Throughout a long career marked by indisputable triumphs as well as a penchant for faux pas, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has proved he is nothing if not resilient.
But his suggestive comments this week to a young female staffer to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. left many Annapolis politicians and State House watchers pondering whether, at 84, the curmudgeonly comptroller had finally overreached.
Many were reluctant to say how the incident might affect Schaefer's legacy or re-election prospects - their reticence a sign of Schaefer's enduring power and of compassion for an embattled old man. Still, criticism was bountiful.
In an allusion to Vice President Dick Cheney's recent hunting accident on a Texas ranch, P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who co-founded a civility project at the school, called Schaefer's gaffe "an ill-conceived shooting off of the mouth."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Schaefer should apologize.
And Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, called the whole thing disappointing and said the voters will decide whether Schaefer deserves another term as comptroller.
"Here's a man who has this great legacy, has this great history of public service and has managed to, as the kids say, 'dis' immigrants, people with AIDS and now women," McIntosh said. "I believe that I can't stand by, even though I'm a great admirer of his, and condone that behavior. It's wrong, and it certainly doesn't belong in the Board of Public Works."
During Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting, attended by the governor and more than 100 state officials, workers and journalists, Schaefer requested that a 24-year-old executive assistant to Ehrlich bring him tea. After placing the beverage on the table in front of him, she turned to leave, but he called her back. He had one more request.
"Walk again," he said, and as she obliged, the comptroller appeared to gawk at her as she left the room.
Schaefer unleashed a string of harsh words at journalists who asked about the incident later. She "ought to be damn happy that I observed her going out the door," Schaefer said. "The day I don't look at pretty women is the day I die."
In other years, Schaefer's loyal coterie would have quashed a potentially damaging story or spun it in the best possible way. Yesterday, several would not return reporters' phone calls.
This week's event was an uncomfortable episode in a political life that goes back to the 1950s and includes 15 years as Baltimore's mayor and two terms as governor.
At City Hall, Schaefer stormed and harrumphed and, largely by force of personality, pulled Baltimore back from the brink. He was impatient and argumentative, but the voters hailed him as the cheerleader the tired city needed.
Then he was the combative governor, always tussling with the legislature but pushing through an agenda that included transit systems, highways and two state-financed sports stadiums.
But as comptroller, his power and responsibility are diminished. His devoted band of defenders is smaller and scattered. And this week, when - instead of arguing with the powerful - he embarrassed a young woman, there was nothing much to spin.
Asked yesterday whether Schaefer would apologize to the woman, Michael D. Golden, deputy director of the comptroller's office of communications, said, "All that's going to be done has been done."
"As far as we're concerned, the story's over," Golden said.
Not necessarily so, said Matthew Crenson, chairman of the Johns Hopkins political science department. Crenson said that Schaefer has a "kind of political immortality" and that while he will likely survive this latest flub, which was caught on videotape and became national news, it shows a distinct lack of political savvy and propriety.
"His long, self-indulgent monologues at the beginning of the Board of Public works meetings are an indication that his political sensibilities are no longer what they used to be, and this remark underlines that," Crenson said.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the comptroller's antics are evidence of "bad taste and bad manners."
"We need better role models," Gutierrez said.
Manners haven't always been Schaefer's strong suit, but he has rebounded from other foot-in-mouth moments.
He criticized McDonald's employees who hadn't learned proper English, enraging the immigrant community.
He slammed the Eastern Shore for being the unprintable equivalent of an outhouse, angering rural voters in the run-up to the 1990 campaign.
He said that the names of people with AIDS should be kept on a registry and deemed them a danger, statements that angered a slew of people.
Still, the few Schaefer allies who agreed to speak yesterday believe his efforts to make Maryland a better place will endure, despite those episodes and others.
"His contributions throughout the state have been enormous, and I would hope it wouldn't have an impact" on his future, said Louis J. Grasmick, a Baltimore lumberyard owner and Schaefer pal who is married to the state superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick.
Mark Wasserman, who was Schaefer's chief of staff in the State House and is now the senior vice president of external affairs at the University of Maryland Medical System, said his contributions to Baltimore and the state are "almost incomparable" and that he hopes Marylanders will take stock of them in assessing his legacy.
"I would hope people would take the long view," Wasserman said. "The long and distinguished body of work that is William Donald Schaefer and his contributions is laced with participation by strong, able, young and old women. Long before it was fashionable, William Donald Schaefer was a champion of women advancing in public service."
Johns Hopkins' Forni said, however, that this latest offense is particularly unprofessional.
Forni, the author of the book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct, said Schaefer should've known that it was inappropriate to harass a woman who is 60 years his junior and many stations below his pay grade.
Forni said an apology - one of his 25 rules - is at the very least due.
"Age should've been a factor in granting him the wisdom not to have uttered the words in the first place," he said.