Schaefer: An Olive Branch with thorns

April 14, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

You can't blame General Assembly leaders for reacting cautiously when Gov. William Donald Schaefer extends an olive branch -- he always tries to jab them first with razor-edged thorns.

That's what happened at the traditional post-session bill signing ceremony last week. Yes, the goveror called for a peace pact to "put the past behind us." He conceded it had been a "tough session" (and a losing one for him) but "as of today, we move ahead" because "the ship of state must not flounder."

Of course, that was after he assailed legislators for having "dedicated themselves to embarrassing" his administration even though "they knew our initiatives were right." He warned "the wounds are fresh. The hurt is still there." So much for a concession speech.

Neither House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell nor Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller took Mr. Schaefer very seriously. They had heard the same rhetoric too often in previous months. As they have done repeatedly, the leaders said they wanted to work with the governor -- if only he'd oblige.

But Mr. Schaefer still thinks he can simply bark orders at the Assembly and get his way. This isn't the Army, and Mr. Schaefer isn't Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. The General Assembly has to be respected as a co-equal branch of government.

Just a few weeks ago, a similar episode occurred. At a Board of Public Works meeting, the governor called for an end to "this war between the governor and the legislature" because it "doesn't serve the state well. . . . It's time to stop."

The Schaefer cease-fire lasted a few hours. Then he issued press releases aimed at politically wounding Speaker Mitchell. The move backfired. Legislators supported the speaker and plotted revenge.

Mr. Schaefer, meanwhile, tried scare tactics: "People say the power of the governor is waning. I assure you that is an overstatement." The legislature should not "underestimate the power of the governor." Word filtered down that an unprecedented number of bills might be vetoed as part of this muscle-flexing.

It didn't work. Legislators quickly sent to the governor's desk 100 bills he had to sign or veto before lawmakers adjourned. The Assembly then could override any vetoes, effectively neutralizing the governor.

How did Mr. Schaefer take this defeat? Like an enraged bully. He stormed into Speaker Mitchell's office, slammed the door, stuck his nose in Mr. Mitchell's face, jabbed his finger nearly in the speaker's eye and started cursing and shouting, "You want war, you're going to get war." After a few minutes of this abusive behavior, the governor left, slamming the door in his wake.

No wonder Mr. Mitchell doesn't trust the latest Schaefer peace offer.

Perhaps Senate President Miller had the best idea. Mr. Schaefer should go "out and walk in the sunshine and get his spirits up."

It might help. The governor's staff already is planning a "meet the people" summer for Mr. Schaefer so he can re-charge his batteries. The Schaefer bus caravan will be active in the months ahead.

But that's only a morale-booster. It will not achieve the goal of Schaefer strategists: to reverse the governor's plummeting popularity by creating a groundswell of public support for administration programs that legislators cannot ignore.

Why won't such a strategy work? Because legislators no longer fear Donald Schaefer, especially after his performance this past session. He is a lame-duck governor who destroyed four years of legislative good will in a matter of months.

Nor do legislators fear Mr. Schaefer's political ire. He has no coattail power. He will not be on the 1994 ballot. His support might actually hurt legislators in many districts.

Besides, there might not be a bandwagon forming behind the Schaefer crusades. Legislators have grasped the public's sentiment on issues far better than the governor:

* An $800-million tax "reform"? No savvy legislator in his right mind would back such a plan after the tax-revolt message voters sent to politicians last fall.

* A five-cent increase in the gasoline tax? Legislators aren't about to irritate drivers already angered by last winter's price surges and a big jump in the federal gas tax.

* A program to funnel population growth into high-density areas in each county? That's the last thing folks want -- more government intervention in their personal lives.

Winning popular support isn't the answer. Mr. Schaefer's problem is a lack of rapport with members of the legislature. That is where he ought to spend his time. Not on the road like a perennial campaigner, but in the State House. He has a limited window of opportunity to find areas of mutual concern and let legislators and administrative aides reach a consensus.

That may not fit his "my way or the highway" philosophy, but Mr. Schaefer has little choice. If the governor refuses to work with the Assembly, legislators will strip him of even more prerogatives and start setting Maryland's agenda themselves -- whether he likes it or not.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

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