Two styles, but both 24/7

June 11, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

WHEN THE highest-ranking judge in Maryland said he didn't understand something, Mayor Martin O'Malley sent him a stick figure instruction sheet.

Baltimoreans giggled and cheered. Many were reminded -- delightfully, for the most part -- of another Baltimore mayor.

Let's see, which one could that be?

Oh, yes, William Donald Schaefer, who served 15 entertaining and productive years in the mayor's office before becoming governor of Maryland. He's now the state comptroller.

Mr. O'Malley's mocking instruction manual was Mr. Schaefer with a twist.

The comptroller had endeared himself to Marylanders with funny hats, splenetic letters and earthy observations about people who made him nauseous.

After his first six months in office, Mr. O'Malley's approach to leadership and personal style are coming into clearer focus -- and comparisons with his illustrious predecessor (twice removed) are entertaining, if not instructive.

The two men represent different generations, to be sure: Mr. O'Malley was 36 when he was elected mayor in 1998, 37 now. Mr. Schaefer achieved the post he loved most in 1971 when he was 50. He's now 78.

Their family lives are quite different as well.

The comptroller made bachelorhood into a prime political asset as mayor, asserting through his PR machinery that he was married to the city. Mr. O'Malley has a big family, a lawyer wife who wants to be a judge and three children. His father-in-law is the state attorney general, J. Joseph Curran.

He has more raw political instinct, more experience in the technical aspects of modern politics and, perhaps, more ambition than Mr. Schaefer -- who had no political patrimony but was blessed with the backing of Irvin Kovens, the last of the big Baltimore bosses who did all the rawest political work for him.

As a bachelor and man of the 1950s, Mr. Schaefer was a 24/7 man. Mr. O'Malley seems to be making that his standard as well -- at his peril, some fear.

"He seems to be everywhere," says Joan Bereska, Mr. Schaefer's first chief of staff. "He shows up at the most obscure things."

Mr. Schaefer's strategy on the urban battlefield, she observed, was to attack on all fronts, fearing that a letdown anywhere created a weak spot that threatened everything.

Both men know leaders must be actors. Mr. O'Malley's polish comes from being an on-stage performer, a singer and guitar-playing band leader.

He's the right mixture of cool and commitment for young professionals now filling in the remodeled rowhouses along the waterfront in Canton as well as for homeowners who hope he can deliver on his promise to rid their corners of drug sellers and junkies.

Mr. Schaefer's acting gifts emerged over a long apprenticeship, coaxed by Ms. Bereska through a thick carapace of shyness. In the end, he was just as cool as Mr. O'Malley in a different way.

Mr. O'Malley seems perfect for television. Mr. Schaefer was a hotter medium, better in person. Both have the political leader's ability to connect, to project sincere appreciation for the person or crowd.

They know how to dress, too.

Mr. Schaefer's most enduring image came from the Victorian bathing suit donned for inauguration of the National Aquarium's seal pool. Mr. O'Malley's signature garment appears to be a sleeveless black muscle shirt worn while leading his Irish band, O'Malley's March.

They are both prone to the occasional bout of temper. Mr. Schaefer's was Vesuvian. Some thought he was out of control, but his outbursts always seemed to have a point.

Both come equipped with a sense of humor. Mr. Schaefer can be a hilarious mimic, an inventive user of profanity and one-liners.

No lover of The Sun, he greeted news of the Evening Sun's demise with this suggestion: "Why don't they just make a clean sweep of it?"

Mr. O'Malley's thrusts come wrapped in Irish wit nicely tailored to fit the provocation. He responded this way to an editorial in The Sun accusing him of being a bully on the political playground:

"The Sun's editorial was unkind, unwarranted and untrue. Furthermore, my mother says you can't come over anymore and I'm not to go near you at recess."

"They both have strong opinions," says Mark L. Joseph, head of Yellow Transportation, and an ally of both. "They're decisive. And they're willing to take action and deal with the consequences.

"Neither would shy away from a fight ..."

The parallels are not universal, of course.

"I'm surprised at some of the ways that Martin has been effective," says former council President Walter Orlinsky, "because he's been quiet. Nobody ever accused Schaefer of that. Schaefer never got to close fire houses. This guy is doing it."

Mr. O'Malley's coolness can shade off to formality, Mr. Orlinsky says. "Martin I don't think will jump into any swimming pools."

William Donald Schaefer assumed the Baltimore mayoralty awash in self-doubt and the doubt of many who thought him ill-suited to run the city.

Though he tended to overstate the anxiety over his ascendancy, he had the advantage of low expectation. He was a machine pol, wasn't he? How good could he be?

With the powerful Kovens behind him, Mr. Schaefer could make "Do It Now" his watchword and let detractors take the hindermost.

Mr. O'Malley has to be more political -- and seems to be. Mr. O'Malley makes clear, as his predecessor always did, that he is the mayor now and will do it his way.

C. Fraser Smith is a member of The Sun's editorial staff and the author of "William Donald Schaefer, A Political Biography."

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