Ex-state treasurer endorses Willis for comptroller

Dixon calls Schaefer `embarrassing,' insensitive to minorities and women

August 28, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Saying incumbent William Donald Schaefer is using his office as "a political playpen," former Maryland Treasurer Richard N. Dixon endorsed John T. Willis yesterday in the race for the Democratic nomination for state comptroller

Dixon, who retired in February after six years as treasurer, also called Schaefer's conduct on the Board of Public Works "embarrassing" and a "distraction" to state government.

"We need someone who can bring dignity back to the board," said Dixon in endorsing Willis, the Maryland secretary of state. "John has the ability to work with people of all persuasions."

Dixon accused Schaefer of being insensitive to women and minorities -- a charge Gov. Parris N. Glendening first made last week, and which Schaefer denies.

"I saw it and I heard it," said Dixon, the first African American to serve on the board.

His endorsement of Willis comes less than a week after Glendening said Schaefer's antics on the board were a factor in his decision to support Willis, a longtime Glendening ally.

The governor, treasurer and comptroller constitute the three-member board, which votes on all major state contracts.

Schaefer responds

Schaefer, who was elected comptroller in 1998, responded to Dixon's endorsement by suggesting he was somehow pressured into supporting Willis.

"I like Mr. Dixon," Schaefer said. "He was a fine man before they broke his spirit and made him do things he didn't want to."

With no serious Republican challenger, Schaefer, 80, had expected an easy re-election campaign.

But the former governor and Baltimore mayor is now facing a surprisingly strong primary challenge from Willis

Willis, 55, is running as a liberal alternative to the maverick Schaefer.

Willis has been endorsed by two of the state's largest environmental groups, several Democratic clubs and the union that represents 30,000 state and local employees.

Former Gov. Harry Hughes is also supporting Willis.

But most of the state's Democratic establishment is supporting Schaefer, including both U.S. senators, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and the current treasurer, Nancy K. Kopp.

Kopp reaffirmed her support for Schaefer yesterday, saying he has been "a very good comptroller. ... I believe he has asked very good questions and has raised significant issues."

Incumbent leads

Schaefer holds a significant advantage over Willis in terms of fund-raising and name recognition, and several recent polls show him leading by at least 20 percentage points.

Willis has been attacking Schaefer's record as comptroller, accusing him of using his position on the public works board to demean officials who come before it and as a platform to attack Glendening.

The governor and Schaefer often clash during the bimonthly meetings, and Schaefer frequently votes against Glendening's Smart Growth policies.

Glendening's and Schaefer's rocky relationship often left Dixon as the swing vote on the board.

Early in Schaefer's tenure, he and Dixon sometimes joined to thwart Glendening's agenda.

They teamed in 1999 to prevent Glendening from selling land purchased for the proposed Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County.

But in mid-2000, after complaints from legislative leaders, Dixon switched sides and generally supported the governor.

Dixon said yesterday he is supporting Willis because he believes he would run the comptroller's office as it was under the late Louis L. Goldstein.

"There is no comparison" between Goldstein and Schaefer, Dixon said. "Goldstein was a complete gentleman."

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