Schaefer and Ehrlich form political odd couple

March 21, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

OK, WILLIAM Donald Schaefer unveiled his Republican tendencies years ago when he endorsed George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton. Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Bush were veterans of World War II, in the same age group, and Mr. Schaefer loved having an ally in the White House.

But why is he so happy with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a man whose casual style would have made him apoplectic in years past? He couldn't abide former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a man whose laid-back approach sent Mr. Schaefer into fits of scorn.

Governor Ehrlich is a very nice man, a family man and a man who wants to downsize government as much as Mr. Schaefer always wanted to grow it. The "Do It Now" Mr. Schaefer finds himself in league with Mr. Ehrlich, whose administration has been called the governmental equivalent of Seinfeld, the popular TV program about nothing.

These two men stand a world apart philosophically and, needless to say, in temperament.

Mr. Schaefer was a big spender. He was a big taxer. He was a big doer. He wanted at least four bricks-and-mortar projects going on at all times. Or, he told confidants, people will think you're not doing anything.

Mr. Ehrlich's building aspirations run to wastewater treatment plants. He's not a builder - except for the ICC (that's Intercounty Connector, for tourists from Mars). He could say he's building a sound fiscal foundation for Maryland - a worthy objective, to be sure - but there's nothing on his agenda like the Inner Harbor, the World Trade Center, the National Aquarium, The Pride of Baltimore, Camden Yards, the convention center, the hotels and on and on - all Schaefer projects.

On the tax front, Mr. Schaefer rejected everyone's advice in 1990 and pushed hard for a $1 billion tax increase no one thought he could get. He had sent a team of analysts into the field to make the case for a $1 billion increase in revenues. By the time he had their report, the political tides were running strongly against more taxes. He didn't care. He pressed stubbornly on. He lost the battle, but he wouldn't give in to what he thought was irresponsible. Mr. Ehrlich says no new taxes, no how. Read his lips.

So why is there such a bond between these two men? There are some theories:

Mr. Ehrlich stands in as the son Mr. Schaefer, a bachelor, never had. There's also Mr. Ehrlich's wife, Kendel. When the comptroller endorsed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend during the campaign, Mrs. Ehrlich wasn't pleased. Mr. Schaefer has been trying to make up ever since. He always wanted to endorse Mr. Ehrlich but felt he couldn't without offending his old Democratic allies yet again.

A lot of Mr. Schaefer's Democratic and Republican friends, including former Gov. Marvin Mandel, are Ehrlich partisans.

Mr. Schaefer can't stand Mr. Ehrlich's main political rival, Mayor Martin O'Malley. So every time he embraces the Republican governor, he's poking an elbow at Mr. O'Malley. The political psychoanalysts say Mr. Schaefer could never love anyone who followed him as mayor.

Mr. Schaefer has a special animus for Mr. O'Malley. During recent deliberations over a bailout plan for the Baltimore city schools, deeply in debt, Mr. Schaefer served as Mr. Ehrlich's designated needler. Though he had turned begging for state money into an art form when he was mayor, Mr. Schaefer ridiculed Mr. O'Malley for trying to do the same thing.

Did the scolding help Baltimore? Did the former mayor help the schoolchildren, the teachers and the citizens he always cared about and honored? He used to drive around looking for people toiling for their neighborhoods, inducting them into his Order of the Rose. Mr. Ehrlich has been taken into that hallowed circle. For Mr. O'Malley, it's the Order of the Thorn, the kind you find in your side.

As for the former mayor's devotion to Mr. Ehrlich, the ultimate test might only come if Mr. Ehrlich became mayor of Baltimore.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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