Fixing Schaefer's fountain of complaints

Gesture: A simple birthday gift from the governor would go a long way toward mending old political wounds.

October 28, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

MARYLAND'S rich political lore includes the story of a governor who ruled back in the days when deals about money and patronage really were made in smoke-filled back rooms, before federal prosecutors started snooping around and spoiling all the fun. Legend has it that every year, the cronies enriched by this governor would give him a birthday treat. They would bring the governor to Baltimore, where they wined and dined together. Then the governor would be put up at the old Emerson Hotel, where a woman of loose virtue would keep him company.

This annual ritual went on for years, long after the governor had retired, right up to the governor's 80th birthday. That year, his friends did not send up a woman; they gave him something he might appreciate even more at his advanced age. It was a framed copy of the statute of limitations.

The valuable business of the state in those days was channeled through the Board of Public Works, whose members were - and still are - the governor, the comptroller of the treasury and the state treasurer.

Tens of millions upon tens of millions of dollars of expenditures were approved by the board for everything from huge construction projects, to leases, to purchases of land and improvements that would make land more valuable. It was good to be a friend of the governor if you had business before the board; there was lots of money to be made. In those days, the press hardly bothered to pay attention to what the board was doing unless some mighty newsworthy project was being approved. And even then the nuances that paid the contractors more money than they deserved were buried so deep into the paperwork that it would take a major sleuth to find them, much less understand them.

Fact was, the Board of Public Works was downright boring, which is the way the governor and his cronies wanted it.

Not so today. The Board of Public Works, which meets in the ornate reception room next to the governor's office, has become the best theater in Annapolis.

Instead of the usual triumvirate of happy aye-sayers, the group seethes with anger. The comptroller, former governor and mayor of Baltimore William Donald Schaefer, is one ticked off dude. He's furious with Governor Parris N. Glendening and seizes every opportunity to question the governor's agenda and to insult him in the process. He's also mad at Richard N. Dixon, the state treasurer.

Last week, the governor didn't appear at the Board of Public Works meeting. Instead, he sent Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The lieutenant governor is a nice, polite lady, but even when she smiles she looks as if a malodorous event has occurred nearby. The look suited her position between Schaefer and Dixon.

With no governor to taunt, Schaefer assaulted Dixon for comments he had reportedly made about the comptroller's recent rages. Dixon responded by calling Schaefer a "quirky clown."

This set the tone. Every time Schaefer asked a question about some item on the agenda, he apologized sarcastically for being "quirky." Dixon never responded to him. In fact he looked as if he was asleep part of the time. Townsend, to whom Schaefer was very deferential and referred to as "the next governor" kept the grin.

"OK, guys," she pleaded at one point. "Let's go on."

The squabbling has attracted a lot of attention.

But, what gets lost in all the attention being paid to Schaefer's tirades is that he actually spends most of the meeting questioning the assembled civil servants about the need to spend the money they are requesting. His persistent warning is that the state's financial condition - like the economy in general - is deteriorating. There's a shortfall in state Medicaid income. The retirement system portfolio has lost almost $4 billion, and taxpayers will be asked to help out to the tune of more than $50 million. "It's easy to spend," he said. "It's tough to say no."

He questioned everything on his mind, from $6 million to buy land in Charles County to $250,000 to protect the "fringe orchid" in Western Maryland. The fringe orchid? A quarter of a million dollars? That's what the comptroller is supposed to look out for.

But, the fight with Glendening is not about land purchases or endangered orchids. It's not really about the fact that Schaefer thinks Glendening is a fool, or that Glendening feels the same way about Schaefer. Both men have been in politics long enough to have suffered lots of fools.

This is really about an elaborate fountain, which was erected outside the governor's mansion when Schaefer was the resident, and dedicated to his late, longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops. Glendening has had the water turned off at the fountain and that's what really hurts and infuriates Schaefer.

Which brings us back to old governors and their birthdays.

An opportunity exists here for the governor to make a tall gesture. Schaefer will be 80 years old next Friday. He may be crazy, but unlike a few of his predecessors, he's not a crook.

He deserves a gift, and Glendening ought to give him one by turning the fountain back on. If Schaefer keeps insulting him afterward, we'll know who the bigger man is.

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