he would have tolerated such a state of affairs.

As mayor of Baltimore, he perfected the everything-is-critical school of governing: You don't set priorities. Everything is Priority One. If you don't operate that way you won't get everything you need, and you need everything.

He used to call leaders in Annapolis to complain bitterly if one single item was left off his annual list of demands. Governors, House speakers and Senate presidents got the Schaefer treatment if Baltimore didn't get every nickel it asked for.

Gratitude? That was for losers. Leaders who thought they'd done quite well by the city were offended when Mr. Schaefer took his demands for 100 percent to the point of abusive criticism. As a result of that tendency, former Gov. Harry Hughes backs Mr. Willis.

Meanwhile, as former and soon-to-be-former governors look for payback, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend showed her respect by hungering for Mr. Schaefer's endorsement in this year's race for governor -- as Mr. Glendening did in 1998. Mr. Schaefer's still popular everywhere in Maryland, particularly in parts of the state where Ms. Townsend is weak.

Do you think she'll complain if he calls her "little girl"?

C. Fraser Smith, an editorial writer for The Sun, is author of William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). His column appears Sundays.

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