Dose Of Politics Makes Clerk's Race A Serious One

Incumbent Schafer Tries To Hold Off Repulican Challenger

October 18, 1990|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

H. Erle Schafer, a politician whose current occupation is Clerk of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, is an avid reader of newspapers.

Loves to follow local news. Devours every story on county politics.

Hated the latest story on him.

The article was based on an Annapolis attorney's letter, one that began, "Dear Erle: The situation with paper being handled in the Clerk's Office is getting worse and worse."

The letter went on to describe how delays in processing court orders in divorce cases proved costly to the lawyer's clients.

Ouch. Schafer, a Democrat, a former county councilman, former state senator and one-time candidate for county executive, didn't even have a challenger in his bid for re-election to the relatively unglamorous job of court clerk. Didn't have a challenger, that is, until two Republicans entered the race on the filing deadline day in July.

Mary M. Rose, chairwoman of the county's Republican State Central Committee, who in 1990 still seeks an assist from former president Reagan's coattails, pulled more than 75 percent of the vote in the Republican primary to dispatch Matthew P. Buettner and position herself for a general election challenge.

And then this newspaper article comes along and ruins Schafer's day.

Rose and the letter-writer, Paula J. Peters, deny any political motivation in the letter -- Peters says, "I don't even know Mary Rose" -- but Schafer isn't buying it.

"I've been in this business 20 years," Schafer said. "I know when I'm being set up politically and when I'm not."

But he was smiling a few days later when he held a news story he much preferred, one on a member of the county Republican State Central Committee calling Rose a racist. This time, it was Rose who was on the defensive.

And so more than a small dose of politics shapes the campaign for court clerk -- a job which both candidates aren't even sure should be an elected position.

The incumbent is a 52-year-old Severn resident who dismisses suggestions that his political influence in the county is waning. He says his rumored second run for county executive never happened because the field was too crowded, but admits to strongly considering a run for County Council before choosing to run for re-election as clerk because "we started some things that aren't finished yet."

He makes no apologies for being a political animal, explaining he ran for clerk four years ago because judges, dismayed at the condition of the office, thought his clout in the General Assembly could bring some attention to problems there. Listing his accomplishments, he starts with his role in a bill that moved clerk's offices state-wide from under the control of the executive branch -- and the comptroller's office -- to the judicial branch.

The move, says Schafer, could pay off in more money budgeted for circuit courts. A ballot question on a constitutional amendment will, if passed, cement the change.

But to hear Schafer tell it, that achievement came with a heavy price, drawing the ire of a true heavyweight of a politician, eight-term comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. Schafer also sparred with the comptroller's office over lengthy delays in a pilot project to computerize Circuit Court records.

When the comptroller's office issued a scathing report on his operation last year, Schafer laid it to a political vendetta.

He now says he and Goldstein have "smoked the peace pipe" and he refuses to discuss the report, other than to remind everyone he prepared a 500-page response to the 147-page audit claiming most of the recommended changes had already been made.

Mary Rose, however, loves to bring up that report. It contains, she says, 149 "management abuses" -- or 149 reasons why voters should not re-elect Schafer.

"If he were working in the private sector, he would have been fired," Rose says. As for the incumbent's claims that the audit was politically motivated -- just like the Peters letter -- she said, "Let's say the whole government is fixed against Erle. Why is the employee morale so low?"

An informal poll of courthouse employees on Schafer's performance was inconclusive, with some rolling their eyes at the mere mention of their boss's name and others insisting the workers support him.

Most observers agree that the courthouse is in better shape than it was four years ago when Schafer ousted incumbent E. Aubrey Collison. Still, Schafer is nagged by complaints from area lawyers. James P. Nolan, president of the county bar association, says he's heard perhaps a dozen complaints from lawyers in past months about the clerk's office. Nolan says most complaints are similar to Peters' -- they say the office is slow to send out orders, especially the equity desk, which handles divorces and custody cases.

Schafer's response: He's had to contend with an increasing workload while being short staffed because of a state hiring freeze, and he has chosen to make the criminal cases a priority.

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