80 and counting

On his birthday, William Donald Schaefer reflects on politics, friendship, grudges, what he's learned and what still annoys him.

November 02, 2001|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN COLUMNIST

O'Malley's people keep missing it. They drive by it every day on the way to City Hall, yet the situation lingers, and the more it lingers the more it serves as evidence - at least in the parochial view of William Donald Schaefer - of an administration not paying enough attention to the grimy details of life in the city of Baltimore.

So what is "it"?

"It" is a mystery.

"It" could be any common urban affliction - pile of trash reeking, abandoned rowhouse crumbling, pothole gaping, storm drain collapsing. William Donald Schaefer won't say.

"Noooo," he bellows when asked if he's called the office he occupied for 15 years to make Mayor Martin O'Malley and his staff aware of the problem. "Not going to."

He's not going to because he's up to his old tricks. He's conducting a little test. He wants to see how vigilant O'Malley and his staff are. So far, along this narrow front of municipal governance, Schaefer is not impressed.

A man who's celebrating his 80th birthday today might have other things to worry about, his arthritic knees, the state of his pension, the passing of old friends. Not Schaefer. He's thinking about "it" and the guy half his age running the city. But Schaefer'll give him this: It's not all the young mayor's fault.

O'Malley served in City Council while the reserved Kurt L. Schmoke was mayor, and so he did not learn - "serve an apprenticeship" - under a master. He missed important lessons about how to be mayor - about taking care of all the little things first, the big things later. That might explain why "it" is still out there - unnoticed, untreated.

"It won't be touched for months," Schaefer says cagily, again refusing to describe or give the location of the problem. "I know exactly where it is. I go by it once or twice a week."

The United States might be under a general alert for more terrorist attacks, and O'Malley might be working night and day to make the city safe, but he's apparently failed to look out a car window and notice "it." And that grates on Schaefer like an itch he cannot reach.

"What the hell's the matter with his people?" he says. "They go by it every day. My people - if they went by it every day - that was bad, that wasn't good for them. No, no. If I saw an abandoned car there more than a week, oh, that was bad."

Remember now: This is the impatient man with the storied City Hall-sized temper who used to howl at his staff for not responding quickly to his "action memos" on potholes and trash-strewn alleys. Once he simply wrote the words "abandoned car" on a piece of paper, presented it to his cabinet meeting and dared its members to find the vehicle.

This is a man who, on the eve of his 80th birthday, described the happiest moment of his long, productive and sometimes kooky political life as this: "That Saturday and Sunday, when I'd go around the city and I had my mini-memos with me, and one weekend I broke the record, I wrote 121 mini-memos. I found 121 things wrong. I was so happy that day. That was my greatest - Saturday and Sunday, I don't remember the year. I went down streets, down alleys. Oh, god. I broke the record."

His own record.

This is the William Donald Schaefer of legend - the "Do it now" man who, after a long stint as mayor and two terms as governor, became state comptroller and, even from that relatively sedentary position, manages to play action hero on the streets of his native city, sending his revenuers out to bust after-hours clubs and arrest cigarette smugglers.

He's been a persistent thorn in the side of his successor in the governor's office, criticizing Parris Glendening every other week at the state Board of Public Works. Vexed by Glendening's decision to turn off an Annapolis fountain that had been the pride of Schaefer's longtime companion, the late Hilda Mae Snoops, the irascible former governor played a major part in exposing Glendening's personal relationship with a female staff member. He can still play payback with the best.

As he enters his ninth decade, William Donald Schaefer shows little inclination to seal his lips or change his tune. True to form, he resists extensive self-reflection in public and changes the subject, sometimes suddenly, to his time as mayor and to the bright and loyal people who worked for "that dummy" between 1971 and 1986. Those, after all, were the years the Schaefer Legend took shape.

The Sun: So how's it hitting you? The big Eight-Zero.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.