Showdown with Landow leaves Schaefer wounded

November 08, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith

The public repudiation of Gov. William Donald Schaefer by his party and its defiant state chairman may signal the end of the long era of Maryland politics dominated by Mr. Schaefer.

Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow said no to the governor's resignation demand and made it stick on Wednesday night, when the party's executive committee voted 23-16 to sustain Mr. Landow.

Mr. Landow's ability to raise money is valued by those who

would succeed in power after Mr. Schaefer is gone. And the governor, no cultivator of party loyalty, had few steadfast friends when the showdown came.

The governor said he was moving to dismiss the chairman in response to party regulars -- members of the state's congressional delegation, Democratic National Committee members and others who said Mr. Landow's style was overbearing and divisive.

Mr. Schaefer also was miffed at what had appeared to be public criticism from Mr. Landow during the recent congressional redistricting struggle -- when Mr. Schaefer sought to help Republican Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, at the expense of Democratic Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th.

Whatever the origins of the spat and despite the governor's objective of party unity, the party could be the big loser.

In the 1990 election, Republicans won three major county executive seats as the Democrats' once commanding margin in registered voters continued to erode as more and more Marylanders register with the GOP.

"For a party that's being challenged very strongly in Maryland now is the time to circle the wagons -- not to split apart," said state Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's.

But it was a very different image cast by the governor and the party chief as they grappled for control. "We had two kids in a sandbox throwing toys at each other. It's absolutely horrible for the party," said a reluctant Landow supporter who asked not to be identified.

Baltimore Central Committee member Michelle Rosenberg said that Mr. Landow's style of leadership is demoralizing -- because most of the important decisions on such matters as redistricting have been made in advance without her involvement.

"I feel like its a waste of time for me to go to meetings anymore," she said.

And while a group of party members who share her views attempted to unseat the chairman, Mr. Landow prevailed with the assistance of party leaders such as Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a man who would be governor in 1992.

Mr. Steinberg's once-close relationship with Mr. Schaefer has deteriorated so far that he risked almost nothing in siding with the party chairman.

The chairman also had the assistance of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, and Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, two influential men in Annapolis with ambitions of their own. Both have had celebrated differences with Mr. Schaefer -- and may have relished the encounter.

Mr. Steinberg blandly insists he was making a witness for th value of dissent within the party, and rejected the idea that Mr. Landow's ability to raise large sums of money had anything to do with his decision.

And indeed, Mr. Schaefer's failure may be rooted largely in hi own political style. He has been strong enough politically that cultivating pure party support has never been important. He has seldom been engaged in the kind of gloves-off battle Mr. Landow was willing to wage against him.

"What happens when you get these semi-independent elected officials," says Brian A. Lunde, a Democratic campaign consultant and former national party executive director, "is they get halfway in and halfway out of these battles. The only way they can prevail is in with both feet."

Mr. Landow spoke yesterday with the cheerful assurance of the victor, describing his collision with the man who appointed him as if it had not been that way at all. He insisted again that Mr. Schaefer had never really asked him to resign -- though a letter signed by the governor was distributed to party members before the vote.

When he met with the governor yesterday in Baltimore, he said, he gave Mr. Schaefer an opportunity to raise the resignation question face-to-face. "I asked him if that was something he wanted to see happen. He said, 'Absolutely not. I don't even want to discuss it.' "

Page Boinest, a press aide to the governor, said Mr. Schaefer would have no comment on the meeting.

"The governor and I had a good meeting," Mr. Landow said. "This was the first meeting we've had since the disconcerting issue was raised. The governor reconfirmed his commitment to rebuilding a strong and viable party in Maryland. He believes in what the Democratic Party leaders have accomplished and wants us to continue on the course we've been on," Mr. Landow said.

?3 "I left him with a smile on his face," he said.

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