Around office watercoolers, on college campuses, in State House hallways and all over the airwaves, the subjects of what William Donald Schaefer did and what is being done about it were all anyone was talking about.
Heads shook in disbelief, tongues clucked scoldingly and more than a few snorts of laughter erupted yesterday as news went national about Maryland Comptroller Schaefer's request at a public meeting Wednesday that a young female staffer "walk again" for him.
"She's a pretty little girl," the 84-year-old former governor and Baltimore mayor told reporters who questioned his remark. She "ought to be damn happy that I observed her going out the door."
Many people assumed that once the notoriously cantankerous Schaefer's temper cooled, he would apologize.
But it didn't. And the comptroller's staff said yesterday that he wouldn't.
Schaefer himself expressed surprise at the flap, telling television reporters yesterday, "I've been looking at young ladies for 84 years of my life, and this is the first time I've gotten such nasty e-mails."
Proclaiming that he did nothing wrong and that it was not the first time he had done such a thing, Schaefer, in coverage aired by WBAL-TV, said, "Nobody ever said anything until the Sun paper made a big deal out of it."
"I'm 84 years old and I thought I'd get a little leeway," Schaefer said.
Some figured yesterday that because the 24-year-old woman worked for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. , he might have something to say. But the governor's press people said there would be no statement and definitely no rebuke from Ehrlich concerning Schaefer's actions.
"The staff member has said she has no interest in pursuing any action and that she looks forward to moving on," Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.
The national news media and the people in Maryland drinking it all in were less inclined to let the story fade.
CNN aired footage of Schaefer transfixed as the woman walked away from him. News organizations across the country ran versions of the story. And the political Web site Wonkette skewered Schaefer, featuring the incident under the headline "William Donald Schaefer: Out of Comptrol."
A women's studies professor at Goucher College in Towson said the governor is obligated to step up on behalf of his staffer.
"When it reaches this kind of level, when he doesn't say anything, that speaks volumes," said Shira Tarrant. She plans to talk about the situation with her students tomorrow, possibly during her Confronting Inequality class.
"I think if we took 'little girl' out of it and substituted any other group, 'little Mexican' or 'little black boy' and asked them to walk again, there would be no question as to the response," Tarrant said. " 'Little Jew?' Don't you think there'd be no question?"
"Unacceptable" was the consensus at Baltimore's National Organization for Women branch. "It speaks somewhat to [Schaefer's] perspective on the value of women in the workplace," said Christine Brodak, vice president for public relations.
After work in downtown Baltimore, some people said Schaefer made a serious error and should apologize.
Ronnie Waters, 19, waiting for a bus on Lexington Street, said the Board of Public Works meeting was not an appropriate place for that sort of remark.
"If it was in a strip club, I could understand," Waters said. "But this was a professional meeting."
He said the comment is forgivable because Schaefer is "an old man, and old men make mistakes." But he added, "I wouldn't want anybody doing that to my mother or sister."
Schaefer's ogling didn't send everyone into an uproar. On the streets of Baltimore, where the former city councilman, former mayor and former governor has achieved near-heroic status, many chalked the incident up to Schaefer's being Schaefer.
And in the halls of Annapolis, the politicians quietly chuckling over it probably outnumbered those waving indignant fists.
"I tend to ignore his comments because he spouts off all the time," Nicholas Panteleakis, 33, said on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore.
Panteleakis, a lawyer, said the incident will not affect his vote in the fall, when Schaefer will seek re-election.
Baltimore native Dena Nelson, who spent the day on jury duty, said she still considers Schaefer a "decent guy."
"He was a good mayor and a good governor," said Nelson, who declined to give her age. "It doesn't dampen what I think of him at all."