Schaefer has only one person to blame

Frank A. DeFilippo

December 27, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

ONE BY ONE and two by two, no matter the color, size or shape, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is summoning his underlings to the State House for a colossal chewing out.

Maryland's idiosyncratic governor is mad, angry, disappointed, dejected, bitter, lashing out at anyone within earshot over the campaign message that he's convinced wasn't delivered in November.

First it was his campaign manager who caught the Dutch-uncle wrath for the sappy thousand points of light primary election blooper. Then came the cabinet secretaries, followed by the state college presidents and finally the administration's human trumpets -- the battalion of public information officers who are charged with burnishing Schaefer's image. One participant in a marathon chew-out characterized the meeting as "an hour of terror and threats."

Schaefer is behaving like a brooding Banquo because he feels he's unappreciated. He's blaming everyone around him for the loss of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland -- everyone except himself, of course. And make no mistake about it. Schaefer has assured his hirelings that he's going to be a more difficult taskmaster during his second term than he was a tyrant during his first four years. In the twilight of his career, with his power slowly ebbing, Schaefer is saying he's starting over as if it's a brand new administration.

In politics it's assumed that if you cast your bread upon the waters, you get Oreos and Fig Newtons in return. On the Eastern Shore, Schaefer was hailed as a hero when he restored slot machines to the American Legion halls and VFW posts where God intended them to be. He lured Carvel Hall back to Crisfield to resume making cutlery (and jobs), and he accelerated construction of the Kent Narrows bridge.

But instead of their votes, the ingrates gave Schaefer the mook. They were looking not at Schaefer's monuments, but at the non-tidal wetlands brouhaha, at Hilda Mae Snoops enthroned in the mansion, the fountain on the mansion grounds, the numerous imperial residences in the custody of the State Police, Schaefer's $60,000-a-year executive bus and the big spending in Baltimore city on light rail and the new stadium.

In Western Maryland, the story was pretty much the same. Schaefer promised that impoverished outpost a designer golf course to improve the region's quality of life as well as its sinking economy. The voters gave the governor the back of their hand.

Now, in surveying the wreckage, Schaefer is bleating that the people to whom he pays big bucks failed to transmit the message of his munificence. And he's just as annoyed with reporters because he believes that the media should serve as an extension of his public relations apparatus.

But Schaefer has it all backwards. What he refuses to recognize is the painfully obvious: The message did get out and the voters rejected the message. And now, as is customary with elected officials, Schaefer is trying to shoot the messenger instead of fine-tuning the message.

Schaefer hasn't learned in four years as governor that the kind of theme-park politics he practiced in Baltimore doesn't work at the state level. Unlike the city, the state is not a homogeneous, self-contained unit with a single set of problems and tolerance for vaudevillian gimmicks and fun-house pranks.

To the contrary, the state is made up of five disparate geographic regions, each with its own problems and its home-grown quirks. One region's joy is another's psychiatrist's couch.

It's just as difficult to convince the Eastern Shore that Baltimore needs a new ball park as it is to persuade Southern Maryland that Western Maryland needs a fancy new golf course. (Even a lot of Baltimoreans aren't convinced the city needs a new ball park.)

Schaefer is a public works governor who might have been a builder if destiny hadn't steered him to law school. He learned from his hero, the late mayor Richard Daley at Chicago, to undertake projects that are visible and to claim credit for them with eye-popping signs. He carried over the object lesson from the city to the state -- only at the state level the signs worked against Schaefer instead of for him.

Along the Jones Falls Expressway there are signs alerting motorists that light rail is coming. In Camden Yards signs credit Schaefer for the new sports complex. Along Route 50, at Kent Narrows and at the Choptank River in Cambridge, the ever-present signs pay tribute to the governor. And the "Reach the Beach" program was like a visit to a good psychiatrist: It didn't get you there any faster, but it made you feel better.

Most Marylanders don't understand state spending. They can't distinguish among general funds, special funds, transportation funds, bond money and the other little puddles of money state been-counters keep track of. And therein lies a problem.

Many Marylanders believe, for example, that their income and sales tax dollars are being used to finance the new stadium and light rail projects at the expense of the homeless and the sick. They believe that glittery new bricks-and-motor projects are causing the deficit and may force layoffs of state workers. One public union official, who ought to know better, even suggested floating a bond issue to raise enough money to prevent layoffs. To the public, money is money, and that's that.

Maybe Schaefer should stop bellyaching and realize that if he wants to improve his standing with the voters, it's time to take down the signs and erase the reminders of his excesses.

The voters got the message, all right. And the reality that Schaefer can't come to grips with is that he was the message.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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