For William Donald Schaefer, It Was a Very Bad Year

BARRY RASCOVAR

January 05, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

No Marylander was happier to see 1991 fade into history last week than Gov. William Donald Schaefer. No one. It was a nightmarish year for the governor, a year in which nothing went right and nearly all his dreams as chief executive were shattered.

It should have been the best of times. Mr. Schaefer was, after all, reelected in a landslide in November 1990 for a second four-year term. He planned to launch three sweeping initiatives that would stand as his crowning achievement. His ambitious plans for Maryland looked like they were about to take flight.

But it never happened.

First, Mr. Schaefer, to the surprise of his political friends and allies, went into a deep depression after the election. He was distraught that he had won only 59 percent of the general election vote. Others reminded him that experts view such a winning margin as a landslide, but he would have none of it. He complained about the 41 percent who hadn't voted for him.

Before he could emerge from his depression, the recession hit Maryland. The year was to be filled with growing budget deficits that necessitated major cuts in state programs. Eventually, local aid had to be slashed, too. A black cloud enveloped the State House and stayed there the entire year.

None of Mr. Schaefer's Big Three initiatives passed muster. His tax-reform plan, derived from the Linowes commission study, ran into such staunch opposition it never was even considered by lawmakers. His growth-control plan, derived from the Barnes commission "2020" study, met such vehement resistance from local officials that it, too, was lost. And a plan for a hefty rise in the gasoline tax foundered amid cries of "no more taxes."

That left the governor without money to improve education, to help poor subdivisions or to upgrade roads and mass-transit systems. It also left him with no plan to save the state from hodge-podge overdevelopment in the years ahead.

Compounding the Schaefer problem was the governor's penchant for venting his anger at critics.

When one individual made a gesture at him on a street corner, the governor had state troopers note her car tags and then wrote her a nasty note, proclaiming, "Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face."

He fired back at another critic with a memo that called him "a frustrated little boy."

To those who staged an anti-Schaefer rally in front of the Governor's Mansion, Mr. Schaefer sent Christmas photographs of the protesters at the rally, all the while denying these were State Police photos. Cries of police-state intimidation were heard.

But his worst gaffe was one he claims was meant as a joke.

As he walked down the aisle of the House of Delegates to deliver his annual state of the state address, the governor stopped to shake the hand of an old friend from the Eastern Shore and said, "How's that s---house of an Eastern Shore?"

The delegate took it for an off-color bit of Scheaferesque humor; residents of the Shore viewed it otherwise. They went bonkers. They are still hopping mad.

For all this, Mr. Schaefer earned a headline in a national gossip tabloid as the nation's wackiest governor. It helped send Mr. Schaefer's popularity into a steep tailspin. It remains at embarrassingly low levels: a recent poll showed Mr. Schaefer with an astounding negative rating of 70 percent.

The governor's sensitivity to criticism, his unwillingess to

compromise on issues and his resistance to sharing power with state legislators exacerbated his problems. Now he has minimal influence in the General Assembly. What was supposed to be his greatest vehicle for creating a pro-Schaefer majority, legislative redistricting, has turned out to be totally useless for that purpose. He has frittered away much of his gubernatorial power.

Added to these woes was the governor's distress over the long illness of his close companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, which turned the Governor's Mansion into a state-financed nursing home, with state troopers acting as nurses' aides.

And now, as Mr. Schaefer looks ahead to the New Year that has just begun, the outlook is far from bright. The General Assembly returns to Annapolis on Wednesday, an event that must make the governor cringe. His difficulty in running the state -- and his emotional frame of mind -- worsens when the House and Senate are in session.

But perhaps his most troubling enemy this year is the state's huge budget shortfall. It will force him later this month to present a fiscal plan that guts state government agencies. He will have to decimate most of the programs he helped put in place over the past five years. With legislators still apparently unwilling to raise taxes, the Draconian cuts in state agencies could prove fearful, especially for a governor who wears his heart on his sleeve.

Presiding over the dismantling of state social programs won't be easy for Mr. Schaefer, who ardently believes in the goodness that can flow from the activities of government. He'll be the one pulling the plug on "people programs" and he'll be the one blamed for hurting people in need of help.

But he has little choice, given the "no more taxes" climate and the state's deep deficit. It's a heck of a way to start 1992. Still, this year just couldn't be as bad for Mr. Schaefer as 1991. Or could it?

Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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