Schaefer the once and future mayor? The governor ought to think again

FRANK A. DEFILIPPO

February 13, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

WHOEVER goaded Gov. William Donald Schaefer into allowing his name to be wafted as a once-and-future candidate for mayor of Baltimore gave him bum advice.

Now the governor's caught between the devil and the deep: He's sinking like a rock in the polls, and any help he proffers Baltimore appears as if he's lining his own future at the expense of the state.

But then, Mr. Schaefer has a habit of jerking our chains, especially during the silly-season sessions of the General Assembly. Remember last year when he announced his candidacy for president? Pat Paulson he ain't.

Mr. Schaefer's latest Hardy Boys adventure in politics began with a matter-of-fact announcement on a radio talk show. His statement picked up speed the next day during a television taping when the governor said he was resentful of being called a lame duck. And finally, the skin was put on the bologna in a newspaper story.

Especially offensive to the governor was a Brookings Institute economist's statement imputing artificial courage to the governor. The only reason Mr. Schaefer was asking for $800 million in new taxes, the economist said, was that the Maryland Constitution prohibits him from running for a third term as governor.

Yet some of Mr. Schaefer's actions seem contradictory and actually reinforce his lame-duck status. For example, by submitting two budgets -- one contingent on tax increases, the other a bloodless "doomsday budget" -- he effectively surrendered a Maryland governor's most powerful weapon to the General Assembly: the executive budget.

Maryland has the strongest executive budget system of any state. It gives the governor almost sole discretion over what programs to fund and how much money to allocate. The state Constitution prohibits money programs from being petitioned to referendum, and the governor has a line-item veto. But by tossing the choices to the legislature, Mr. Schaefer all but removed himself from the budgeting process.

On another level, Mr. Schaefer chose not to use legislative reapportionment as the raw patronage tool it is, a system of rewards and punishments for lawmakers who've been naughty and nice. And his application of the 5,000 patronage jobs at the governor's disposal has had minimal political effect.

Mr. Schaefer departs the governor's office in January 1995 at the age of 74. There'll be nine months between then and the mayoral primary in September, leaving him without the perks and power of office. Mr. Schaefer has never run for higher office without being an incumbent in a stepping-stone lesser one -- City Council to City Council president to mayor to governor.

If Mr. Schaefer does return to Baltimore, he'll come back as badly damaged goods to a city whose character has changed dramatically since he left.

The governor's popularity has plunged like a crazy comet, as much for his idiosyncratic behavior as for his dysfunctional government. The backdraft that is sucking Mr. Schaefer down is the result of an accumulation of grievances. On the lecture circuit and on talk shows, there is still as much criticism of the celebrated fountain and the mansion embroglio as there is of his tax programs and spending habits.

And Baltimore itself has become poorer, grittier, blacker and more racially polarized than when he left in 1986. Among the reasons Mr. Schaefer abandoned the city and ran for governor was that he believed time was running out for white mayors of predominantly black cities. Another was that federal money had dried up, and Mr. Schaefer believed he could no longer continue the Tinker Toy building programs he favors.

Moreover, as a result of the 1990 elections, there is less regional cooperation among the city and surrounding counties and more antagonism from the white-bread counties surrounding the majority black city like a noose. And as political power shifts to the suburbs around the District of Columbia, there is diminishing electoral leverage in Baltimore to influence events in Annapolis and Washington.

The governor who succeeds Mr. Schaefer could be from the D.C. suburbs or, even more menacing, his own lieutenant governor, Melvin Steinberg, who's been locked out in the cold by his boss for disloyalty. Big boys don't get mad; they get even.

In politics, it's tough letting go of yesterday. Mr. Schaefer speaks nostalgically of his 16 years as a mayor-of-mayors, a job that kept him close to the people, in tune with the rhythm of the city.

He ate lunch at places like Beehive and Connolly's and chomped clamburgers every Saturday at the Broadway Market, all of which says more about the state of his stomach than the state of his state.

But now Mr. Schaefer should start listening to the voices of reason instead of the voices around him. It might be possible to go home again, but maybe not as mayor, even if the joke's on us.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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