ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer left for Kuwait last night in a rotten frame of mind.
A poll released Tuesday night showed the governor's popularity has dropped to an all-time low and he showed little taste for bad reviews -- from the media or the general public.
Voter approval of the governor's job performance has fallen from a 68 percent favorable rating in January of last year to 35 percent last week, his lowest ever as governor, according to a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. of Columbia for WMAR-TV in Baltimore.
"If you look at that in just the last year he's gone from his zenith in popularity to his worst and the greatest drop has come in the last two months," said J. Bradford Coker, the polling firm's president. "The numbers are almost diametrically opposite from 14 months ago."
Mason-Dixon's statewide poll found that 62 percent judged Governor Schaefer's performance in office as unfavorable this month, with 32 percent describing it as "fair" and 30 percent as "poor."
The poll was based on a random sampling of 810 registered voters contacted by telephone over the weekend and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Mr. Coker said the governor's support for the $800 million Linowes tax restructuring package and media coverage of "style" problems such as the gaffe comparing the Eastern Shore to a "s----house" and his sarcastic notes to critics are to blame for the slump.
Last month, Governor Schaefer vowed to discontinue such poison pen letters but has shown little indication that he will stick to that promise.
A Perry Hall housewife said she received a "nasty" letter from the governor only yesterday. It arrived one week after Mr. Schaefer called her on the telephone to personally berate her for writing a critical letter to his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.
"I think basically, the governor was just blowing off a lot of steam," said Dianne Stenzel, 50, who was awakened at 10:30 p.m. March 6 by a gubernatorial call placed by a state trooper. "It's really a very, very sad situation when the head of our government is acting in this way. It's scary that he's in control."
In a follow-up letter to Mrs. Stenzel dated March 7, the governor wrote, in part: "I wonder what your real problem is? Most people who send that type of letter are subjects of deep frustration. We will help you if you care to let us. Incidentally, I paid for this stamp, the paper, the envelope and I mailed this letter myself."
Mrs. Stenzel said her initial letter addressed to Mrs. Snoops had questioned the wisdom of the expenditures on the Governor's Mansion. In his telephone response, the governor "screamed at me 'cheap shot, cheap shot' anytime I said anything back at him" and eventually slammed the phone down, she said.
Last Saturday, the governor visited the home of a Catonsville man who had mailed him copies of letters criticizing his performance in office.
Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment about the governor's correspondence with Mrs. Stenzel but admitted the governor is unhappy that he has been "made to look foolish for things he has done for 30 years."
The governor's "candor, his frankness and honesty are thing he's been admire for," Mr. Schurick said. "There was always a great admiration for that level of candor and concern and now he's been made to look foolish for it."
One possible measure of the governor's disdain came before a meeting of the state Board of Public Works yesterday when Governor Schaefer announced that he was "hurt" by accusations that his cuts in welfare programs are an attempt to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.
"If anyone is cognizant of the problems of the poor, it's me," Mr. Schaefer said. "It became necessary for us to make a very tough, very tough decision on the part of the governor. It is easy to stand on the side and to criticize and say, 'He doesn't have a heart. He doesn't care.' "
Governor Schaefer departed from Andrews Air Force Base last night for Bahrain, where he has been invited to accompany the emir of Kuwait on his return to his country and to celebrate Kuwait's liberation.
Aides are hoping the trip will help land business opportunities for Maryland firms, the Baltimore port and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Before leaving, the usually talkative governor spent the day avoiding reporters in the State House corridors. At one point, a female reporter, who later asked that her name not be used, said the governor put his hands on her waist and shoulder and moved her aside so that he could get onto an elevator and avoid her.
"OK, little girl, you go here. That's right," the reporter recalled the governor telling her.
Mr. Schaefer is scheduled to return to Maryland Sunday.