Wearing his woes on his sleeve Unspoken question seems to haunt troubled governor.

March 04, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff Melody Simmons contributed to this story.

At a recent ceremony, Gov. William Donald Schaefer told his troubles to an unlikely group of confidantes -- men wearing the felt hats of their charitable organizations, young beauty queens in satiny dresses and children promoting dental health.

Such ceremonies, where the governor hands out proclamations recognizing Marylanders for their accomplishments, generally do not focus on affairs of state. This time, however, Schaefer couldn't help but mention his troubles.

The newspapers were out to get him, he told his guests. People had accused him of wasting tax dollars -- even blamed him for the state budget deficit, he said.

Although his monologue elicited laughter, an unspoken question seemed to haunt the governor: Why are people treating me this way?

Schaefer's frustration, which has been growing for months, has exploded into rage recently. He abruptly left his office in Annapolis last Thursday and stormed across the street to pitch a fit -- complete with vulgar language -- in front of the stunned chairman of a subcommittee that had just approved a minor cut in Schaefer's budget.

"It was the most emotional I've ever seen him," one witness said.

At the Governor's Mansion the next day, Schaefer scolded General Assembly leaders at an uncomfortable breakfast meeting.

Hostility between Schaefer and legislative leaders is nothing new, but some lawmakers are questioning the governor's stability and wondering how he will react to additional setbacks during his second term.

Already, as the General Assembly passes the midpoint of its 90-day session, legislators have given the cold shoulder to Schaefer's most ambitious initiatives of 1991: a major overhaul of Maryland's tax system and a growth-management plan designed protect Chesapeake Bay. Both are doomed for this year, top lawmakers have told Schaefer.

These setbacks come on top of others that frustrated Schaefer last fall, when he found himself faced with something unexpected -- markedly sagging revenues -- and something new -- a decline in his popularity.

"Four years ago, it was in vogue to be a big-time Schaefer supporter, and now it's in vogue to be a Schaefer basher," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-W. Md. "Neither of those swings is healthy."

Schaefer, who gained national acclaim while mayor of Baltimore, seems uncertain at this turn of events. The recession especially frustrates a governor who lacks the money to "Do It Now," as his slogan promises.

A usually decisive man, he has flip-flopped on many budget decisions recently. A man given to quirky publicity stunts, he has been surprised to find his idiosyncrasies -- angry letters to citizens and a recent "joke" about the Eastern Shore -- met by anger rather than bemusement.

"There are a lot of people who are starting to question whether the governor is stable and able," one influential legislator said. "It's a disturbing question."

A loyal supporter, however, sees the governor's actions as those of a man redefining his role and himself, perhaps a bit more publicly than his friends would like.

On the domestic front, Schaefer's longtime companion and official state hostess, Hilda Mae Snoops, appears to be sharing his frustration. Last week she announced her intention of unloading the costly furnishings she had selected for the Governor's Mansion because, she said, legislators just don't appreciate them, or her.

In the midst of it all, the governor, who cannot by law serve a third term, announced his desire to run for president. He has reiterated that ambition -- at times coyly -- but many doubt his seriousness.

Still, the workaholic governor, who has spent 35 years in public office, seems anxious to dispel any notion that he will fade into private life in 1995 when his second term ends.

"I'm not going to retire," he said last week at a breakfast with educators and business executives in Towson. "I'm going to run for president. No Democrat will run, so I'm going to run. I'm not going to win, but I'm going to run."

There was guarded laughter in the room.


Asked to pinpoint when Schaefer's current mood took root, many observers select the election last November. Schaefer's belief that he fell short of a mandate -- he received about 60 percent of the statewide vote, down from the unprecedented 82 percent he won in 1986 -- rattles a man accustomed to accolades.

"He considers his margin of victory a defeat, so consequently he felt his work over the past four years has not been fully accepted by the majority of Marylanders," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

Although always a mercurial man, the governor's post-election mood revealed a greater "depth to his turmoil than in the past," another legislator said.

Schaefer complained of being misunderstood by the citizens he worked so hard to help. Although he could have chalked up the election to the anti-incumbency mood of the citizenry, he took his loss in several counties personally.

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