GOP dusts off tales of Schaefer past: In comptroller's race, foes recall bumps along memory lane

August 06, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The nostalgia over former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's return to politics has focused on silly hats and plunges into seal pools. Lost -- at least so far -- have been some troubling episodes: late-night phone calls, nasty letters, snapshots of protesters sent to their homes.

The outbursts were so striking that in a front-page article in 1991, this newspaper asked, only half in jest, "Is Gov. William Donald Schaefer sane?"

His popularity, as measured in recent polls, suggests time has washed away -- or at least worn the edges off -- recollections of those events. But as Schaefer runs for comptroller, Republicans hope to jog some memories.

"Do the citizens of Maryland want a comptroller who has a record of harassing those who have opposing positions?" Republican Michael Steele said as he announced his campaign for comptroller on July 14.

"Do they want to be afraid to answer a knock on their door or to open their mail for fear that it may be Comptroller Schaefer giving them a piece of his mind?"

Schaefer dismisses these issues as irrelevant attacks from an opponent with little else to say. "If that is the Republicans' answer to Schaefer," he says, "that's pretty sad."

His friends say he is simply passionate and demonstrative, hands-on leader who, if anything, cares too much. At campaign stops around the state, voters rush to shake his hand as if he's an old friend. Many thank him for helping to get a bridge built, a highway paved, a dingy downtown revitalized.

But the Republicans may have a convert in Annette Lavelle.

The Kent Island school-bus driver attended an anti-Schaefer rally in 1991, shortly after the governor called the Eastern Shore a -"shouse." Nine months later, at Christmastime, she received a card from Schaefer that included pictures of herself at the rally.

Lavelle -- who had no idea who took the picture or how Schaefer learned her identity -- was chilled by the gesture. Nearly seven years later, she still is. She wonders what Schaefer might do if he is elected comptroller, Maryland's chief tax collector.

"I think he would abuse his power, just like he abused his power to find out who I was," says Lavelle, 40. "They took time and money to find out who this scrawny little girl was."

Raising these issues will be perilous for a relative unknown such as Steele, the Prince George's County GOP chairman who has the backing of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the party's leading candidate for governor.

Schaefer is popular throughout the state, according to a Potomac Survey Research poll done for The Sun and other news organizations last month.

Sixty-four percent of likely voters said they had a favorable impression of Schaefer; 43 percent said they would definitely vote for him for comptroller.

He fared better in Baltimore, where he was mayor for 15 years, than in the Washington suburbs. Overall, his popularity was remarkably consistent among voters of different races, political views and education levels.

Pollster Keith Haller says that ex-presidents and other former leaders often are remembered more fondly in retirement than in office. And the recession of the early 1990s, which coincided with Schaefer's worst poll numbers, has yielded to a robust economy, boosting the popularity of politicians everywhere.

Schaefer's colorful style may also look better in hindsight -- particularly when he is compared with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a professor who shows little passion.

But Haller also warns, "Schaefer has the penchant for saying or doing something foolish. Some may find it endearing, but if it's a major enough gaffe, it can cause voter backlash."

Schaefer's main Democratic opponent, Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, says she plans to stay away from talking about his past behavior. "We're not going to do that," Pratt says.

But Steele considers it fair game. "He's got a record, and part of that record is his behavior," he says.

Political strategists typically warn little-known candidates that they must establish their own identities before attacking better-known rivals such as Schaefer. But Republicans are urging Steele to go on the offensive as his best chance to make the race competitive -- and maybe bait Schaefer into an intemperate remark.

GOP consultant Kevin Igoe of College Park says Steele should use the issue in both mail and television ads. "You ask people," Igoe says, "if they want this wacky guy who knocks on doors in the middle of the night as the chief tax collector for the state of Maryland."

Schaefer and his supporters say he responded to angry letters -- often in person -- throughout his political career. But a series of outbursts after his 1990 re-election made his behavior the talk of political circles statewide.

The incidents included:

A phone call from a state trooper awakened a Perry Hall housewife at 10: 30 p.m. Schaefer soon came on the line to berate her for a letter criticizing his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops.

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