Schaefer hits 80, reflecting on career, contemporaries

November 04, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ON FRIDAY morning, with God in his heaven, William Donald Schaefer awoke from a nice night's sleep and saw that his world was pretty good. He was 80. There were friends saluting him, and newspapers appraising him, and much talk in the air about politicians who might follow in his footsteps.

They are about half his age. "Boys and girls," Schaefer said, referring to the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, and the congressman, Robert Ehrlich, and the lieutenant governor of Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

He tossed the phrase casually, a throwback to long-ago nights when he learned the art of the political needle from some of the true masters -- Sol Liss and Irv Kovens and Tommy the elder D'Alesandro. He said he was thinking about all of them this morning, the ones who were there when Schaefer was a political boy becoming a man.

Boys and girls, indeed. Each youngster now ponders a run for governor. O'Malley is 38, an age at which Schaefer was still patiently sitting in the Baltimore City Council, learning to fill the potholes and pave the alleys of his old West Baltimore. Ehrlich is 44. At that age, Schaefer had still not ascended to president of the City Council -- which he did a couple of years later only because the new mayor, Tommy the younger D'Alesandro, told him it was time. Townsend is 50. When Schaefer was 50, he saw himself as a fellow just completing a long apprenticeship in which he had learned how to run a municipal government.

In the week he turned 80, there was much talk about who will succeed Parris Glendening and run this state's government. Schaefer chuckled at the irony. He loved those 15 years as mayor, and seethed his way across eight years as governor. In his years as state comptroller, he continues to seethe every time he looks at the governor who succeeded him.

"Are you sorry you ever gave up being mayor?" he was asked.

"No," he said. "It was time."

The subject -- time -- has always consumed him. Who are these young people who would run a state, he thinks now, who have barely begun to learn what's at stake? It's not only learning the rudiments of government -- it's appreciating the needs of people.

"You take a guy like Irv Kovens," Schaefer said. Kovens was the last of the great political boss figures, a man who picked up a telephone and campaign money came pouring through it.

"I wouldn't have been anyplace without Irv," Schaefer said. "I went to him and said, `I want to run for mayor.' He said, `You're too far behind.' I said, `I think I'm the best guy.' He said, `Well, all right.' Like that. And he rolled up his sleeves and went to work for me. And you know what? He never once asked me to do anything. Never. Never. Only one thing he said: `Be a good mayor.' Nothing more. And that's why I held him in respect."

"And then Marvin," Schaefer said. He meant Mandel. "The best governor I ever worked with. He would have gone down as the greatest governor in history if he hadn't had those legal troubles. But you know what? When he told you something, you never had to go back and check. And look what he did for the people."

Schaefer's mind back-flipped a quarter-century. It was Mandel who'd engineered three massive city projects in a single legislative session: the convention center, the aquarium and the subway. Each helped the city in a time when many were starting to kiss it off.

That relationship between a governor and a mayor is crucial -- and it tied into some of the talk circulating last week that started when Montgomery County's Doug Duncan said he would not run for governor, claiming there was too much work to be done in a county so close to the nation's capital.

The announcement set off a new round of conjecture for those who'd imagined Duncan a serious contender. The conventional wisdom has Townsend coasting. She has money and name recognition and lovely poll numbers. And she believes Robert Ehrlich will not run against her.

O'Malley's another story. Townsend's people believe O'Malley won't run. O'Malley says nothing. But those around him talk about dark Townsendian plots to make the mayor look bad. They say that Townsend feels threatened by him, that their political desires are too similar, that she would not do for this mayor (or his city) what a guy like Marvin Mandel did for a guy like Don Schaefer -- and that, therefore, O'Malley has to run for governor to help Baltimore.

Townsend's people say such beliefs are absurd. They say Townsend wants to work closely with the mayor. They say all perceived personality conflicts between the two are childish. Which gets us back to William Donald Schaefer.

"Boys and girls," Schaefer was saying the day he turned 80.

He was just giving them the needle. At his age, he's entitled to see those around him as callow youths. Although, on the morning he turned 80, he remembered his own elders.

"My father," Schaefer said. "He would have been proud of me. And my mother. She was a great campaigner. She'd stand out on precinct corners. But she never knew I grew up. To the day she died, I was still 10 years old, as far as she was concerned."

Some of the "boys and girls" of Schaefer's phrasing, take note. There's mocking in his words -- but an elder's affection, as well.

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