The `do it now' governor might want to do it again

April 05, 2001|By Michael Olesker

HERE'S YOUR political gossip for the day: The man who would be your next governor is the man who was your last governor. William Donald Schaefer, former two-term governor of Maryland, former four-term mayor of Baltimore, who will be 80 years old this autumn, would like to return to the State House the following autumn.

"He's completely serious," Gene Raynor, longtime Schaefer friend and former head of the state's Board of Elections, said on Tuesday, the day before he and Schaefer took off for a week's vacation in Dublin, Ireland. "He's as healthy as could be, and as energetic as could be, and he wants to be governor again. And you can quote me."

Raynor said Schaefer has a fund-raiser set for June - and, at a party several weeks ago to mark the anniversary of Schaefer's return to public life, Raynor said Mayor Martin O'Malley showed up, "and kneeled before Schaefer and kissed his ring."

The gesture caught the essence of both men. O'Malley, understanding Schaefer's status as elder statesman, was paying comic-affectionate tribute. And Schaefer, knowing that O'Malley is the hot young political property of the moment, found the gesture utterly charming - and, in its way, appropriate.

But is he really serious about running again? Though rumors have been whispered for a few months, no one has given them much credence. Wasn't Schaefer supposed to be yesterday's news? Didn't we name half the buildings in the state for him as bountiful farewell testimonial to a career well-spent but done?

But Schaefer, bored in retirement, decided at the last conceivable moment to run for comptroller after Louis Goldstein died. He was swept into office in a kind of affectionate tribute to past glories - and, some would say, as an indirect slap at Gov. Parris Glendening, whom Schaefer has ridiculed at almost every opportunity.

And since his return, he's expressed irritability not only at the current governor but, on occasion, at the current mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley, who might have his own statehouse ambitions.

So a serious Schaefer gubernatorial candidacy could shake the political landscape. Would voters remember the city miracle-maker, or the second-term gubernatorial grump? Would they see him as a refreshing throwback, every emotion a blinking neon light, or a political dinosaur whose days have passed but doesn't want to admit it?

The perceived gubernatorial front-runner, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has a commanding lead in most polls. She has great name recognition (though not as great as Schaefer's) and huge money (far more than Schaefer). In the Townsend camp, it has been presumed that any serious challenges would come from Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger or O'Malley.

Last week, Ruppersberger held a fund-raiser, billed as a celebration of his 25 years of public service, at Martin's West in Woodlawn. The affair raised money - reportedly, about $350,000 - but not necessarily expectations. The crowd was polite and good-natured, but there was no sense of electricity in the air.

Ruppersberger sensed it. Moments before addressing the crowd, he remembered his football coach at City College, the legendary George Young, and said, "George used to tell us two things: `You gotta sweat. And, if you get knocked down, you gotta get up and play harder.'"

The lesson still holds. Ruppersberger can read numbers, and his ear is fine-tuned to political gossip. He hears the whispers about the inevitability of Townsend - and of the possibility of an O'Malley candidacy for governor. For whatever it is worth, O'Malley introduced Ruppersberger at last week's gathering, lavishing praise on him as a man who has forged a healthy cooperation between the city and Baltimore County.

Later, standing in a corner of the big room, O'Malley minimized talk of his own possible candidacy for governor.

"Actually," he said, "William Donald Schaefer told me you can do a lot more for people as mayor than you can as governor."

Which gets us back to Schaefer.

Would he really run? When he left the governor's office nearly seven years ago, Schaefer seemed a man at loose ends. Having spent his entire adult life in public service, having merged his private and public life - what in the world would he do now?

He tried a few things - teaching, serving on a few boards - and chafed over them. Publicly, he says he's gotten to like the comptroller's job; privately, he says the office practically runs itself.

He needs action, needs to feel involved, needs attention, needs to feel he's doing something important.

Could he be the once and future governor of Maryland?

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