Challenge to Schaefer stumps experts

Comptroller sees plot by Glendening

Willis insists he acted alone

July 03, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

With his theatrical sense of style and lively, dangerous tongue, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has become a political institution in Maryland - so much so that the state Republican Party didn't bother to recruit a candidate to run against him this election.

So what, political observers asked yesterday, is fellow Democratic loyalist John T. Willis thinking?

Just before Monday's 9 p.m. deadline, Willis, Maryland's secretary of state since 1995, filed his candidacy for the comptroller's race. When they read their morning papers yesterday, many political insiders were mystified. Some said Willis doesn't stand a chance against Schaefer, 80, a former governor and Baltimore mayor.

"Do I think Willis can beat Schaefer? No," said John N. Bambacus, a Frostburg State University political science professor and former Republican state senator. "I don't think anyone could beat William Donald Schaefer, short of a major scandal. He is so well known and so beloved and so respected."

Schaefer supporters - and Schaefer himself - said they were sure the move was choreographed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, with whom Schaefer has fought for years.

But Willis, 55, a historian who began his political career with an unsuccessful run for student council president in elementary school, said his decision was independent, principled and thoroughly sane.

"I want to make sure that the voters have a clear choice," he said. "It's an extraordinarily important public policy position in the state of Maryland. I have studied it and observed it and known about it for a long, long time. ... I see this election as an opportunity for the Maryland Democratic Party to define itself."

A `Glendening trick'

Schaefer called Willis' candidacy a "Glendening trick" and said he wasn't surprised. "I knew Glendening wasn't going to let me have a free ride," he said.

But Schaefer added that he wouldn't let the challenge influence his support of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor. "Kathleen is my friend," he said. For her part, Townsend is backing Schaefer.

Willis, who was appointed secretary of state by Glendening and was chief of staff when Glendening was Prince George's County executive, said his differences with Schaefer are stark: He firmly supports land preservation, for instance, while Schaefer has been critical of Glendening's push to buy land when the state faces a large budget deficit.

He also spoke of then-Governor Schaefer's endorsement of former President George Bush's 1992 re-election campaign, which some Democrats still consider a profound betrayal. Willis pledged never to cross party lines in such a way.

Helped remap districts

An attorney who was born in Baltimore and lives in Charles Village, Willis has most recently been in the news for helping draw the state's new legislative redistricting map, which was struck down by the Court of Appeals last month. He is considered an expert on Maryland's political history and teaches business and economics at McDaniel College, formerly Western Maryland College.

Willis is also a member of the Democratic National Committee and has been active in many state campaigns. Two decades ago, he ran for office himself, in an unsuccessful bid for the House of Delegates. He has sat on more than a dozen state boards and task forces - including one for the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore.

The comptroller oversees the state's fiscal affairs, collects taxes and sits with the governor and treasurer on the Board of Public Works, which votes on major state contracts.

In the latter capacity, Comptroller Schaefer has made his mark. He has railed against Glendening for his fiscal policies and even publicly exposed the governor's relationship with aide Jennifer E. Crawford. Glendening and Crawford were married in January.

`Slap in the face'

Paul E. Schurick, spokesman for GOP gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., interprets Willis' candidacy as retribution. "What a slap in the face from the Glendening-Townsend administration," said Schurick, who was Governor Schaefer's chief of staff. "There is no doubt in my mind that Parris Glendening did this as one final shot at the comptroller."

Lou Grasmick, a Schaefer supporter and husband of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, also sensed Glendening's fingerprints. "I find it hard to believe that this was done independently of anyone else's persuasion," he said.

But Willis firmly denied that the governor influenced him. He said he never talked to Glendening or Townsend about his decision, and told the governor only after he had filed. He did not want to burden either of them with rumors about their participation, he said. "It wouldn't be fair to put either of them in that position."

`Wishes John the best'

Karen White, a spokeswoman for Glendening, said the governor had not discussed the matter with Willis and learned of it when Willis called at 8:55 p.m. Monday. She added that Glendening "wishes John the best."

Some political observers wondered whether Willis had filed simply to float his name in case Schaefer leaves office or as a way to pressure Townsend into reappointing him secretary of state if she becomes governor.

But Willis insisted yesterday his campaign is for real. Although he knows challenging someone as widely known and well funded as Schaefer won't be easy, Willis says he has plenty of time to overcome such disadvantages.

"I love conventional wisdom," he said, laughing. "You know, in every presidential election, the person who was ahead in the Gallup Poll a year away failed to get the most votes, with one exception ... Nixon in '71-'72."

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