The grumpy and grumpier

April 29, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

FORGIVE Parris Glendening if he feels he's being forced to watch re-runs of "Grumpy Old Men" when he shows up at Board of Public Works meetings.

It has turned into a comic sideshow.

Grumpiest of the grumps is Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose life isn't complete if he can't aim acidic barbs and insults at the current governor. Anything to embarrass Mr. Glendening. Make him turn beet red.

Recently, he's aimed poisoned darts at Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, a fellow grump and AARP-eligible colleague. But Mr. Dixon is returning fire at the former mayor/former governor.

The latest tiff involved a $2 million grant to Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Mr. Dixon, who is black, complained harshly about Hopkins' lack of scholarship aid to local students. The ex-mayor, naturally, rose to Hopkins' defense.

He said there were many "Afro-Americans" on the campus.

Mr. Dixon huffily interrupted to correct Mr. Schaefer that it's "African-American, and you should use the right term."

"American-African-Americans, whatever you call it," the comptroller snapped, "because that's the only thing you seem to know."

The fur was flying.

Not that it mattered. These recent, angry jabs, like the Schaefer thrusts at Mr. Glendening, don't alter public policy. The three-member Board of Public Works still approves hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts, often on 2-1 votes.

It used to be that on some issues, Mr. Dixon would align with Mr. Schaefer to gang up on the governor. This gave Mr. Schaefer significant leverage.

It helped him stop the governor's plan to move a police training complex from Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville -- a move Mr. Dixon, a Carroll County resident, ardently opposed.

Mr. Dixon also sided with Mr. Schaefer in blocking the demolition of Memorial Stadium.

This alliance crumbled, though, when Mr. Dixon -- whose four-year appointment is made by the legislature -- started voting too often with the comptroller.

This earned him a trip to the woodshed with House Speaker Casper R. Taylor and Senate President Mike Miller.

The message from legislative leaders: Stop embarrassing the governor.

Suddenly, Mr. Dixon reevaluated his Memorial Stadium vote and sided with the governor. This sent Mr. Schaefer into a fury that hasn't abated. He feels betrayed.

Now, he's a lonely dissenting voice. He's gotten more and more bitter -- and frustrated.

That's why the digs at the governor have turned savage. And it explains why Mr. Schaefer has gone after Mr. Dixon, too.

This recent spat was filled with irony. To begin with, a state grant to build a public-health school addition was hardly the forum for Mr. Dixon's aspersions directed at Hopkins' student-aid policy.

Second, Mr. Schaefer's malapropism wasn't meant to be disparaging or racially insensitive. He's famed for mangling his words and his syntax.

Third, Mr. Dixon's sensitivity to African-American issues is late-blooming. In his 16 years in the General Assembly, he never focused on them but instead dealt with budget and pension bills.

As a conservative, pro-business lawmaker from a conservative county, Mr. Dixon even refused to join the Legislative Black Caucus.

What's on display is the ill-concealed desires of two aging warriors anxious to have more say on how the state is run.

Neither man possesses much power. The comptroller simply collects taxes; he may raid some after-hour clubs in Baltimore (unpaid liquor taxes) or dun people for furniture shipped from North Carolina (unpaid sales taxes), but that's the extent of his domain.

The treasurer invests the state's tax and pension money. He'd love to dictate investment policies but he doesn't control enough votes on the pension boards. Mr. Dixon has influence, not direct control.

It's the governor who holds the Big Club. That was true when Mr. Schaefer governed, too. Neither the comptroller nor the treasurer has much regard for the incumbent chief executive, yet they can't rein him in.

Compounding their frustrations is that both men have enormous egos in need of constant massaging. When the two cooperated, that didn't pose a problem. It does now that they're feuding.

Does all this count? Not in the grand scheme of things. Life goes on in Annapolis, even as the aging grumps toss verbal grenades.

It's like distant thunder on a hot summer day: It lights up the sky, but never poses a threat.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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