The benevolent dicator of Maryland

Xavier L. Suarez

March 26, 1991|By Xavier L. Suarez

IN HIS book about Miami, T. D. Allman refers to a Baltimore politician who was my idol as I tried -- for the fourth time -- to win election to municipal office.

It was 1985. Esquire had just done its cover story on the nation's greatest mayors, selecting Schaefer as the best by a long shot. The article described in vivid, anecdotal detail the ingenuity of the man who in 15 years changed Baltimore from the butt of jokes to a progressive metropolis with a thriving downtown. By all estimates, William Donald Schaefer was the "savior of Baltimore."

As it happened, Schaefer read of my admiration in Allman's book and wrote to thank me.

His letter, written on stationery of the state of Maryland which he now governed, arrived at a most propitious time: I was just announcing my re-election plans, coupled with a campaign to oust a fellow commissioner who was threatening to send Miami to the dark ages of intolerance and empty jingoism. Without knowing it, Schaefer had inspired me at a difficult juncture of my tenure as mayor.

Which made doubly interesting my trip to Kuwait in the first "freedom flight" after the war. Chartered and organized by Ambassador Saud Nasir Al-Sabah, this flight assembled such notables as Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, Alexander Haig, Andrew Young, Frank Carlucci, Richard Allen and a slew of congressmen and C.E.O.s of major American companies. Only one mayor and one governor were invited. They sat us together, assuring thereby a stream of communication that lasted, in airplane time alone, some 34 hours!

I thus got to observe closely this most unusual of American politicians.

Schaefer today, as governor of Maryland, is not what you call

5/8

5/8 TC happy camper. He has constant battles with his legislature, which doesn't recognize his leadership, and with constituents, who seem to have forgotten what he did for their most populous, diverse and troubled metropolis.

Schaefer's problems with the legislature are puzzling. He is not a contrary fellow. He is the antithesis of arrogance, with his folksy ways and plain looks. He doesn't even talk like a governor -- in three days of constant company I never once heard him utter a large or convoluted word.

In all probability, what ails him is his ingrained habit of legislating and executing in one motion, something he could do as mayor but cannot approach as governor. He is the kind of politician on whom all theories of checks and balances fail miserably. His judgment is so often right, so creative and so unaffected by personal or electoral motives that it is best applied unilaterally.

The other problem is that Schaefer cannot properly rule an entire state. Just like enterprises have an ideal size for maximum efficiency, Schaefer's governance has an ideal size -- the metropolis.

When somebody writes him a nasty letter, he visits the critic. No one can do that in a jurisdiction of over five million potential critics. At the state level, improvements are harder to measure. The economy is less dependent on big projects and tax revenues fluctuate with the economy. The only direct way to increase revenues is to increase taxes, which never was popular but these days is deadly.

And so this eminently common-sensical man struggles along frustrated by the very business in which he would otherwise excel. With all the qualities of a benevolent dictator, he is not able to give his subjects bread and unwilling to give them circuses. Because he won't distract them with smoke and mirrors, he calls attention to the real problems and ends up being identified with and blamed for them.

Perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay to a politician is that his qualities make one desire to change the entire system so that those qualities can have full rein, as people wanted to do with F.D.R. by allowing him two more terms as president.

So it is with Schaefer. He makes us want to adjust the system to make use of his talent, even though we know after he's gone, we'll have to change it right back. If I were a Marylander, though, it wouldn't bother me a bit to try.

Xavier L. Suarez is mayor of Miami, Fla.

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