For Schaefer, Cooke, battle is over legacy

December 11, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Football is not the issue, at least not the central one.

Nor is it business, politics or regionalism.

The issue is legacy. The issue is how two aging warriors may one day be remembered.

How else to explain the rush that millionaire Jack Kent Cooke is in to buy land around Laurel for a stadium for his team, the Washington Redskins?

Or to explain William Donald Schaefer's determination to stop him?

Maryland's lame-duck governor clings to the fleeting dream he may someday bring a National Football League team back to Baltimore to replace the beloved Colts.

For the 72-year-old Mr. Schaefer, it has been a personal crusade since the snowy night nine years ago the Colts rolled out of Baltimore in a grim parade of Mayflower moving vans.

Few appreciate the durability of bricks-and-mortar monuments the way William Donald Schaefer does. He has made a career building them. And he does not want this next one -- perhaps his last one -- to have Jack Kent Cooke's name on it.

This is an issue that can bring the governor to tears. "Time is not on our side," he has said so many times, although his maxim has never been more obviously true.

He is beginning his final year as governor and perhaps his last in elective office. He knows it is his last chance at vindication, and he senses it slipping away. He believed he was close, so close to winning an expansion franchise for Baltimore, yet he has nothing to show for it.

But time is passing for Mr. Cooke as well.

Now 81, the Redskins owner has been waiting for the District of Columbia to get its act together on a stadium proposal for at least five years. He is so eager to get the project going he is willing to throw in at least $160 million of his own money.

Mr. Cooke has a son, and a grandson, and he says he wants to pass his legacy along to them.

Mr. Schaefer doesn't have such heirs, only a city he loves and which long loved him.

"You might wonder, 'Why, why am I so insistent on Baltimore?'" he mused yesterday, but never really answered his own question other than to say, "We were charged with getting a franchise for the city of Baltimore." What he didn't say was that it was he who charged himself with that responsibility.

Mr. Cooke, the governor complained, just came into Maryland without asking him, without so much as a 'Mother may I?' He just came in!

But Mr. Schaefer made it clear he is not about to give up.

"I will continue my effort until the end when there's no further chance for a franchise going to the city of Baltimore before I will talk about any place else," he said.

The governor's gamble, of course, is that he may end up with nothing. He may be able to stop the Redskins from moving to Laurel, but he may not persuade an NFL team to move to Baltimore.

Then what will have been accomplished? What legacy will he have left?

There was once such symmetry to his quest. In his first year as governor, he kept the Orioles from leaving town by persuading the General Assembly to build a stadium and then by persuading the team to sign a long-term lease to play in it.

Now, in his last term, he was going to complete the task by building the twin facility at Camden Yards and restore professional football to its rightful place in Baltimore. Hurrahs all around.

But like so much else in his star-crossed second term, things have not worked out that way. A different kind of symmetry has emerged.

In 1984, then-Mayor Schaefer teamed with state Economic Development Secretary Frank J. De Francis in a determined but ultimately futile effort to keep Colts owner Robert Irsay from moving the team to Indianapolis.

In 1993, it is Joe De Francis, the late secretary's son, who has moved center stage. But Mr. De Francis the younger is not helping Mr. Schaefer's cause. Instead, it is he who is trying to sell Mr. Cooke the land on which the new Redskins stadium would be built.

Other political seeds Mr. Schaefer has sown over the years also have sprouted in ways he never dreamed.

His bitter estrangement from two-time running mate Melvin A. Steinberg, for example, is being repaid by Mr. Steinberg's backing of a Redskins move. Mr. Steinberg was "like a brother" with the elder Mr. De Francis and says he considers his son like one of his own.

Sticking it to Mr. Schaefer right where it hurts the most, Mr. Steinberg -- who is now a candidate himself for governor -- says: There is no chance Baltimore will get a team and Mr. Schaefer should admit it. If he really has another team on the hook, now is the time "to flush it out."

But the lieutenant governor -- and others -- say they believe the long-awaited Baltimore team now is little more than a fiction lingering in Mr. Schaefer's mind.

Mr. Schaefer surely squirmed at the sight of another longtime political nemesis, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., cozying up to Mr. Cooke, becoming one of the first Maryland officials to embrace the Laurel Redskins.

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