Widening split on public works board

Schaefer, Dixon stray from agenda

April 19, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Two of the state's highest administrators - Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon - got into a bitter spat with racial overtones at yesterday's state Board of Public Works meeting, underscoring an escalating feud between the two men responsible for collecting and managing the state's money.

In separate interviews afterward, each questioned the other's motives and acknowledged that their once-cooperative relationship had deteriorated severely.

The testy exchange occurred during a discussion about a $2,067,000 state grant for the Johns Hopkins University to build an addition to its School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Dixon, who is black, harshly criticized the university for not doing more to help students from the Baltimore communities where its campuses are situated. He noted that schools such as Western Maryland College in Carroll County earmark scholarships for Carroll students.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article yesterday about a dispute between state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, some of the wording attributed to Schaefer was incorrect. Of the Johns Hopkins University, Schaefer said: "I was there yesterday and I saw many Afro-American students on the campus grounds." And in response to Dixon noting that the proper phrase is "African-American," Schaefer said: "American - African-Americans, whatever you call it, because that's the only thing you seem to know." The Sun regrets the error.

Hopkins officials "say they reach out, but they've never done it with any seriousness," Dixon said, adding that the university was so accustomed to getting state money that it hadn't bothered to send a representative to yesterday's meeting.

"Maybe the state ought to be re-examining its policy of giving money with no questions asked," he said.

Schaefer quickly came to the university's defense: "I've been to that campus, and I've seen plenty of Afro-Americans walking around."

"African-Americans," Dixon said, interrupting. "The term is African-American, and you should use the right term."

"Afro-Americans, African-Americans, whatever you want to call it," Schaefer said, "because that's the only thing you seem to know."

To which Dixon retorted, "What I know is that what they do is totally inadequate, and it has been for 20 years."

At that point, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the board's chairman and third member, quietly suggested they return to the agenda.

"I don't think personal attacks are appropriate," he said.

Schaefer turned to the governor, offering an out-of-the-blue critique of Glendening's recent budget: "Why don't you try to be more attentive to the mentally ill?"

Over the past two years - since he rejoined the board on which he sat as governor from 1987 to 1995 - Schaefer's attacks on the governor at the bimonthly meetings have regularly been scalding.

Recent target of anger

He is the biggest talker on the board - which has the responsibility for approving state contracts - and he rarely completes a sentence without firing at Glendening.

Schaefer's public anger toward Dixon is recent.

Over the past few months, observers say, his jabs at the treasurer have become more pointed and frequent during meetings of the boards and commissions of which they are members.

What makes the feud more striking is that the men used to be allies.

Schaefer, who is in charge of collecting Maryland taxes and paying state workers, and Dixon, who is in charge of the state's cash deposits and directing investments of state assets, have used their combined votes on the board to thwart the governor.

Together they scuttled a Glendening-backed plan concerning state disposal of land in the right of way for the proposed intercounty connector, for example.

Schaefer says Dixon has since been reined in by Glendening, whom Schaefer frequently accuses of strong-arming opposition politicians. (That accusation might explain why Schaefer made kissing noises at Dixon when Dixon seconded the governor's motion at a meeting.)

Schaefer's ire at Dixon peaked over the treasurer's recent vote to allow demolition of Memorial Stadium.

Dixon initially had appeared to be supportive of Schaefer's crusade to preserve the city landmark.

After the board meeting yesterday, Dixon declined to comment on why Schaefer was angry at him. But he did express consternation over Schaefer's use of Afro-American, noting that African-American is part of Maryland's official lexicon.

Disrespect for minorities

"The state is 25 percent African-American. Someone in his position should be aware of the correct term and not make fun or jest at it," he said, adding that Schaefer's comments seemed disparaging of minorities.

"If you have eyes and ears, it's very obvious."

In a separate interview, Schaefer dismissed Dixon's remarks during the meeting as provocation.

"His correcting me today on Afro-American, that's just him trying to start some race problem between he and I," he said. "I've done more for Morgan State [a black university] than he'll ever do."

Explaining his testy retort to Dixon at the meeting, he said, "He only is interested in things on the board that affect African-Americans."

Schaefer said Dixon "didn't know what he was talking about" regarding Hopkins. He described their relationship as, "very bad, very bad."

"At one time," Schaefer said, "he evidenced independent thinking."

The result of the squabbling between Schaefer and Dixon is that many board votes go 2-1, with Dixon and Glendening prevailing.

"I'm the only one who really cares and worries about how the money is spent," said Schaefer.

Dixon said he doesn't care about the reasons for Schaefer's animosity.

"I'm going to continue to speak my mind," he said, "especially when I know I am right."

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