Schaefer: great public undecider on abortion

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 13, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The three of them were walking through the darkness on Baltimore's Cathedral Street, just outside William Donald Schaefer's campaign ballroom, when somebody searching for an angle on a dull election night asked them if they'd voted.

"Shoot," the first said, in approximate pronunciation.

"What was they votin' on?" the second said, in semi-approximate interest.

The third was a woman, not long out of school, and she waited a moment before asking, almost shyly: "Was there anything in that vote about abortions?"

Well, yes, but not that the governor of Maryland seemed to notice. Inside the big, mostly empty campaign ballroom, Schaefer strolled about and seemed oblivious to any political implications of the great emotional issue of our time.

In Baltimore County, state Sen. Frank Kelly, a fervent voice in last winter's filibuster against abortion rights, was getting his brains beaten out by Janice Piccinini. In Montgomery County, Frank Shore and Margaret Schweinhaut lost their Senate seats after siding against abortion rights, and in Prince George's County, Sen. Frank Komenda tumbled after taking the same stand.

And now, with the results spilling all around him, here was Schaefer, the great public undecider on the abortion issue, pretending none of this mattered.

"Why such a low voter turnout?" the governor was asked.

"No issues,'' said Schaefer. "You can't excite people when there are no issues. It shows people are satisfied with what we're doing."

"What about abortion?" somebody asked.

"Oh, abortion," said Schaefer. "You know, people are passionate about abortion, but they're so passionate that you're not gonna change their minds. I went around today, and they were talking about other things."

"Like what?''

"Like no-fault insurance," said Schaefer, launching into a story about a woman at a polling place confronting him with her husband's insurance problems.

"What about abortion?" the governor was pressed.

Now Schaefer stopped strolling about the big ballroom, and his pale blue eyes started to glitter. Ever since last winter's General Assembly session, when legislators waged a dramatic eight-day verbal battle and Schaefer ducked the issue, everybody's wondered where he stands.

The filibuster led to the eventual death of an abortion-rights bill. Frank Shore called it a victory in "the Super Bowl for life." But it enraged abortion-rights advocates who vowed they'd get revenge at the polls against people like Shore and Kelly, who had put their careers in harm's way.

"You know something?" Schaefer said now. "The press spends more time worrying about my abortion position than the public does. You're the only ones who ask me how I feel about it."

"So what's your answer?" he was asked. "Where do you stand on abortion?"

"Yeah," declared Schaefer, and paused a moment, and then added, as if he'd just purged his very soul: "OK?"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," the governor declared again.

A silence filled the little knot of people standing around the governor.

"Yeah, what?" somebody finally asked.

"Yeah," the governor said again.

"Yeah?" a woman radio reporter echoed. "Governor, this is a serious issue. Don't you think women need to know how you feel about it?"

"Listen, little girl," said Schaefer, waving a dismissive hand, "you're not gonna trap me like that."

The governor has it all wrong. On the issue of abortion, he traps himself. He figured he'd ride out the issue last winter, and instead it threatened to wreck the last weeks of the session. He figures he can still ride it out, and instead, emboldened by

Tuesday's vote, the abortion-rights people will introduce new legislation in next year's session to guarantee pregnant women some control over their own bodies.

Schaefer is clearly uncomfortable with the issue, both personally and politically. He's in very large company. What he hasn't figured out, though, is the depth of anger toward him for ducking the fight.

Schaefer is the most widely recognized politician in the state. He had big campaign money. He had glorious television commercials extolling his hard work and dedication to the state. He has near-universal name recognition. And he was blessed by having for an opponent one Fred Griisser, who is a household name mainly in the Griisser household.

Griisser's best known for his staunch pro-gun position, an issue that barely raised its head the entire campaign after state voters overwhelmingly voted a few years ago for stronger gun-control measures.

And yet Griisser, with almost nothing going for him, garnered about 100,000 votes Tuesday. A lot of those votes had nothing to do with Griisser. They were a message to Schaefer, and the message involved abortion.

And if Schaefer hasn't figured that out yet, then he has no idea what's waiting for him from the abortion-rights people next winter in Annapolis.

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