Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Passing of a Maryland Legend

Maryland lost a great friend this week. William Donald Shaefer passed away on Monday. Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore City from 1971 to 1987 - 16 years during which he committed his life to improving the city (to say nothing of the years he spent on the City Council starting in 1955). Harborplace, Camden Yards, the Baltimore Aquarium - all exist as testimonials to his commitment to Baltimore. Legend tells of so-called Schaefer-grams where, for instance, Schaefer would call the Department of Public Works and explain that he saw an abandoned couch in an alley and without telling where it was he would give the department 24 hours to remove the offending couch. Schaefer would cruise the streets of Baltimore looking for problems to solve - the City was his life.

Schaefer was elected governor in 1986 and served from 1987 to 1995. He was a fierce advocate of the Chesapeake Bay, yet recognized the need for industry and economic development on the Eastern Shore, but especially Western Maryland. There was never any doubt that Schaefer cared about all of Maryland, not just the Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties.

Schaefer cared more about the politics of accomplishment than he did the politics of parties. In 1992 he shocked the Democratic Party establishment by endorsing George H. W. Bush's bid for re-election against fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. There was little chance that it would influence the Maryland vote and there seemed to be little for Schaefer to gain - but he simply preferred Bush over Clinton. Schaefer felt that Bush had been good to Maryland and that warranted his support. In response to outrage among the state Democratic Party and his own Lt. Governor Schaefer simply replied "I honestly thought I had a right to endorse and vote for who I wanted... All of a sudden I find out a governor doesn't have that right. Even though his conscience is against it, he is supposed to be for somebody he doesn't think is the right man."

That was William Donald Schaefer.

Not content to live in retirement, Schaefer ran for and won the office of Comptroller in 1998 and served two terms. In Maryland, the Comptroller is in fact quite an important office. He was defeated in a 3 way primary in 2006 - largely the result of the fact that his famously off color remarks, especially those toward women, were increasingly viewed as being either out of step with the times or downright offensive - and they often were.

When Republican Bob Ehrlich ran for governor in 2002, Schaefer did not endorse him, but was certainly friendly to Ehrlich and quite cool to the Democratic candidate, then Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Schaefer ultimately endorsed Townsend, but made clear that he would not speak ill of Ehrlich. When Ehrlich endorsed Schaefer's bid for re-election as Comptroller his primary opponent Secretary of State John Willis demanded that Schaefer "disavow" the endorsement. Schaefer refused.

History will remember Schaefer as part of a passing breed of colorful American politicians. A tremendous and dedicated mayor who rejuvenated his city, but who often struggled on the larger stage of state politics.

Schaefer once said in an interview with Esquire:

"You don't need a charming, wavy-haired talker for a mayor. You need the toughest, canniest, most obsessive sonofabitch in town. You need someone who's going to make it his life." That's what the folks of Baltimore City got for 17 years and the folks in Maryland for 16 years.

Schaefer was far from perfect, but in an age of the charming, wavy-haired talker, it's good to remember that Schaefer was the toughest, canniest, most obsessive sonofabitch that Baltimore City ever sent to Annapolis and all Marylanders lost a true champion this week. I do not claim to know what awaits us in the afterlife, but wherever William Donald Schaefer is I have no doubt that he is already running for office.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dear Governor O'Malley: Dial Back the Rhetoric

Political scientist V.O. Key once theorized that increased political competition would force parties to offer more distinct policies to voters in an effort to influence their choice. Additionally, as competition increases the parties come to rely more heavily, not on the mean, median, or moderate voter, but rather on the more committed and active voter. Recent history has proven Key to have been quite correct. As state and national politics have become more competitive between Republicans and Democrats the official positions of the two parties have become ever more polarized and the rhetoric of American politics has become more course, more absolutist, and often more absurd.

In an effort to motivate their base voters, and to scare Independent and moderate voters, partisans resort to the politics of fear. This is clearly evident in the current public debate over the budget and the possibility of a government shutdown. This is why Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned that Republican budget proposals would cause "6 million seniors to starve" and Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter proclaimed that Republicans want to "kill women." It explains why, during the health care debate, Sarah Palin warned of "death panels." It's also why devoted left wing partisans angrily denounced Palin's comments as extreme, yet see no extremism in what Pelosi and Slaughter said and why right wing partisans denounce Pelosi and Slaughter as demagogues and defend Palin.

Which brings me to Martin O'Malley... One of the benefits of living in one the few non-competitive states is that the extreme rhetoric is less common. Democrats in Maryland face very little electoral threat from Republicans. Democrats enjoy a 2 to 1 registration advantage and control all statewide offices and overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate. In the absence of real party competition there's little need to engage in the bombast common in many other states - and nationally. Unfortunately, Martin O'Malley's new job as chairmen of the National Democratic Governor's Association has led to a change in tone.

O'Malley has picked some high profile fights with prominent Republican governors like Chris Christie, but his rhetoric had been mostly centered on policy issues. That changed today when O'Malley issued a statement regarding the potential government shutdown. O'Malley's statement read:
"Congressional Republicans are allowing their hate of government to hurt the hardworking families of our country. It appears they care more about hurting our government than they do about helping our recovery.

Maryland is home to thousands of federal civil servants – moms and dads who will go without pay because Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have chosen to wage an ideological war instead of putting the interests of their nation first."
So Republicans are motivated not by a $1.6 trillion deficit, not by a $12 trillion debt, but by a hatred of government? And do Democrats have no role to play in this shutdown drama? Democrats insist that budget cuts are not the sticking point - rather it's a policy rider related to funding for Planned Parenthood. So using Mr. O'Malley's logic aren't the Democrats putting ideology ahead of the nation's interests as well?

O'Malley's statement may not have been so bad had he not followed it with a Facebook post that read "If the tea-partying Republican Congress thinks shutting down government is good for a nation's economic health, they should go visit Somalia."

Somalia? Somalia? Somalia has been engulfed in a civil war for nearly two decades, as a result the country lacks a central government. But no reasonable person could suggest that a temporary government shutdown in the U.S. would be comparable in any way to Somalia. To even attempt to hint at a Somalia/America comparison is just ridiculous. Somalia's economy is not suffering because of a government shutdown. Somalia is suffering because it has been devastated by ethnic strife and war.

I know that O'Malley has a job to do as a cheerleader for the Democratic Party, but that's job #2 - job #1 is to be chief executive of, and cheerleader for, the state of Maryland. When his commitment to job #2 undermines job #1, and shines a less than flattering light on Maryland as a result, he needs to rethink his priorities.

Dial back the rhetoric Mr. O'Malley - don't be part of all that is wrong with American politics. Maryland deserves better.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sorry for the Lack of Activity

Sorry for the lull in new posts - late March and April are busy times and my posts will be few and far between as the final weeks of the semester and academic conferences eat into my blogging time.