Big Spender, Less Popularity

Barry Rascovar

October 14, 1990|By Barry Rascovar

SAVVY POLITICIANS know the power of symbolic action. Building a shiny image often is more important than actual accomplishments.

The danger is that a carefully conceived image can be eroded by the rush of on-going events. It poses big problems for the politician on election day.

That accounts for Gov. William Donald Schaefer's concern over his popularity. Yes, as the poll in today's Sun indicates, the governor will have no trouble winning a second term. But it won't be the unprecedented mandate he seeks.

Republicans must be kicking themselves for not recruiting a better nominee than William Shepard. All the ingredients are there for a stunning upset, except one -- a well-known, well-financed candidate.

Mr. Shepard has some fine diplomatic credentials and he articulates his views ably, but he's a political unknown with little money and minimal experience in Maryland politics.

If Mr. Shepard performs better than The Sun Poll predicts, it will be due to the growing disenchantment in this country with incumbents, taxes and government.

Mr. Schaefer represents all three. A little-known opponent in the Democratic primary proved this by gaining 100,000 votes on a shoestring campaign. Add these dissatisfied Democratic voters to Mr. Shepard's GOP support, and the anti-Schaefer vote could large.

Mr. Schaefer came into office with an image as Maryland's first blue-collar governor: a frumpy-looking man who insists on living in the row house where he grew up; whose favorite restaurants are fast-food joints; who harasses bureaucrats and demands action -- NOW; who travels by special bus, not helicopter; who hates delivering speeches but loves chatting with folks.

He is outspoken, unpredictable, a master at promoting pet projects through hokey events. He shook up the government by making unexpected visits to state offices, demanding cleaner desks and more responsiveness to the public.

That was the Schaefer image as his first term began. He ends his four years with an entirely different image. Don Schaefer is now a symbol of conspicuous consumption -- at taxpayers' expense.

How many people, for instance, leave the office at night and have their choice of five residences they can call home?

There's his Baltimore row house, his new Anne Arundel town house, his trailer in Ocean City, his condo in Ocean City and, of course, the Governor's Mansion -- which he refuses to move into even though taxpayers continue to pay for the upkeep and staffing.

Then there are the trips to Europe and the Far East, all in the name of economic development. Lots of them. Sometimes with such extras as $125 tickets for opera seats for the entire delegation -- all on the public tab.

Mansion renovations, though largely financed through private contributions, galled observers because of the lack of historic authenticity in the decorating and the accompanying hoopla.

His flashiest capital projects strike many as ostentatious -- a $200 million stadium complex and a $400 million light-rail route. There was no sense of frugality in these projects. Nor do plans for a state-built championship golf course in Western Maryland help Mr. Schaefer's image. Or his proposed residential math-science high school for elite brains.

Along the way, Mr. Schaefer raised salaries for aides to unprecedented levels. He also raised the gasoline tax and tried to impose a ''snack tax'' on average citizens.

All of this is coming back to haunt Mr. Schaefer as the general election approaches.

Most voters seem to understand the logic behind these actions: The stadium saved the Orioles from leaving town; the light-rail line is essential for job growth; the golf course could revive Western Maryland; higher salaries helped retain quality officials; overseas trips boosted the state economy; the gas tax made road improvements possible, and the snack tax would have provided money for the needy.

Yet a solid minority doesn't want to understand. These people see large government spending and a governor who is blithely tossing around taxpayers' money. That's the symbol they remember; they ignore the services and benefits that government is providing.

Will Mr. Schaefer win in a cakewalk? Absolutely. But he's developed a troubling image problem. It won't cost him the election. Instead, it will make it more difficult for him to govern successfully in his second term. Somehow, he's got to shake the image of Don Schaefer, big spender.

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