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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.