Schaefer's initiatives and image fall on hard times

March 17, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Three years ago, when William Donald Schaefer was at the height of his gubernatorial stature, he provided key support for a bill to ban cheap, easily concealed handguns.

That victory, and his subsequent triumph over the National Rifle Association's attempt to overturn the law through referendum, brought Mr. Schaefer national attention and did much to enhance his image as a powerful leader in Annapolis.

Fast forward to nine days ago, when Mr. Schaefer placed a call to a committee chairman to hold off a vote on his latest gun-control efforts for at least a day.

Though the proposals to ban semiautomatic assault weapons and require guns to be locked away from children were less groundbreaking than the Saturday Night Special law of 1988, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, refused the governor's request. The committee voted down both bills.

It has been that kind of a year for Maryland's chief executive.

Irrational and angry responses to criticism have lost Mr. Schaefer much of the respect he once enjoyed. As a result, his popularity among voters has taken a plunge -- and what he is trying to accomplish legislatively this year has seemed to fall along with it.

Accounts of the governor's behavior -- venomous letters, angry telephone calls and confrontations with constituents, his off-hand comment about the Eastern Shore being a "s---house" and other eccentricities -- have dominated the 1991 General Assembly session.

"I think four years ago some legislators were too anxious to go with him. Now we have some legislators who can't wait to kill his bills regardless of their merits," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington. "The personal strife has taken a toll on people."

In the intervening eight days since the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee's action, the corridors of the State House have become strewn with the wreckage of Schaefer programs.

Included in the carnage are the administration's most ambitiousproposals: the $800 million Linowes tax-restructuring plan and the statewide curbs on development proposed by the 2020 commission. The remaining blockbuster, the 5 percent sales tax on gasoline, is expected to be tossed onto the heap shortly.

"To some degree, the governor's actions have been self-destructive," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "It started last November when he declared defeat in the midst of a big 60-40 [percent re-election] victory because he wasn't as popular as he used to be as mayor of Baltimore, and it's carried over to some extent this session."

A poll released last week showed the governor at the lowest job performance rating of his career. Mr. Schaefer demonstrated his characteristic disdain for those results, refusing all interviews with the news media before departing on a four-day trip to Kuwait last Wednesday.

While Mr. Schaefer has long been admired as a common-man politician who speaks his mind, the poll demonstrated that voters are unimpressed by his recent exploits. They have included calling a Perry Hall housewife at 10:30 at night and showing up unannounced at the doorstep of a Catonsville man, both times to angrily complain about letters that found fault with his policies.

"It used to be, sure, he picked on us all the time, but now he is beginning to pick on the constituency," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent. "Once you lose the constituency out there and they begin to wonder about your leadership, confidence really erodes."

Nevertheless, legislators insist that their decisions to take the Linowes tax plan and the 2020 growth bill to summer study were inevitable and were unrelated to the governor's problems.

Both were ambitious proposals, only recently conceived, that faced vigorous opposition and looked even less inviting in the middle of an economic recession. Along with the gas tax, which faced a seemingly insurmountable opponent in House Speaker Mitchell, the legislation clearly was up against long odds from the very beginning.

"No matter what level of gubernatorial behavior, I think the results would have been the same," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's. "The governor comes up with three mammoth pieces of legislation, none of which he espouses until after the polls closed on Election Day, and then they're surprised these things don't slide through the legislature."

Yet, of the remaining 29 bills touted as administration initiatives this session, Schaefer aides admit that at least seven are in trouble as the session winds down to its final three weeks. During Mr. Schaefer's first four years in office, the legislature rarely rejected any of his major proposals.

Another key difference this year may be the slowly dissolving partnership between the governor and Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg. In previous years, Mr. Schaefer gave Mr. Steinberg the responsibility of shepherding administration bills through the General Assembly.

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