The Return of william Donald Schaefer

BARRY RASCOVAR

January 24, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

When it was least expected, the Good Donald suddenly resurfaced in Annapolis.

Maryland once again has a governor who seems willing and eager to lead, to propose creative solutions to social problems, to deal with legislators as fellow public servants instead of as pariahs.

You could almost hear the sigh of relief from lawmakers.

After going mano a mano with the governor for three years during a turbulent time of giant budget cuts and tax increases, the last thing members of the General Assembly wanted was another war of words with Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Nor did legislative leaders look forward to an extended lame-duck tenure during which Mr. Schaefer might sulk and mope about while counting the days till he can leave Annapolis for good.

That hasn't happened yet, and the signs so far this year are that Mr. Schaefer has now committed himself to a continuing active role in the nearly two years remaining of his second and final term.

The governor's hour-long State of the State address generated not a single moment of applause -- an indication of the apprehension and suspicion many lawmakers still hold toward Mr. Schaefer.

But comments after the speech were either neutral or positive. He had struck the proper chords and had sounded the themes legislators wanted to hear.

Above all, he was upbeat and optimistic.

The worst of the economic hard times are over, he said. He ruled out grandiose new initiatives that would cost millions more in tax dollars.

Instead, the governor talked about creative approaches to chronic problems.

New ways to try to accomplish more than has been done so far: health programs available to young and old; crime-prevention innovations; using the National Guard as mentors for children; educating welfare recipients and prison inmates to birth-control options; exploring school choice options; getting old, polluting cars off the roads quickly; getting assault weapons out of the Maryland gun market.

These aren't costly proposals, but they certainly are thought-provoking. If the legislature embraces even a handful of these ideas, the governor will have hit a home run.

Of course, there will be rough spots. One big one has already surfaced.

The governor's budget, unveiled last week, shocked a number of key lawmakers by the size of the spending growth. There could well be substantial cuts by worried legislators, a move that could sour Mr. Schaefer's new rapport with lawmakers in a hurry.

At the same time, the governor's biggest ally in the legislature, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, has proposed sweeping mergers of government departments -- moves that Mr. Schaefer won't countenance. The governor may have to yield on some of them, though, if he wants to gain the speaker's support on other administration measures.

Mr. Schaefer may also have to use the power of his office to whip Washington-area legislators into line behind expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center. Construction programs, in particular, could provide the clout Mr. Schaefer needs.

Meanwhile, the governor last week took his first step to erase the bad feelings he created with Bill Clinton. He not only refused to back Mr. Clinton in last year's Democratic primary; later, he broke ranks with Democrats and loudly endorsed Republican George Bush in the general election.

Now, though, Mr. Schaefer is pledging all-out support for President Clinton. At a pre-inaugural dinner for governors, the two men shook hands. It was cool and formal. "You're going to find that over time I'll be one of your strongest supporters," he told Mr. Clinton.

All he got was a nod. Later, the president went out of his way to praise Mr. Schaefer's predecessor, Harry Hughes, a moment that must have irritated the incumbent governor no end.

Still, Mr. Schaefer's history is to pledge undying fealty to the current president, regardless of that president's party or ideology. So William Donald Schaefer, the Clinton-hater during the campaign, is now Schaefer the Clinton ultra-loyalist. He wants to kiss and make up.

That's the best approach for getting his way with the General Assembly, too. Don't hold grudges. Be creative and flexible in your thinking -- especially on budget matters. Seek consensus and a middle ground. Say only nice things about legislators. Help them on local issues, but demand a quid pro quo on your own bills.

Mr. Schaefer succeeded in his first term largely by taking this approach. He has lost the magic touch in recent years, though. Some of his early actions in the past few weeks indicate a return to his old strategy. That would be good news, indeed.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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