Schaefer, ever annoying, is also our conscience

February 02, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

William Donald Schaefer is our Grand Provocateur. He's the man who comes to dinner and criticizes the food. He's your mother telling you to clean up your room. He's the burr under the saddle of City Hall, who calls Kurt L. Schmoke ``that nice young man'' in the most patronizing way, and thus provokes mayoral responses that couldn't be printed in a family newspaper.

He's been state comptroller barely a week, and he's already got people choosing sides. He's our public conscience, some say. He's our perennial annoyance, say others. Both sides are right. A conscience is always an annoyance, always that grating voice telling us not to take the easy way.

Minutes after taking office, Schaefer was urging a change of management of the Baltimore Convention Center. Mind your own business, Schmoke fired back, sounding like a man getting 12 years of irritation out of his system. Three days later, Schaefer was at it again. Don't sell the Baltimore City Life Museums properties, he was urging. Stop trying to be mayor of this city, Schmoke fired back this time.

These are only the latest versions of old fights. Here are two men who have never had the same vision of life, or politics, or running the city. Schaefer, by instinct a painful introvert, became mayor nearly three decades ago and forged a public persona. Schmoke, the young man who had grown up on a [See Olesker, 4b] public stage, the athletic field, became mayor a dozen years ago and withdrew into a private self. One willed himself a personality; the other walled himself off.

What was interesting in their latest confrontations was the public give-and-take: It's the first time since Schmoke's announcement that he wasn't running for a fourth mayoral term that we've seen much of him. His entire administration seemed to have shifted into automatic pilot since then.

Schaefer's always understood the unwritten law of being mayor: The job's part theatrics.

For all its rewards, living in any large U.S. city is still an act of faith. You have to believe in a sense of community, in a mix of edgy voices working things out. Any mayor has to remind people of such pleasures while they're putting up with high taxes and crumbling sidewalks and fear of crime.

And that's not all: If Schaefer spotted a slacker in his City Hall days, he knew how to throw a fit. Agencies worked hard because nobody wanted to tick off the old man. Has anybody heard of such outbursts from Schmoke?

The ``nice young man'' of Schaefer's phrase has an accent on ``nice,'' and too many of his agencies thus have a reputation for sleepwalking. People have a tendency to do whatever they realize they can get away with.

All of which leads us to the newest rumblings about Schaefer, that he's the state comptroller who's only biding his time until he can put together a run for mayor again. Schmoke has mentioned it publicly; Schaefer has been a little coy. He's talked about all the changes he'd make ``if'' he were mayor again.

It's an interesting thought, but a long shot. For Schaefer, the city is his soul mate, his sweet mistress. The best memories of his public life come from the 15 years he ran the place and taught the city to believe in itself in spite of itself.

He is, at heart, a sentimental man. On the night he was elected comptroller, Schaefer said nothing about the new job. He talked about people from his yesterdays.

``My father would be so proud of me,'' he said softly. ``He died in the house I lived in for 70 years. My mother would stand on corners when I ran, wanting to fight anyone who said anything bad.''

He talked about his friend Hilda Mae Snoops, ``in a nursing home, weak,'' and of yesteryear's ghosts: the old mayor, Phil Goodman, and the old governor, Marvin Mandel, and the old political kingmaker, Irv Kovens, who ``called me Shaky, but got behind me.''

He seemed to hear their voices cheering him on. He was back in his element, and he would do the kind of work they'd all done together in the old days. It was a sweet moment, and a lovely sentiment.

``I got born again on the day I filed,'' Schaefer said.

But he was reborn 77 years old, and his eyeglasses seemed thicker than remembered. He has remarkable energy for a man his age, but he's still a man his age. Running a city's a lot tougher than running the state comptroller's office.

He's in the right place for this season of his life. He's a man of unquestioned integrity who has a renewed sense of voice. He can criticize City Hall without having to run it. He can complain about the bureaucracies without having to spend weekends looking for potholes.

It's the best of all worlds. He can be our Grand Provocateur, telling us to clean our rooms, complaining about all the shabby corners because nobody else knows them the way he does. He's our annoyance, he's our conscience. He's exactly where he should be, bothering us to do better.

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