Schaefer's running hard in race against Glendening protege


William Donald Schaefer is mad - and energized.

Who, the incumbent comptroller wonders, does this disciple of Gov. Parris N. Glendening think he is, challenging a man who has been a legend in state politics for more than three decades?

Schaefer, 80, had hoped to coast into a second term in office. But Secretary of State John T. Willis is giving him a strong challenge in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary for state comptroller.

Willis, 55, has been garnering surprising support from key Democratic constituencies and some party leaders.

"If you look at the coalition I am building ... it is a coalition that reflects the mainstream of the party," said Willis, who is backed by several prominent state labor and environmental organizations.

Glendening and former State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon have also endorsed Willis. Both have accused Schaefer of being intemperate and insensitive to women and minorities who appear before the state Board of Public Works. Schaefer denies the charge.

Nonetheless, Schaefer has a decisive advantage in the contest stemming from his statewide reputation as a former governor and former mayor of Baltimore. It would be one the biggest upsets in Maryland political history if Willis defeated Schaefer, who has been endorsed by most of the state's Democratic establishment.

The comptroller's job is to oversee the state's fiscal affairs, collect taxes and sit with the governor and state treasurer on the Board of Public Works, which votes on major state contracts.

Schaefer says he deserves to stay on in the post because he runs "the most efficient office in the country" and has saved the state tens of millions of dollars by going after cigarette smugglers and others who try to avoid paying taxes.

"I am the best man for the job, there is no doubt," Schaefer said. "I make them shape up."

Not taken for granted

Schaefer had a better than 2-to-1 lead over Willis in recent polls, but he continues to crisscross the state to shore up his once impenetrable base of support.

"Anyone who takes a race for granted wakes up sad the next day," he said as he stumped for votes last week at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium. "I am working this race as hard as I ever worked for any race."

For Schaefer, this is as much a contest with his nemesis Glendening as it is with Willis. "It's the Glendening-Willis ticket headed by Willis," said Schaefer, who says he thinks the governor pressured Willis into the race.

The governor and Schaefer have been bitter rivals for most of the past four years, and the two frequently clash.

Last summer, Schaefer flushed out Glendening's relationship with aide Jennifer E. Crawford, which was then secret. She is now his wife.

Glendening and Willis have been close friends for two decades, but Willis denies that the governor asked him to run.

"It's an insult," Willis said of that allegation. "I had been thinking about what I was going to do with my own political career for a long time."

Willis is an attorney and historian who has taught business and economics at McDaniel College in Westminster. He was born in Baltimore and moved to Carroll County, where he unsuccessfully ran for the House of Delegates in 1982. He is a member of the Democratic National Committee and has attended every Democratic National Convention since 1976.

When Glendening was Prince George's County executive, he appointed Willis his chief of staff.

After becoming governor, Glendening made Willis, who lives in Baltimore's Charles Village, secretary of state. The office regulates charitable organizations and helps administer state elections.

Reason for running

Willis said he entered the comptroller's race because he is dismayed at Schaefer's Board of Public Works antics. Schaefer, he said, has frequently gone on tirades and demeaned state and local officials who come before the board.

"Right now, employees in [state] departments are literally afraid to go to the board," Willis said. "They literally draw straws to see who is going to go. They are afraid they are going to be humiliated."

Attacks on Glendening

Schaefer also has used the board, on which the governor and treasurer sit, as a platform to attack Glendening and his agenda.

Robert L. Swann, who spent 38 years in the comptroller's office before retiring in 1999, said Schaefer's behavior is one reason he is backing Willis.

"Willis is the type of person who will return that office to the national recognition it had before Schaefer turned it upside down," said Swann, who was a top aide to the late Louis L. Goldstein when he was comptroller.

Schaefer argues that it is his responsibility to aggressively question government officials before they spend taxpayer money. He also scoffs at suggestions that the comptroller's office is poorly managed.

Another theme of Willis' campaign is Schaefer's opposition to many of Glendening's environmental initiatives, such as buying land to protect it from development. The Sierra Club and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters have endorsed Willis, as has former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

"Every environmentalist I know is supporting John Willis," Glendening said.

Schaefer said he supports preserving land, but only when the state can afford it. He blames Glendening for spending the state into a deficit that legislative analysts say could top $900 million next year.

"I warned the governor time after time that he was overspending, and he just kept spending," Schaefer said.

Support for Bush noted

Willis is reminding Democratic voters that Schaefer endorsed Republican President George Bush over Democrat Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Schaefer endorsed Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor Friday, but he has refused to criticize Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Schaefer's former chief of staff, Paul Schurick, is a top aide to Ehrlich.

"This is in many respects a chance for the party to define what it means to be the nominee of the party," said Willis, who pointed out that if Ehrlich is elected governor, a Democratic comptroller could become the titular head of the state's Democratic Party.

Schaefer calls himself a good Democrat, but says that doesn't mean he has to blindly support every Democrat. "If the Democrats put up a murderer, would you expect me to vote for them?" he said.

Some Democratic activists are embracing Willis' message.

"He's the more progressive individual," said Ruth Taylor, a co-chair of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a Baltimore-based civic group that has endorsed Willis.

However Willis lacks the money to spread his message. According to campaign finance reports, he has raised less than $70,000 and Schaefer has brought in more than $600,000.

Focusing his resources

With money tight, Willis has been focusing his resources in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, an area of the state where voters tend to be more liberal and where Schaefer is least popular.

To counter Willis' efforts in the suburban Washington counties, Schaefer has been pointing out that he is a strong supporter of the proposed Intercounty Connector there. Willis has been lukewarm in his support for the highway.

Willis' role as the chief architect of Glendening's legislative redistricting map, which the Court of Appeals ruled was unconstitutional, is also fodder for Schaefer.

He says Willis and Glendening ran a "spiteful" redistricting process that unfairly targeted legislators whom the governor didn't get along with.

Another major policy difference between the comptroller candidates is slot machines at Maryland racetracks. Schaefer supports the idea, and Willis opposes it.

There's no debate

But don't expect the candidates to debate these issues before the primary. Schaefer has refused.

"He should go debate the governor, and they can talk about how they put the state in a billion-dollar deficit and how they [need] to learn how to draw maps," Schaefer said.

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