For Schaefer, simply winning just isn't enough

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 08, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the night William Donald Schaefer nearly touched the essence of political perfection, the legendary Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. brought him the blissful news.

It was September of '83, the evening Schaefer crushed Billy Murphy in the Democratic mayoral primary. All day long, Tommy the Elder had been out pushing the vote in Little Italy. And now, with the returns showing Schaefer sweeping across every neighborhood in town, here was Tommy with his hand clutching a slip of vote returns and his ancient voice sweet like an angel.

"In Little Italy," he said, "487 votes for Schaefer. And for Murphy . . . one."

"One?" a guy asked, not quite believing it.

"One," said the former mayor, and now he paused for a kind of mock-menacing effect, and he said very slowly: "And we're gonna find that guy."

That was seven years ago. Two nights ago, as Schaefer won re-election as governor of Maryland, here was Tommy's widow, Nancy D'Alesandro, sitting with a few friends and remembering the night seven years back.

"No," she laughed, "we never did find that one guy. But we're still looking."

Everybody within earshot laughed, but Schaefer did not. He is never quite satisfied with anything less than unanimous electoral love, and he did not get it in the gubernatorial election of 1990.

And so Tuesday night, when friends were laughing along with Nancy D'Alesandro, Schaefer was still in a room upstairs at the Omni Hotel, wondering why so much had gone wrong. Poor Schaefer: He's the only politician in America who wins 60 percent of the vote and feels rejected. Incumbents everywhere are being pushed out of windows, and he wins big but hears the analysts wonder: "What's wrong with Schaefer?"

"I'll tell you," Sandy Hillman was saying election night. Hillman's executive vice president at Trahan, Burden and Charles advertising now, but for years, she was one of the Schaefer insiders who helped fashion the city's rebirth.

"You know what Schaefer's problem is?" she said. "He's not measured against his opponents any more. He's measured against himself. Governor Schaefer is measured against the incredible legend of Mayor Schaefer."

Across the crowded ballroom now, early returns from Montgomery County were being announced to the Schaefer crowd: The governor had about 70 percent of the vote in that Washington suburb.

"You see?" Sandy Hillman said. "Down there, they don't measure him against Mayor Schaefer. They measure him strictly as governor. In the Baltimore metro area -- and, let's face it, he was like the mayor of the five counties, I mean, everybody was watching us, everybody was adopting us -- and in the Baltimore area, we're still measuring him against the mayoral myth. And you can't measure anybody against a myth."

At least, you can't measure up very well against a myth. In Baltimore County, Schaefer got about 53 percent of the vote. In Anne Arundel, about 49 percent. In Harford, 51 percent. In Carroll, 41 percent.

In the city, where people still think Schaefer's first name is Mayor and still embrace him as a favorite son, the governor took 71 percent.

With Schaefer, even this is perceived as rejection. On a night in which he was (at least conceivably) running his last race, the governor wanted an accumulation of all the emotional debts collected over three decades of giving endlessly to those around him.

Instead, he got a better-than-average victory.

"Well," said Charles Benton, Schaefer's budget secretary and former city fiscal chief, "it's his life to please people. What else does he have? He doesn't have a social life. He has this. And the rest of us know you can't please all the people all the time, and say that 60 percent is OK. But he doesn't."

Things don't always work out as planned. In his glum times, Schaefer tells friends he's sorry he ever left City Hall. He loved being mayor. Lots of times, he hates being governor. As mayor, everybody can quickly see all the good stuff you're doing. As governor, only a small percentage of the people see what you're doing. What do people in Parkville care what he's doing in Pocomoke City? They don't. Therefore, he runs against his former, mayoral self and cannot win.

Some say Schaefer ran for governor because it was the best way to help the city he'd run for 15 years. Since the city was always broke, he'd sit in Annapolis and channel state money in the right direction.

Instead, he's never gotten over a childish split with Mayor Kurt Schmoke and, when he does send money the city's way, does it grudgingly. And now, in the chill of unexpected state budget problems, he doesn't have much money to give even when he wants to give any.

Poor Schaefer: Nothing works quite the way it's supposed to work. They almost loved him unanimously in Little Italy seven years ago, except for that one guy. And Schaefer's won every race he's been in for the last 35 years.

But he thought he'd really knock their socks off this time around, really stand there and bask in the collected warmth of his followers. He thought he'd get a sense of their adoration.

Instead, all he got was elected.

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