Schaefer wants another stint in City Hall

April 17, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THERE'S A NEW man pondering a run this summer for the Democratic nomination as mayor of Baltimore: William Donald Schaefer. That is not a misprint. At 81, the former four-term mayor, two-term governor and current state comptroller would love to return to the job he never wanted to leave in the first place.

All that stands in his way are Martin O'Malley, and the march of time. But Schaefer has a flotilla of old loyalists urging him to run, and the earliest sketches of a campaign -- including bumper stickers reportedly being printed that swipe one of O'Malley's war cries about Baltimore.

Instead of "Believe," the bumper stickers read, "Believe -- in Schaefer."

"I've been hearing this for the last week," state Sen. George Della said yesterday. "When he's on the street, people are always coming up to him and telling him to run. They love him. They see him like a dear departed uncle who should come back. Will he do it? Ask yourself this: Where is his heart? It's always been right here."

Ask yourself this, too: At 81, would voters consider Schaefer too old for the job? Or would they see him as a man utterly devoted to his city -- at a time when O'Malley, half Schaefer's age, is widely perceived to be eyeing a gubernatorial run against Robert Ehrlich in three years?

In fact, those in Schaefer's inner circle have already imagined campaigning on such a premise. One slogan they've thought about: "Schaefer: He's Staying Here." A run for governor would arrive halfway through a second O'Malley mayoral administration.

To the surprise of many, the political season began abruptly last week when the state legislature failed to move next September's primary city elections closer to the November 2004 general election. It means a summer of sudden campaigning and, for some, frantic efforts to raise quick money. O'Malley reportedly has about $1 million in available campaign cash. Schaefer's people say he could raise large money quickly.

"I heard the Schaefer rumor," Mayor O'Malley said Tuesday, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully. "He always loved the job. He's always been his own man. He did great things as mayor."

A year ago, O'Malley was torn between a run for the Democratic nod for governor, against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, or staying at City Hall. He knows the general talk that he faces the same kind of decision in another three years -- and that Schaefer could exploit that talk.

"It's up to people to decide what's in their best interests," O'Malley said. "I wouldn't be working so hard at this job ... ." He stopped in mid-sentence and started over. "It's up to the people," he said again. "Look, anybody could say I'm going to run for governor, but they said that a year ago, too.

"People overestimated my ambition, and they underestimated my dedication to this city. They said I was too young and too ambitious. Blindly ambitious, they said. After my last decision, I think they realize I'm not quite what they imagined. My feelings for the city are deep, and we're making tremendous progress. People are smart. They see what we're accomplishing."

Schaefer left City Hall after a 15-year run, during which one national publication, Esquire, dubbed him "the best damned mayor in America." Last summer, the same magazine called O'Malley "the best young mayor" in the country. A Schaefer candidacy wouldn't be two men running against each other, but two generations reaching for validation.

Leaving this question: Is Schaefer serious?

"I don't know," he says. "People come up to me all the time. They want a choice. I think about it, but I don't think I'm serious. I have a nice job now."

Actually, he has a boring job now. The office of comptroller practically runs itself, and removes Schaefer from all sense of neighborhood life, and urban give-and-take, on which he thrives.

"I really would like to be mayor again," he said then. "There are so many things to do. The trucks, for example. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's little things like that. Keeping the city trucks clean, making sure the garbage gets collected, not tearing down old, historic buildings.

"There's a lack of caring about little things," said Schaefer, warming to the subject. "There's all these young people moving into the harbor neighborhoods, but sometimes it means old people are being moved out. And we've got all these potholes. They've taken care of the main roads, but there's potholes on the little streets."

He sounded like the old Schaefer, worrying about housekeeping details. But he knows some voters would also see him as the "old" Schaefer.

O'Malley "would clean my clock on that," Schaefer said. "He'd say I'm too old, old ideas. They're not old, they're basic: clean the streets, the alleys. He's a young man whose mind is on running for governor. I'm too old for him. But he'll see. He's starting to get some gray hair. He'll see, you need an old, steady hand in there."

So Schaefer's running? "I'm thinking about it," he said. "But not that hard."

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