Once a slow burn, it's now a wildfire

Rift: The political battle between the governor and the comptroller has engulfed other Democratic officials, who say they fear it could harm the party this election year.

September 05, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The political feud between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer intensified yesterday as the governor promised more criticism, the Prince George's County executive promoted his radio ad for Schaefer and 50 women assembled in Annapolis to support the comptroller.

Schaefer, whom the governor has scolded for referring to women as "little girls," apparently has not taken the criticism to heart.

"These are my little girls," he said yesterday as he greeted the women who rallied at the State House. "All my little girls. I really appreciate it. You made my day."

For his part, Glendening sharpened his attacks on Schaefer and defended his radio ads that depict the comptroller as someone who demeans women and minorities. The governor, who supports Secretary of State John T. Willis in the primary against Schaefer, suggested that the ads were an opening salvo and made clear he will continue his attacks on the comptroller.

Schaefer responded by saying he is not racist or sexist. The former governor and Baltimore mayor noted that he has appointed many women and minorities to government positions during his career.

Other Democrats are jumping into the fray, including some of the state's most prominent African-American officials.

Former Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, the first African-American to sit on the state Board of Public Works, repeated his previous charge that Schaefer is insensitive to minorities.

But Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, that county's first black chief executive, accused Glendening of playing "the race card." Curry was so upset by Glendening's ad that he has taped a radio ad criticizing Willis.

The furor is starting to worry Democrats, who say they fear the rift is hurting the Democratic Party.

"I hope it reverses before the damage gets to be irreparable," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, noting that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend needs a unified party if she is to be elected governor over Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Willis said spirited exchanges are to be expected in a campaign. "The fact is that people have felt that the incumbent's style is a style that belittles and berates," he said in an interview while campaigning in Montgomery County. "I think that Schaefer's conduct in the last 10 years is hurting the Democratic Party."

Schaefer, 80, is locked in an increasingly bitter - and, many Democrats say they believe, close - primary contest with Willis, 55, who is Glendening's friend and an adviser.

Willis has accused Schaefer of mistreating officials who appear before the Board of Public Works. He has also criticized Schaefer for voting against Glendening's environmental agenda, such as the governor's efforts to buy land to protect it from development.

The race has become a duel between Glendening and Schaefer, who have been political enemies for most of the past four years. Schaefer, seeking a second term as comptroller, has accused Glendening of pressuring Willis to enter the primary - a charge that Willis denies.

Glendening purchased radio ads this week praising Willis and reminding voters that Schaefer has called women "little girls" and African-Americans "Afros." The governor, whose political committee is paying for the ads, is also financing calls to 60,000 voters on behalf of Willis.

Schaefer said yesterday that the governor was using "gutter tactics," adding, "I expect it from him."

Glendening and Schaefer were at yesterday's meeting of the Board of Public Works. The governor, comptroller and treasurer make up the board, which must vote on all major state contracts.

Schaefer and Glendening have used the meetings to spar over political and personal issues. Yesterday, however, they largely kept their distance.

Schaefer glared at the governor for several seconds before the meeting convened. He then looked at Glendening and said, "You need a haircut." Glendening snickered.

After the meeting, Glendening said he was standing by his radio ads.

"I just feel very strongly that we ought to treat people with dignity and respect," Glendening said. "It's embarrassing to see professionals come before the board ... and have them called `little girl.'"

He said he is thinking about other ways to boost Willis' candidacy, even if that means more attacks on Schaefer. "I have all kinds of ideas running around in my head," Glendening said. "We will have more news for you shortly."

The women who rallied in support of Schaefer - including several prominent Democrats - said Glendening has gone too far. "This is the governor of the state [paying] to spread allegations about the comptroller that those who worked with him know are not true," said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who spoke at the rally.

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