Schaefer basks in political light again

October 20, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THIS balmy autumn evening off Dulaney Valley Road, with an election looming and fresh money in the air, William Donald Schaefer does what he does best when he's in the mood: He charms the socks off people who are delighted to have him back in public life.

"Everybody asks me, 'Don, why are you getting back?'" he says. He stands at the railing of a large, elevated dining room and looks down upon maybe 50 people who have contributed $1,000 a head to bask in his aura. They gaze up at him adoringly, as though ready to sing a few choruses of "Hello, Donny."

"I'll tell you why I'm back," Schaefer says. "The last day I was governor, people were coming up and saying, 'Hey, Don, how ya doin'? Hey, governor, how are ya?' And then, at six minutes after noon, Mr. Glendening was sworn in, and I wasn't governor any more. And nobody said goodbye."

Nobody said goodbye. Schaefer's words hang there for a moment, and those gathered beneath him chuckle, because they know two things: He means the remark to be funny, but also to be heartfelt. He's always defined his life by the things that he's done in politics, and at six minutes after noon nearly four years ago, there was nothing left to do. He'd ceased to exist. There was no one there so people could say goodbye, or hello.

"I tried teaching at a few of our colleges," Schaefer was saying now, shaking his head ruefully. "But I wasn't very good. I had to guarantee these kids they'd pass the course before they'd take it."

The crowd laughs some more. This is the Schaefer they've come to embrace over all the decades of his public life. They know each other. They understand his humor, his whims, his outlandishness, and his need to be needed.

Of the current governor - and his Republican challenger - they know none of these things. Parris Glendening is the nerdy professor with a clipboard; Ellen Sauerbrey, a pit bull trying to erase her teeth marks from previous bites of history. What motivates them, what makes their hearts beat fast, nobody's certain.

"Glendening?" says Edwin F. Hale.

It's Hale's lush home the crowd has gathered in for Schaefer. Hale, chairman of First Mariner Bank, and of Hale Intermodal, lifts his eyebrows disdainfully. He's a guy raised a working-class Democrat, who's a big financial hitter for political figures, with a house full of Schaefer Democrats (which is to say, they're subject to flexibility), and Hale declares of this Democratic governor:

"The only time I hear from [Glendening] is when he wants to talk fund raising. Then he wants to take me to ballgames like we're buddies. How transparent can you be? Other guys will at least fake having a personal interest. He won't even do that."

He nods toward Schaefer, who's schmoozing across the room. All his adult life, Schaefer has lived not just for politics, but for the city of Baltimore. Now, as Schaefer runs for state comptroller, Glendening runs for his life. And seems, sometimes, to run alone.

Some, like Schaefer, have backed him only nominally. The mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, offered a tepid endorsement made all the more astonishing because of the competition. For all his complaints about Glendening, the governor has been generous to Schmoke's city.

With Sauerbrey, who wishes to cut government, who knows what happens? Who knows what fights may come for the impoverished city, home to the state's biggest numbers of the impoverished, of single-family households, of the most troubled public school system, of the most intractable crime problems?

There are, in fact, some close to Schmoke who say he's basing a decision on running for re-election next year on the current campaign for governor. If Sauerbrey wins, they say, Schmoke won't run again. Heading the city's tough enough without having a governor devoid of sympathy for its troubles.

And this brings us back to Ed Hale's house, filled with those who once would have supported a Democratic governor instinctively but now seem ambivalent. Some of it's strictly personal. It's Hale feeling manipulated, or it's Schaefer feeling neglected. They have no particular love for Sauerbrey, personally or philosophically. Many openly shudder when they mention her name.

But there's something else going on, which is the realization that power is shifting inexorably out of the Baltimore area, and Glendening is the personification of that shift. For all the money he's sent here, for all the concern he's expressed for Baltimore's problems, the real power has moved to the D.C. suburbs.

In this big house off Dulaney Valley Road, in Baltimore County, there's a sense of political intimacy. Everybody knows Schaefer; he's the guy who kept Baltimore important. Four years after his election, though, nobody feels they know Glendening. For all the money he's thrown around, for all his progressive politics, nobody feels any personal connection. He calls when he needs something. He's over there where the new power lies.

And now, with two weeks until Election Day, these Democrats must decide: Do they snub this guy for personal reasons? And, if they do, will they suffer for it in the morning?

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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