Schaefer legacy: big ideas, big bucks DO IT NOW MAY TURN TO MAKING DO

October 14, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece | C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece,C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece are reporters for The Sun. Md.General Assembly Department of Fiscal Services

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis-- As soon as the "Do It Now!" man got to Annapolis, he had to have a new baseball stadium, and he had to have it immediately.

He demanded authority to build a new football stadium, too -- even though there was no football team. That was the point. He wanted to show Maryland's commitment so the National Football League would look favorably upon the state's application for an expansion franchise.

He also wanted a light rail trolley system, linking Hunt Valley wit Glen Burnie, to bring in the fans.

This flurry of action by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, this flash speed and high public purpose, carried costs that immediately exceeded the initial price tag of more than $760 million. Cost overruns of $270 million were announced before any work at all was done on the three projects.

Now, with the permanence that only tons of concrete and stee can assure, the most tangible symbol of Mr. Schaefer's first term rises from the earth in South Baltimore.

It represents just about everything people like -- or dislike - about the 68-year-old chief executive, who is favored to win re-election Nov. 6. It stands for his belief that government and business must work together. It stands for his belief in big-league image-building.

Inevitably, though, the sports complex at Camden Yards als stands for William Donald Schaefer, big spender. It represents the fruit of his driving, impatient, sometimes impetuous leadership toward what he promises will be a prosperous future. Cost overruns are the bitter aftertaste. Pressing ahead too quickly, his critics say, he presided over hideously wasteful spending. His own view is that projects of this kind bear risk that cannot be avoided, risk that will be forgotten when the projects are completed and their dividends are flowing into the bank.

The stadium also represents Mr. Schaefer's remarkable ability t fend off criticism.

For some politicians, the cost overruns might have left a deep indelible stain. Faced now with a budget deficit potentially equal to the $340 million surplus Maryland had soon after he came to office, voters might have been after his head. Governors caught in such an outcry might well have been contrite and repentant.

William Donald Schaefer changed nothing. He has not altered hi style, objective or staff. And his approval rating in a succession of public opinion surveys remained high.

He was saved, perhaps, by his energy, by his record as rebuilde of Baltimore, by good times and by good luck. While the current economic downturn threatens to undermine his approach to government, Mr. Schaefer came to the governorship on a rising economic tide. And federal tax law changes in 1986 dumped $340 million in his lap. He had money to cover overruns.

He drove the projects he wanted through a balky legislature wit typical Schaeferian urgency.

"Time is not on our side," he said.

He acted as if his plans posed no risks to prudent governing an carried no political risks. He brushed aside those who said the money should be spent for more pressing needs.

His constant effort to break through the General Assembly' spending limits seemed to dare voters to criticize him as a spender. The legislature already has. Now, falling tax revenues and rising welfare costs are promising to bring budget deficits estimated anywhere from $180 million to $342 million, depending on how much the economy further deteriorates. Legislators ask themselves how much more serious the state's financial problems would be if Mr. Schaefer had gotten his way more often.

"The governor has chafed under the restrictions, and he ha challenged them at every opportunity, but I think the spending affordability law has been a stabilizer over the past four years," said House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County.

But the results of the Democratic primary Sept. 11 suggest tha Mr. Schaefer is paying at least a small price for his highly publicized fights with the legislature, for his big-ticket public works and for other grievances. He saw an untested and virtually unfinanced opponent, Frederick M. Griisser Jr., win 100,000 votes -- about 22 percent of the votes cast.

Given Mr. Griisser's obscurity, many of those votes were counted against Mr. Schaefer, rather than for Mr. Griisser.

"On the Eastern Shore [where Mr. Schaefer almost lost severa counties], people just wanted to tell him, 'Hey, you're not Jesus Christ,' " said Thomas T. Koch, president of Curtis Engine Co., an active Schaefer fund-raiser and vice chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Overall, he said, Mr. Schaefer still stimulates the imagination of Marylanders who share his vision and admire his hard work.

He has certainly had the support of business leaders. He ha made partners of men whose companies are regulated by state commissions he controls, men who enjoyed being known as his allies and who appreciated his effort to make Maryland a good place to do business.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.