Veteran public servant accepts new challenge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first time William Donald Schaefer met Mary Ann Saar, he made small talk with her -- as he said he would with "any pretty lady."

"I said, 'Hello, isn't it a nice day out?'" Schaefer recalled of the meeting 20 years ago, when he was Baltimore mayor. "And she said, 'Yes it is, now down to business.' I liked that."

Saar's unflappable demeanor and three decades in public service helped the Democrat and former Schaefer aide easily win Senate confirmation last month as secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Her swift confirmation stands in striking contrast to the partisan showdown that led to the Senate's rejection last week of Lynn Y. Buhl, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s pick for environmental secretary.

Lawmakers hope that appointees such as Saar -- a former Baltimore County prosecutor nicknamed "Annie Oakley" for shooting at a would-be robber in the late 1970s -- will help smooth relations between Ehrlich and the Democratic-controlled legislature.

"She brings balance to the governor's Cabinet," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee. "It's a gesture on behalf of the governor showing that he wants to reach out and bring a range of philosophies and political affiliations to the table."

Despite getting a warm reception from lawmakers last month, Saar, 62, realizes her new position won't be easy. She must address a crowded prison system at a time when the state faces a $1.4 billion budget shortfall for the next fiscal year.

"Nobody cares that you're new to this job," she said during a recent interview. "They expect that if you take the job, you'll hit the ground running."

Saar's background in corrections dates to the 1960s, when the Estonia native worked as a probation officer to pay her way through the University of Maryland School of Law.

As a newly minted lawyer -- and single parent -- she worked for a private law firm and the federal government before taking a position with the state's attorney's office in Baltimore in the early 1970s. Saar, known then as Mary Ann Willin, became the state's first female deputy state's attorney in 1977.

Street smarts

It was during her days as a tough prosecutor that she proved her street smarts, too. One night in 1979, three men, one carrying a gun, confronted her and a 74-year-old retired judge in downtown Baltimore.

Saar slipped a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun -- she'd purchased it after her life was threatened during a corruption case -- from her purse into her coat pocket.

"I told the judge to step aside," she told The Sun shortly after the incident. "I saw a snub-nosed revolver. He got 'Give' out of his mouth. I'm amazed I missed at that distance."

The three men fled.

A few years later, Saar was tapped by Schaefer to head the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. She followed him to the governor's office, where she served first as his public safety adviser and later as secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services -- running a department she helped launch.

As secretary, Saar is credited with strengthening the agency's community-based programs and ousting an ineffective private company that had been running the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for troubled boys.

Her work drew the attention of Maine Gov. Angus S. King, who recruited Saar to break off juvenile services from that state's adult correctional system.

For six years, Saar commuted to Maine from her Baltimore home, where she lives with her husband, lawyer Peter Saar, and her 94-year-old mother Anna Tuur.

Strong views

As she leapfrogged from one criminal justice post to the next, Saar softened the steely reputation she had developed as a Baltimore prosecutor.

But she retains strong views on the criminal justice system, drawing from a mix of liberal and conservative beliefs:

On drug policy: "I think a drug dealer is just as much a killer as someone who uses a gun to kill."

On the death penalty: "I support it. I've always supported it."

On her criminal-justice philosophy: "You cannot punish people into being good."

Saar calls herself a fiscal conservative, but she is closely aligned with influential state Democrats such as Schaefer and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The senator uses phrases such as "tremendous expertise" and "duty-driven" to describe her former state director.

Upon Ehrlich's election, Saar was interested in returning to her old job as juvenile services secretary. But Ehrlich had other ideas. He asked her to head the larger public safety department, which has a nearly $1 billion budget, 12,000 employees and 30 correctional facilities.

After Ehrlich shook her hand to welcome her to his cabinet, Saar called her husband -- and then dialed Schaefer's number. "She was so happy that the phone wires were just ringing with joy," Schaefer said.

Then she got to work.

Playing catch-up

Saar has been reviewing contracts for costly prison medical care to see if the state can more fairly -- and more cost-effectively -- address inmate health needs.

She also said she wants to address the state's overcrowded correctional institutions, paying special attention to the rapidly growing numbers of female and elderly inmates.

One challenge will be money. The Ehrlich administration has proposed cutting the agency's operating budget by $6 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. However, Ehrlich's capital budget includes $80.6 million for prison construction and enhancements, the department's largest expansion in more than a decade.

The state is having to play catch-up on prison needs, Saar said, in part because it wasn't a high priority during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.

"Glendening did not have much interest in this department, and it shows," she said.

The former governor could not be reached for comment.

Not everyone has been impressed by Saar's early steps.

Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat and a member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the public safety department's budget, expressed concern recently that Saar hadn't made clear what her priorities were or talked with legislators about issues such as readying inmates to return to their communities.

"She needs to be more directive," Jones said.

But other legislators said Saar ranks among Ehrlich's best Cabinet picks.

"She has an assured presence about herself," said Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the public safety and administration subcommittee. "If she tells you she'll get something done, you know it's going to happen."

With three prisons in his district, Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican, said he expects to talk to Saar many times during the next few years.

'A fast study'

"I've discovered that she's a fast study," he said. "She doesn't just blow you off when you point out problems. She's decisive, yet at the same time very thoughtful."

Saar whirled through a crowd of state senators and public officials to appear before a Senate subcommittee hearing last month.

She delicately set her reading glasses on a table before delivering a blunt message to legislators about the needs facing one of her department's most thinly stretched divisions.

"Parole and Probation is looked at as the savior of the criminal justice system," said Saar, as she maintained steady eye contact with the senators and gestured in a controlled way, as a prosecutor might. "If there are no treatment dollars, the next-best bet is community supervision and community service."

The senators maintained poker faces, but Saar seemed undaunted.

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