Schaefer's symbols turn against him

December 09, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis--With his popularity running so high that poll takers called it "godlike," Gov. William Donald Schaefer took big political risks throughout his first term.

And he paid for them on Election Day.

He spent big and built big in service to his conviction tha movement and momentum are everything. He pushed and ranted and cajoled the legislature to get with his program. He demanded more spending authority -- and, later, complained that some voters began to see him as a spender.

It could have been worse.

If he had not arranged to have state law changed to delay publi financing of statewide campaigns from 1990 to 1994 -- and if the opposing candidate and running mate hadn't been man and wife -- his career in public service could be over.

He fared better than many incumbents in 1990, but he writhe now in a slough of despond over what message the voters were sending him Nov. 6. Mr. Schaefer believes his dedication and accomplishments over a long period of time warranted a better report card.

Like almost everyone else in the state, he seems to hav assumed that he would occupy his exalted standing with the voters forever. Even in a year when the voters wreaked havoc among incumbents, he apparently expected to be immune.

"Every politician begins to fade, eventually," said a stat Democratic Party official last week. "People begin to get a little tired of elected officials after awhile -- even Don Schaefer."

At least relatively speaking, Mr. Schaefer continues to cruise o a fairly deep reservoir of public approbation.

If there was a drop in his popularity -- attributable directly to hi policies as opposed to the general mood -- several explanations are offered by Schaefer watchers in Annapolis and elsewhere.

* As everyone knows, voter attitudes changed almost a abruptly as the economy. Recession is upon us at home, and there is the prospect of war in the Middle East. People are spending less and demanding less spending by their leaders. Mr. Schaefer's style has tended toward the hyperkinetic -- Do It Now, he calls it.

* In the new climate, Mr. Schaefer seems to have been viewe differently by many voters in Maryland. Poll takers and pulse takers heard people grousing about "arrogance," which the complainers saw exemplified in spending on the official mansion and the official yacht.

"I'm the least arrogant guy I know," Mr. Schaefer said, rejectin the verdict of the malcontents.

* A man whose stock in trade had always been devotion to th city of Baltimore or to the state of Maryland was now in open confrontation with at least a portion of both. He had indulged himself in a long feud with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. And he made himself the spender in annual debates with the legislature.

* Some of the symbols of achievement and of humility -- whic had always been clear and unambiguously positive for him -- seemed to lose their luster or even to be working against him.

As mayor, he had been the modest man from Edgewood Street As governor, he had more addresses than President Bush.

He declined to move into the mansion -- even as he authorize lavish refurbishments. He bought a town house in Anne Arundel County and a condominium in Ocean City. He bought a lot on the Eastern Shore at what appeared to be a special price -- and then sold it back when questions were raised. He kept his old trailer. He seemed to live everywhere -- and nowhere. He became the almost-homeless governor.

He remained somewhat disembodied from his natura constituency, Baltimore. He made an adjustment to Annapolis, bringing many of his aides from the city. But some intangible assets he necessarily left behind.

In Baltimore, his building projects had special leverage. Hi former press aide, Robert Douglas, says Mr. Schaefer created and then rode an unspoken consensus: The city was dying and deserved to be saved. Like an overmatched wrestler, Mr. Schaefer figured out how to use the weight of his adversaries, poverty and decay, Mr. Douglas said.

And there were other defnders and promoters of the Schaefer style: George Will compared him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the management expert, Tom Peters, said he made the impossible seem commonplace.

In Baltimore, he flourished as an underdog -- a junkyar %o underdog. He grew bolder, and he saw that few could match his energy or his nerve. He told former Baltimore legislator Dennis McCoy that he had to have three or four visible building programs under way constantly to show movement.

The buildings that sprang up on the city's waterfront - Harborplace, the World Trade Center, the Aquarium -- became exclamation points for Do It Now! They were a gallery of positive symbols. They said, "This man in the quirky hats and bathing suits will humiliate himself for his city."

No one said then that he was building monuments to himself. N one thought he was going too fast. (Blight was moving faster, wasn't it?) No one called him a big spender.

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.