Schaefer, now 70, calms his famous temper

March 15, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Could it be? Has the man who put Baltimore on the map in his role as Mayor Annoyed become Governor Mellow?

Only a year ago, a supermarket tabloid looked at William Donald Schaefer's antics and dubbed Maryland's heart-on-his-sleeve chief executive "the wackiest governor in America."

He sent nasty letters to people who disagreed with him, showed up on one critic's doorstep, called the Eastern Shore an outhouse and pitched fits in front of state lawmakers when he didn't get his way.

But this year the governor is, well, less colorful. He's controlling his famous temper more, acting calmer and praising the people he used to consider The Enemy -- namely state legislators.

Sure, he slips up. He flew off the handle at a critic on his WBAL radio call-in show Thursday, but he tried hard to regain control.

"I'm not excited. . . . I'm fine," he reassured himself on the air.

"He has a totally different outlook on life," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who sometimes locks horns with the governor. "It's almost as if he's come to terms with himself."

Mr. Schaefer said his 70th birthday in November marked a turning point of sorts. He celebrated that milestone at the Camden Yards ballpark with scores of associates who served with him when he was mayor of Baltimore or governor. He couldn't have felt anything but good about himself, a close aide said.

It seems to show.

His public complaints no longer have their acid edge, and he even makes fun of himself now and then.

At a recent gathering for the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, the governor got a standing ovation. Hanging his head, he said jocularly, "Don't applaud too much. I'll think I'm not in Maryland."

Pause.

"I say that in jest."

Pause.

"Partially."

Henny Youngman he's not, but he's a far cry from the man who tracked down a critic last year so he could send her a letter calling her ugly.

In his office one day this month, with a fire crackling by his side, the governor relaxed in an overstuffed chair and read aloud from a letter from an infuriated constituent. Like a shotgun, her missive hit every gubernatorial sore spot.

She slammed spending on light rail and the new stadium, blamed Mr. Schaefer for the budget deficit, scoffed at his concern for the Eastern Shore, griped about his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, and even critiqued the governor's looks.

"You act like a red-faced, bald-headed, fat old man with grandiose ideas sitting in a board meeting," he read out loud. A bemused expression crossed his face as he tried hard not to take the bait.

"You act like a king . . ."

"You act like a king instead of a governor," he continued. He chuckled.

"Maybe a couple years ago I would have got offended," he said.

A couple years ago? Last year this would've made you furious, he is reminded.

The governor said he'd like to talk to the woman, but she flat-out told him not to visit her in the letter.

"I would've asked her, 'What's the real problem?' See, this lady is a very unhappy person," he explained. "She might have been hurt by a city agency, state agency or federal agency."

Although the governor doesn't know how he'll respond, it's clear he can't put the letter aside. He'd like to change the woman's mind about him.

Being liked is still important to Mr. Schaefer, even though he said he doesn't care if public opinion polls show he's not very popular these days.

The governor said he's recovered from the "devastating" 1990 general election and his despair at receiving "only" 59 percent of the vote.

"I won a big victory, but I didn't know it. I do know it now," he said. "At the time, I went from being an extremely popular governor to one who got 59 percent, and that destroyed me."

These days he is trying not to let the voters' discontent -- and an approval rate of less than 20 percent -- eat at him so much. He now sees himself as the flash point for people's frustration, just like President Bush on the federal level.

It doesn't hurt, too, that some folks are being nice to him again. "Every place I go, except for two counties, I am warmly received," he said. He wouldn't name the two wayward jurisdictions.

"I gauge it by going to McDonald's," he added.

McDonald's is his favorite fast-food restaurant, a place where he feels he can take Maryland's pulse.

His aides say the governor hasn't changed -- he's just revealing more of his personality than his angry side.

"He seems to have opened himself up more since his 70th birthday," said longtime aide Pamela J. Kelly.

The day before he turned 70, the son of William Henry and Tululu Irene Schaefer went to the stadium under construction at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

His staff had gathered scores of people who had served on cabinets and boards, or as department heads, during his tenure in City Hall and the State House.

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