William Donald Schaefer: an evaluation

January 18, 1995|By George H. Callcott

EVERYONE MUST be agreed by now about the character of the long-time mayor and governor: obsessively in control, volatile, lacking class but making up for it with smarts and success. He is hard-edged, anti-intellectual, petulant and a little mean. He is the ultimate pragmatist, without a hint of ideology, only what works.

He ran his bureaucracy like a czar, with department heads who cringed and carried out his wishes to the letter. The result was uncreative but highly efficient management. He attempted to run the City Council and the General Assembly in the same way, and when they rebelled he threatened and raved. Most of the time his style with the legislators worked and he obtained what he wanted, and when his power waned over time the legislature nearly gridlocked. He was still less effective in dealing with the press and public opinion. Like the Russian czars: good administration, mostly good legislation, bad public relations.

First of all, of course, he was mayor of Baltimore -- for 15 years from 1971 to 1986 -- and people liked to say that even as governor he was mayor of Baltimore for the past eight years. He was one of the most famous mayors in America, the symbol of urban renewal, properly on the cover of Time.

The city's urban renewal began in the 1950s and bogged down under the direction of powerful and philanthropic businessmen such as James Rouse, Robert Embry and Walter Sondheim. They moved the city's decaying food warehouse and shipping terminals to the suburbs, and they bought 12 decaying downtown blocks which they rebuilt as Charles Center, with office buildings and large plazas. The office towers sparkled, but they were empty at night, and since they were mostly government offices, the city's tax base only declined. By 1971 urban renewal in Baltimore seemed over.

Then came William Donald Schaefer, roaring like a lion, to personalize the movement that had failed, and he promised success by multiplying it tenfold. He launched the Inner Harbor Project, many times the size of Charles Center, and focused on attracting tourists. Using government and private funds, he built a National Aquarium, a Maryland Science Center, a Convention Center, luxury hotels, and two glittering malls. The neighborhoods lagged or lost business to the harbor, but Mr. Schaefer obtained what federal money he could for housing improvement loans and neighborhood pride projects. Most of all he was a cheerleader for the city, persuading people that the urban renaissance had arrived.

Statistically he was wrong. Neither the decline nor the rate of decline slowed -- from 950,000 people in Baltimore in 1950 to 905,000 in 1970, to 736,000 in 1990. The decline in wealth was far more precipitous -- from 53 percent of the state's total property assessment in 1950 to 7.6 percent in 1994.

All the industrial cities were declining, however, and who was to say that people should live crowded in the city when they could live better in the suburbs. Mr. Schaefer failed only in claiming that renaissance would halt decline. Where he succeeded was in giving purpose to the city as a center of conventions, tourism, culture, finances and services.

The costs and benefits of urban rebuilding are still too difficult to calculate, but future historians will hardly fault the urban boosters for their zeal. Cities, if they are safe and beautiful, are worth a subsidy.

Being mayor, however, was only a preface for being governor. For eight years the welfare not only of Baltimore, but also of Maryland's farms, small towns and suburbs, all depended more on the actions and whims of Mr. Schaefer than on anyone else in Maryland. Individuals do matter in history. Mr. Schaefer exercised every possible power available to him, and he affected the lives of Marylanders more than most governors.

The eight-year Schaefer administration divides itself -- with considerable clarity when you look at the whole -- into four slightly overlapping phases; The Fat Years (1987-1988), The Righteous Years (1989-1990), The Lean Years (1991-1992), and the Mellow Years (1993-1994).

In the Fat Years Mr. Schaefer came on like a whirlwind, the miracle man who couldn't be stopped. The honeymoon was on, times were flush, tax revenues were pouring in. Overnight he completed the clean-up of the savings and loan bankruptcies from the past, erasing the taint of fiscal irregularity that hung over the state.

There was no apology for his Baltimore bias. He wanted a stadium for the city, maybe two, far above the cost his own advisers recommended. He wanted a light rail system to serve the city, and actual costs doubled projections. Let the state assume certain costs of the city's jails, its zoo, its libraries, its community college. The counties and suburbs were aghast, but Mr. Schaefer screamed and threatened, and if skeptics came along there would be something in it for them. Mr. Schaefer won every one, easy.

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