Economy could speed Schaefer from rubber duck to lame duck --but he still has weapons

January 13, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis--HAVING RIDDEN A rubber ducky to the Maryland State House, William Donald Schaefer begins his second term as governor this Wednesday with the worry that he will instantly become a canard of another sort.


As mayor of Baltimore, Mr. Schaefer appeared in a striped bathing suit (the famous duck under his arm) to help inaugurate the National Aquarium. A photograph of that moment provided a lasting image of his many successes in the city. Those were, in a sense, the best of times. A similarly arresting image -- and a clear legacy -- have yet to be projected in Annapolis.

And now, recession could short-circuit his many ambitious state-level projects. His re-election victory margin last November did not give him a popular mandate with which to enforce his ideas (which might require tax increases) on reluctant legislators. His relationship with General Assembly leaders remains abysmal -- sometimes, apparently, because he wishes it to be so.

"He could be the lamest duck we've ever had," lamented a Democratic Party official from Baltimore who sees Mr. Schaefer as the last best hope for a city in social and economic crisis.

Others who have served under many governors in Annapolis suggest Mr. Schaefer can sustain himself if only he does not squander the power inherent in his office.

"Power is as power does," says state Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery.

Technically, lame ducks may be found only between the election of a successor and the day the incumbent walks away. Since the term was invented, however, it has been used increasingly to describe the fragile power of an incumbent embarking on his last term in office.

Mr. Schaefer does that Wednesday when he takes the oath of office for the second time. Even if he wanted to run Maryland for a third quadrennium -- and many doubt he would -- he is prevented from doing so by the state constitution which limits governors to two terms.

But other factors could erode Mr. Schaefer's position as chief executive: his own personality, for example.

He has chosen to remind Marylanders constantly since last November's general election that he won with only 59 percent of the vote, down from 82 percent in 1986.

He tried to buy the relatively legitimate story of his own spin doctors -- that 59 percent was a landslide under the anti-incumbent circumstances -- but he seems to have failed. The result is a long-running "funk" which may be affecting the way he sees a number of problems now facing the state.

Moreover, the governor mentally may have turned his 1990 victory into a defeat. Having been accused of arrogance by many voters, he chose after the election to conclude that they simply did not realize all he had done for them.

His staff has said he worries that the social contract in American life is disintegrating, that Americans are forgetting their obligation to others less fortunate.

In recent weeks, he has suggested that laying off 1,800 state workers is the only way to solve a severe budget problem. That approach was subsequently set aside when legislators opposed And the legislators thought Mr. Schaefer had chosen layoffs as a spiteful way of responding to the message of the voters: you want leaner government, in other words, take a look at the human costs.

Even the smallest gestures find Mr. Schaefer almost deliberately unbending.

When the General Assembly convened last Wednesday -- when good will opportunities were as prevalent as lobbyists -- Mr. Schaefer availed himself of few. He did agree to attend a reception given by Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee.

There is no more important committee from the executive's perspective. If Mr. Schaefer intends to submit any part of the controversial Linowes commission plan for a revamped tax structure which would produce $800 million in new revenue, he needs friends on what is known as "B and T." During the recent election he made efforts to show committee members he supported them.

Since the governor and Mr. Levitan have squabbled to the point of nastiness over various fiscal matters, a social meeting between the two might have held some promise for conciliation. Mr. Schaefer stayed for something like a minute last week -- as if he did not have time for the trivialities of cocktail time. Such events are noticed -- with some consternation.

"The legislature is willing to work with the governor on the important issues -- the budget, the environment, education -- but the process requires compromise," says Delegate Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore.

With all his problems, however, the governor has a lot of weapons.

Exhibit A in this arsenal is redistricting. Traditionally, a governor could influence the vote of a legislator by virtue of the governor's control of the process by which district lines are drawn. Lines that protect a senator's base of support are political lifelines. Mr. Schaefer will control the drawing of these lines.

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