In Annapolis, Schaefer plays all the angles

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 17, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- When he'd finally run out of words, or breath, the governor of Maryland did not wait for applause. He finished his State of the State speech Thursday and closed his notebook and walked quickly away from the speaker's platform, as though not to take up any more of anybody's time.

He was up there for about an hour. He knew a lot of people in the room didn't like him, but he was nice to them anyway. He knew his state was in trouble, but he delivered a pep talk anyway. He tried being funny and charming, and the gathered legislators neither laughed very much nor interrupted him with applause at all, but he'd plugged on anyway.

He said 1992 was the toughest year he'd ever had, but claimed there was a new optimism in the land -- based, in part, on the election of Bill Clinton. Some gagged over the governor's nerve. This was the man who'd bolted his party to back George Bush in the dying hours of a decayed Republican presidential campaign.

But it was quintessential William Donald Schaefer: In Bush, he'd sensed a man with his very own problems, a man whose selfless work through all the tough years had somehow gone unappreciated. In Clinton, he could magnanimously ask for good will -- and hope people would extend some of it his way as well.

This was Schaefer, in the dying years of his political career, trying to dig in one more time. Trying to rally the troops. Flattering them, schmoozing with them. Even the ones like Mike Miller, who bad-mouth him openly. Even the Eastern Shore types, who sustain their careers by sneering at him.

He tried to brush off the old bitterness. Vindictive retribution, he called it. Gotta get past it, he said. Seated directly in front of the governor, the ostracized Mickey Steinberg kept his head down and tried to swallow his anger.

Then Schaefer mentioned state employees. Said everybody knew how warmly he felt toward them. And the state union guys like Bill Bolander and Mike McCusker heard this and blinked their eyes, remembering Schaefer's lengthening state employees' workweeks and remembering the furloughs and the pay cuts.

And still the governor plugged on, ignoring the silence in the room, knowing he was talking too long, even pausing once to admit it and to tell everybody in the big hall that it didn't matter, that there was too much important stuff to cover.

Sensitive stuff, too. This is a man more comfortable with &L potholes than with passion, and yet here it was: He was talking about vasectomies, about Norplant, about the need for birth control because the state can't keep supporting unwanted people.

This kind of talk has always made Schaefer queasy. Two years ago, he sat out the legislature's abortion fight until the end because he felt himself out of his element. This family-planning business simply wasn't in his experience, and he wanted no part of it.

But now, for long minutes, Schaefer was telling everybody how state-supported birth control measures were the only way out of this quagmire of abused kids, of families on welfare, of mean, tough kids turning into violent adults who are costing us a fortune to hold them inside prisons.

And the ones like Barbara Hoffman, who'd helped lead the senate fight for abortion rights, sat there now, and she could not believe her ears. This Schaefer, she said later, he always does what you don't expect.

She liked the fact that he was extending himself. They all knew it, of course, the whole bunch who'd watch him turn angry and alone the last couple of years, the ones who assumed he'd now be going through the motions the rest of his days in office.

He'd thrown them another curve, and now they had to figure what to do with it.

The union guys, Bolander and McCusker, said he'd made them feel a little better. Mickey Steinberg said he'd thrown too much at them, it was too big a laundry list, and anyway those references to old bitterness weren't about him and the governor -- they were about Baltimore City and Montgomery County fighting over money.

But Mike Miller, the senate president, bent a little. When somebody asked him about Schaefer's popularity, Miller said, "Popular isn't necessarily good, and good isn't necessarily popular. A good governor sometimes has to do unpopular things."

Fair enough. And then there was Julian Lapides, the free-spirit senator, exiting the big hall when Schaefer had finished, and saying this:

"He's sincere, he's a caring man. I'm not sure what he wants, but he's caring. Everybody understands that. The problem is, he's unforgiving if you disagree with him."

People in Annapolis have memories, and now we can watch what they do with them.

The governor offered some of them an olive branch last week, and he tried to coax them into action. Then he walked away without listening for their response, knowing it will come soon enough, over the next 12 weeks.

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