With Schaefer bid, all bets are off

July 10, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

CAST Robert Redford in a movie and you have box-office success. Cast Liza Minnelli in a Broadway musical and every performance is standing-room only.

Bring back William Donald Schaefer for a starring role in a statewide election and public attention is riveted on him.

No one else in Maryland has the charisma and showmanship of the ex-governor, ex-mayor and ex-retiree. What had all the appearances of a drab election campaign now crackles with excitement.

That's a relief after the deadly serious -- and oh so bland -- patter from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, his chief GOP rival Ellen R. Sauerbrey and his chief Democratic tormentor, Eileen M. Rehrmann.

In just four days, Mr. Schaefer eclipsed them all by filing for a lesser statewide office -- state comptroller -- a move that precipitated the resignation yesterday of the interim comptroller hand-picked by the governor on Monday.

Democratic candidates for governor are now jumping through hoops to ingratiate themselves with Mr. Schaefer. He has become the kingpin and they know it.

Both Mr. Glendening and Ms. Rehrmann are rushing to wrap their campaigns around Mr. Schaefer. It could mean the difference between victory or defeat.

Nearly unprecedented move

What Mr. Schaefer seeks to do -- escape from a retirement he dislikes intensely to start a second state career -- has only one near-parallel in Maryland annals.

J. Millard Tawes, after two terms as governor (and 17 years previously as comptroller) thought he had finished his public service in 1966.

But three years later, Gov. Marvin Mandel asked Tawes to return to play peacemaker as secretary of the newly consolidated Department of Natural Resources.

In 1971, Tawes retired again -- until a scandal forced the state treasurer to resign. When the governor and legislators asked him in 1973 to shape up that office, the 79-year-old Tawes obliged.

He left for good in 1975 as he neared his 81st birthday.

By those standards, the 76-year-old Donald Schaefer is still in the prime of political life. He's three years younger than Tawes when he was brought back as state treasurer and nine years younger than Mr. Goldstein in what turned out to be his final year as comptroller.

To the public, the Schaefer name is magic.

Those who were angry at him during his tenure as governor have forgotten the Schaefer tantrums and rages. Instead, they recall the colorful zaniness of a guy who reminds them of the late Louie Goldstein, Maryland's beloved comptroller for the past 40 years.

They recall other similarities, too: an unflinching devotion to government service, a true love affair with Maryland citizens, a streak of stubborn independence, rock-solid integrity, and a commitment to do right by voters.

Mr. Schaefer's determination to stay in the race created a nightmare for Michael D. Barnes, the star-crossed ex-congressman picked by Mr. Glendening to fill out Mr. Goldstein's term and run on the Glendening ticket.

What looked like an easy romp for Mr. Barnes on Monday afternoon turned into a terrifying, uphill trek when Mr. Schaefer signed his filing papers that evening.

No wonder Mr. Barnes beat a hasty -- and embarrassing -- retreat. He would have been routed in a campaign against an ex-governor who has a deep reservoir of good will and renown in every corner of this state.

Thus, Mr. Barnes resigned the post he had just assumed, setting a record for the shortest tenure by a Maryland comptroller in the 146-year history of that office.

What a stunning and totally unexpected comeback by William Donald Schaefer. Those who opt to remain in the comptroller's race face a humiliating defeat in September and then in November against such a formidable candidate. Celebrity politicians hold enormous appeal with voters.

Comeback kid

Mr. Schaefer's re-emergence on the political stage, after a four-year absence, alters the dynamics of gubernatorial politics this year. Here is what could well happen:

Ms. Rehrmann gains credibility in her race for governor by announcing her endorsement of Mr. Schaefer, just as Mr. Glendening did yesterday.

Her ally, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- despite past disputes -- jumps on the Schaefer bandwagon, too. These events could happen at an early-morning Monday rally planned for Mr. Schaefer at an East Baltimore truck stop.

Both the governor and Ms. Rehrmann promote heavily their endorsements of Mr. Schaefer to gain political advantage.

Mr. Schaefer wins the primary in a breeze and then provides coattail power from below for the Democratic nominee for governor in November, dooming Ms. Sauerbrey's chances.

With Louie Goldstein's death, Maryland voters will be looking for stability in state government. William Donald Schaefer appeals to many citizens for that reason.

He is the elder statesman, after all, with a larger-than-life reputation for rejuvenating Baltimore and then governing Maryland with exuberance for two terms.

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