The governor and the taboo

Newswatch...on Maryland politics

November 30, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

Three weeks after the election, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is still agonizing over the results of his second-term victory. It's on his mind. It won't go away. At his news conference this week, speaking softly and barely audible after a couple of comments on the day's events, he gave a long monologue on the election. There were no questions asked. It seemed as if he were talking to himself.

This was his political opening line: "This is somewhat difficult to say but I owe an apology to the people that voted for me."

Many minutes later he closed this way: "So I really do owe the people who voted for me a thank you because it was a vote I interpreted now as a vote of confidence and we won." Between these two statements, Schaefer examined some of the reasons why many people did not vote for him. His victory came with just under 60 percent of the vote, although thousands of other voters skipped him and his Republican opponent, William S. Shepard. His losses on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland seemed to bother him the most.

When we spoke with some leading office-holders and legislators in those sections of the state, both before and after the election, they touched on one issue that is talked about often privately though rarely publicly. They said that the silent issue that was hurting the Schaefer campaign was the governor's personal relationship with his long-time friend and companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.

Mrs. Snoops is the governor's hostess at the mansion. Her official position is that as designee of the governor on the Mansion Trust. She is sometimes called the First Companion. She and the governor bought side-by-side town houses in Anne Arundel County. They purchased a condo jointly in Ocean City. They are a pair at affairs both formal and official and at informal and private gatherings.

But they are not married. The governor is a life-long bachelor. Mrs. Snoops has been divorced.

Perhaps in an ideal world, personal relationships shouldn't matter politically. And to most voters, particularly younger and more liberally minded ones, they don't. But it does matter to many voters, notably among older women. They do not approve of the Schaefer-Snoops relationship, considering it at the least improper.

That is what they were telling many of the governor's supporters on the Eastern Shore. They were sending a message that they wouldn't vote for a governor, no matter how competent, under such a personal cloud. One veteran Democratic legislator said dislike of the Schaefer-Snoops relationship was part of a broader criticism that included lavish renovation of the mansion, and the tearing up of the mansion's older garden grounds and replacement of ancient plantings and erection of a fancy fountain, and the cost of maintaining police security at several homes.

All these pieces blurred together.

The same issues were found in Western Maryland, where the governor lost several counties, as well as in Anne Arundel County, also lost by Schaefer.

Schaefer generally had excellent or very good ratings as governor. But his negative ratings in the polls also ran from about 25 to 35 percent. Voters saw him as "a big spender" prone to major projects like the new baseball stadium in Baltimore and the light-rail project now under construction from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie. There was an "arrogance" factor covering many alleged sins. And down the line there was the Snoops factor.

Schaefer's opponents did not use the Snoops issue. Republicans William and Lois Shepard did talk about a joyous family life in the mansion after their election, a reminder to some that the governor was a bachelor.

GOP strategists felt that any open attack on Schaefer's personal life would be self-defeating. And it was unnecessary.

The subject of Schaefer and his companion was akin to a taboo. It was the most talked about political issue privately and the least written about and discussed publicly. On some talk shows, callers complained about "that woman" but hosts usually dropped the topic. It was also part of the Schaefer "arrogance," for as one delegate explained, it was as if the governor could ignore proper social rules.

How much was Schaefer hurt by this silent issue? Pollsters detected it but could not quantify it, if they indeed tried. The privacy taboo held. With all the extensive polling done by the governor's own campaign, there was no report on this issue.

Perhaps it was too sensitive a question to explore. Maybe it was too personal and difficult a topic to discuss with the governor himself. It wasn't raised by the news media. It was not written about.

How much did the issue cost Schaefer in votes? There is no precise answer. Analysts guess that it probably meant something like 5 percent or 10 percent of his total. That would have been enough to give him the huge mandate that he so clearly wanted. And it would explain his painful losses in a dozen counties.

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