Schaefer lends support to O'Malley's bid

Critics fear endorsement by former governor may polarize mayoral race

August 18, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

With four weeks to go in the city's turbulent mayoral primary, City Councilman Martin O'Malley gained the endorsement yesterday of state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

A former governor and mayor, Schaefer stood near the entrance of the West Baltimore elementary school he attended and called O'Malley the best candidate at a news conference.

"I've never seen so much energy," Schaefer said of O'Malley, a 36-year-old defense attorney and former prosecutor. "Martin seems to understand the issues. He has good solutions and he doesn't go for pie in the sky."

Within moments of the announcement, however, debate swirled over the importance of Schaefer's backing.

Schaefer supporters contend that the man who served as mayor from 1971 to 1987 -- tied for the longest in Baltimore history -- could be the critical boost for the latecomer O'Malley, who joined the race June 22.

O'Malley is locked in a struggle with City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former City Councilman and school board member Carl F. Stokes.

The biggest windfall for the O'Malley campaign could be Schaefer's influence in raising campaign contributions. Many of the city's major contributors have remained on the sidelines in the first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years.

The election and fund-raising process was stalled for five months while National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Kweisi Mfume considered -- but eventually spurned -- a mayoral bid.

African-American ministers citywide have criticized O'Malley as a "political opportunist" trying to capitalize on the possibility that the city's 60 percent black vote would be split among Bell, Stokes and city Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway.

"It's about more than race, it's about class," said the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "It [Schaefer's endorsement] means that O'Malley is the downtown mayor. He has the backing of the supporters who have controlled the interests of this city for 30 years to the detriment of the neighborhoods."

Miles' group of more than 200 mostly African-American churches endorsed Stokes last week.

On the campaign trail this week, O'Malley has been stressing the need to restore the "do it now" urgency that became the Schaefer administration trademark. O'Malley, who plays guitar in his own Celtic rock band, also carries the quick wit of Schaefer, an insatiable showboat who once dove into a National Aquarium in Baltimore tank.

Yet Schaefer, 78, said he chose the school site to send a serious message to O'Malley.

"This is where you make it or break it," said Schaefer, who had interviewed Bell, O'Malley and Stokes. "Right in the neighborhoods."

After the event, Schaefer expressed his displeasure with Bell, whose December fund-raiser he attended. "In his desire to win, he surrounded himself with people who have not been in the best interest for Baltimore," Schaefer said of Bell's support from backers of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

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