William Donald Schaefer -- C'mon, hon, get over him

June 14, 1999|By Matthew Crenson

RECENTLY, William Donald Schaefer lost his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops. State politics paused to pay its respects. Then Mr. Schaefer heard from his other longtime companion: Baltimore. It was still there for him.

A new poll shows that of the nine probable candidates for mayor, City Council President Lawrence Bell is the clear favorite. However, if Mr. Schaefer were to enter the contest, he would beat Mr. Bell, 32 to 23 percent, a margin that easily exceeds the Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc.'s 5 percent margin of error for the survey.

Familiarity with Mr. Schaefer no doubt contributes something to the former mayor's enduring popularity. He was elected to the City Council in 1955, and he served continuously in city government for almost 32 years, after which he spent eight years as governor. And now he's back as state comptroller.

But Mr. Bell's name recognition among the potential voters, at 96 percent, is almost as high as Mr. Schaefer's. And while Baltimoreans with a favorable opinion of Mr. Schaefer (54 percent), outnumber those with a favorable opinion of Mr. Bell (37 percent), it's worth noting that Mr. Schaefer has a higher unfavorable rating -- 22 percent. Popularity wears thin after 40 years in politics.

But let's face it. Baltimore never really loved Mr. Schaefer. He was irascible, contentious, petty, profane, cranky and sometimes even abusive, but hardly ever loveable. So why the city's longing for Mr. Schaefer?

Running any city these days requires a personality a bit larger than life. That was the attraction that drew Mr. Schaefer and other members of his mayoral recruitment team to the charismatic Kweisi Mfume, until the NAACP president finally took himself unambiguously out of contention. Mr. Schaefer, too, brings an out-of-the-ordinary presence to the city.

Once, mayors didn't need to have personalities. Many of them were drab functionaries who presided over City Hall while the political party organizations that put them in office distributed the jobs, favors and saw that the garbage got collected -- at least in the right neighborhoods.

Those party organizations are gone, and many voters today look for noisy, colorful leaders like Mr. Schaefer to fill the vacuum, as though force of personality could make up for the loss of organization. Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani in New York, Ed Rendell in Philadelphia, Willie Brown in San Francisco all have been saddled with saviorhood because the institutional resources for urban success seem to have evaporated.

Long before former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota, urban mayors had discovered that voters tended to favor a candidate who was a bit odd and perhaps a bit of a bully. The kind of person who might be able to wrestle city government into submission.

What they saw in Mayor Kurt Schmoke back in 1987 was credentials: City College football hero, Yale and Harvard Law degrees. He's also a nice man. Maybe the voters hoped he would get some brilliant idea that would transform Baltimore into Oz, or save the city with his smile. He pledged to "come out Schmokin' " after he was elected. But his engine never left the station.

The voters liked Mr. Schmoke, but he never came into focus for them. The only time Mr. Schaefer got out of focus was when he was in your face. Baltimoreans are worried that their city has stopped working. Until quite recently, the police department couldn't seem to get us to stop shooting one another, and its commissioner openly acknowledged racial discrimination in his department's disciplinary practices.

Even when the police succeeded in arresting suspects, the criminal justice system wasn't able to get them to court in time to convict them. Some of the city's public works employees were playing fast and loose with their overtime pay, and disastrous water main failures showed that the decayed state of Baltimore's infrastructure could no longer be hidden underground. The city housing department couldn't quite master the technique needed to tear down abandoned rowhouses, of which the city has about 40,000.

Sensing the voters' concerns about the city's disorganization, at least one mayoral candidate has promised to hire a professional city manager or chief operating officer if elected. Mr. Schaefer wouldn't know what to do with one.

When he was mayor, minor city bureaucrats found him waiting in their offices when they came to work in the morning. On weekends, he cruised the streets looking for abandoned cars and discarded mattresses. His Monday morning memos created a diffuse administrative anxiety that spread through every city department.

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