Schaefer treads reluctantly in deciding emotional issues

October 14, 1990|By G.Jefferson Price III | G.Jefferson Price III,G.Jefferson Price III is state editor of The Sun.

When William Donald Schaefer obtained the crown of his political career in Maryland in 1987 by becoming governor, he beheld awesome resources to advance his style as a builder and a booster.

But the top job also opened a new dimension of political responsibility, compelling him to take positions on issues that exceeded the necessities of his earlier political experience. They were emotion-packed issues, hard to win, easy to lose: gun control and abortion.

The governor's entourage of political mentors, financial supporters, wizards of industry and devoted staffers who helped him to make more mundane things happen could venture opinions on these issues. And many of them did. But ultimately, Mr. Schaefer had to tap the resource of his own personal instinct and untested ideology to decide which way he would go.

He was reluctant to commit himself on both issues in his campaign for governor in 1986. On the abortion issue, both sides felt he vacillated when the debate this year demanded leadership. He finally delivered his opinion, supporting abortion rights, only weeks ago, after last month's primary election.

The gun control issue was an easier decision in retrospect. It came at him irresistibly in 1988. His sentiment and his experience gave in to the supplications of Sarah Brady, the wife of James Brady, President Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was hopelessly crippled by an assassin's bullet intended for the president in 1981.

He also gave in to Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who brought Mrs. Brady to Annapolis. The attorney general's father, J. Joseph Curran Sr., then-Mayor Schaefer's closest ally in the City Council, had collapsed in 1976 when an assassin came gunning for Mr. Schaefer at City Hall. Another Schaefer colleague, City Councilman Dominic Leone, was shot dead in the attack.

So Mr. Schaefer had some personal experience with the dangers of gun availability, not to mention that which came from being the mayor of a city with a high crime rate. He cautiously said he did not want to ban all guns, but when he moved, he did so with resources that had never been available to him as mayor.

He faced down the widely feared National Rifle Association lobby and its agents in Maryland. Against the NRA-led campaign that eventually cost more than $6 million, Mr. Schaefer threw his weight behind the fight to preserve at referendum a bill limiting the availability of handguns in Maryland.

His entire phalanx of campaign experts and money men was brought in to the uncustomary atmosphere of a campaign that was, after all, a matter of principle. The governor went on television to denounce the gun lobby. He ordered state-run transit vehicles plastered with signs urging voters to take his side. He stood on street corners at rush hour, displaying a sign that read, "Let's win one for Maryland."

In the end, the campaign led by Mr. Schaefer scored an overwhelming victory over the gun lobby. The fight had drawn national attention. And the governor won the plaudits of many who had seen him before as no more than a master of enormous construction enterprises, innovative financing schemes, clownish boosterism and petty temper tantrums.

The governor was less timely, many came to feel, in his action o the abortion issue. Mr. Schaefer had no repository of personal experience to draw upon for this decision, unlike the gun control issue. Women who felt strongly that male politicians are hardly equipped to consider the question might have regarded Mr. Schaefer with even greater suspicion. The governor has never been married and has no children with whom he might have to discuss the question. He doesn't even have a sister.

Female staffers and friends battered him with their views, h acknowledged. The views, so strongly held by both sides, created what he called "the most agonizing issue" he had ever faced. Reflecting his own feeling of inadequacy to address the issue, he once told a reporter: "Ask me about solid waste. I know a lot about that."

Attention to the abortion issue intensified after the U.S. Suprem Court appeared on the verge of overturning its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision permitting abortion, which would throw the issue back to the states. The 1990 session of the General Assembly was paralyzed for eight days by a filibuster in the Senate that ultimately defeated an attempt by abortion rights advocates to repeal state anti-abortion statutes that would prevail again if the Supreme Court were to reverse Roe vs. Wade.

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