Wheel of Fortune Comes Around for Schaefer

BARRY RASCOVAR

December 22, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Was it an accident of timing that Gov. William Donald Schaefer's televised address to the citizens of Maryland followed on the heels of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy"? Or that one of the puzzles on the first show that night was "ringleader"?

If we learned anything from the governor's rambling, 15-minute talk last week, it was that Maryland needs its own wheel of fortune, that its finances are in jeopardy and that what this state needs -- and doesn't have -- is a ringleader with the courage to chart a new fiscal course for Maryland.

From a technical standpoint, the governor's performance was a flop. He was nervous. He looked pale and tired. He wore a horrendous tie. He stumbled through his disjointed remarks. He stared down at his notes and constantly mumbled "OK."

And those charts! What an abomination. No one at home could read the hand-written words and numbers without a magnifying glass. His public-relations gurus committed fundamental goofs that made the event -- and Mr. Schaefer -- look amateurish.

From a policy standpoint, the remarks lacked substance. There was nothing new, no plan to get out of this recession-induced crisis.

But from a psychological standpoint, the speech worked. It set ++ the right tone: Times are tough. But the state is in good shape compared with others. Revenues are way down. Recession-related expenses are way up. After cutting $1.1 billion from the budget, we're still $1.5 billion in the hole. This will force basic changes in government. We can do it, though, if we work together.

It was a typical Schaefer pep talk. He was upbeat, though the news is depressing. He asked people to buy more presents for Christmas to help the economy. He asked them to buy Maryland-made products. He asked people to serve as volunteers. He asked for new ideas to cut costs and improve efficiency. He asked citizens to "make a difference." He asked them to work together. He stressed that he sees this recession as an opportunity, not a burden.

This is the cheerleading Schaefer who used to reside at City Hall. The similarities are striking. When Don Schaefer took over as mayor in 1971, Baltimore was broke. Through sheer force of personality and his never-say-die spirit, Mayor Schaefer pulled the city up by its bootstraps, creating a new drive and vitality that stemmed from his "do it now" enthusiasm. It worked.

Now it is Maryland that is broke. And as Mr. Schaefer learned in Baltimore, when you don't have money to work with, you turn to volunteerism, you bolster people's spirits, you find innovative ways to create jobs and make government less costly. You turn public attention to your boosterism.

For most of his five years as governor, Donald Schaefer has been uncertain of his role. He was so often rebuffed by the legislature that he gave up trying to win lawmakers over to his way of thinking. His accomplishments (light rail, new stadium, higher education reform) have either been denounced as costly frills or sidetracked by the recession.

After the last regular General Assembly session, the governor once again sulked and bewailed his fate. His approaching 70th birthday and the illness of his long-time companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, sent him into depressing discussions of his own mortality. ("I'm history," he repeated to dozens of people.)

Yet in the last month, a new Don Schaefer has started to emerge. This was quite evident during the Board of Revenue Estimates meeting on Dec. 5. Despite the bad news of a deepening deficit, the governor remained positive. He virtually talked himself into a state of optimism:

"I'm not as gloomy as it sounds," he said. "I think we can do it; I know I can do it, running around the state with a little bit of optimism. I'm gonna smile today; it can't get much worse; we're at the bottom. I'm optimistic now for the first time. . . . I'm not down; for the first time I'm not down. I can do this. All it needs is confidence and credibility. I didn't cause the recession [but] we're gonna solve it."

Ever since then, Mr. Schaefer has been determined to fulfill this cheerleading role. That's why he wanted to explain to a statewide television audience Maryland's bleak fiscal predicament without any mention of the word "taxes."

He wisely chose to toss that unpopular issue back to state legislators and let them take the blame. He'll concentrate on preserving the basic elements of state government, accelerating the state's construction activities to spur the economy and downsizing government through creative means. And all the time he'll be demanding an upbeat attitude from his administration and prodding citizens to think positive.

It took a recession to do it, but Donald Schaefer has found his niche. Through 15 years as mayor of Baltimore, he was forced to make ends meet on an inadequate budget. He'll do it again as governor. And as he showed Tuesday night, he'll revel in the role of official cheerleader even in the face of adversity.

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

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