Schaefer continues to draw solid backing, survey shows

But popularity depends largely on GOP support, poll breakdown shows

October 29, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Despite a series of politically provocative remarks, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer retains strong support among Maryland voters, who by an overwhelming margin view him as a straight-talking politician who should remain in his post.

According to a poll conducted for The Sun, Marylanders approve of the job the 82-year-old comptroller is doing by a ratio of almost 2-1.

While the poll brings good news for the former governor, it also raises warning flags. A breakdown of the numbers shows that Schaefer's popularity depends largely upon his support among Republicans while his backing among fellow Democrats has eroded.

Where Republicans say by a 3 1/2 -1 ratio that Schaefer should stay on the job, a narrow majority of Democrats - 46 percent to 43 percent - say he should step down. The rejection is most emphatic among the most fervent Democratic voters - the type who tend to turn out in primaries.

"If he got in a Democratic primary he would have a real hard time," said Thomas Riehle, president of Ipsos-Public Affairs of Washington, which conducted the survey of 602 registered voters this week. "If he faced a Democratic electorate, every other person he met would have decided `I don't like William Donald Schaefer.'"

But by an overwhelming margin - 71 percent to 19 percent - Marylanders overall call him a straight shooter who speaks his mind.

Otis King, 34, is among the comptroller's fans. The Salisbury Republican said he met Schaefer about 12 years ago and thought he was "just like me."

"He seemed like he listened to me," King said. "He would be the person who wouldn't lie to me."

Linda Looney, a registered independent from Elkton, used to live in Baltimore and was one of the 25 percent of those polled who thought Schaefer was the greatest mayor the city ever had.

"He's marvelous. I love him. I can't think of a bad thing to say about that man," she said.

Schaefer declined to comment on the poll, but his spokesman, Michael Golden, said it shows that Marylanders see him as an "independent thinker."

"He's obviously never been afraid to speak his mind," Golden said.

Nevertheless, the poll could embolden potential Democratic challengers such as Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot, who is considering a run for the job in 2006.

"These numbers certainly don't discourage me," Franchot said. He said Schaefer has angered Democrats by consistently voting in support of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at the Board of Public Works.

But Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Schaefer will not be an easy target. "Whatever happens, I think he's going to be a formidable candidate. He always has been," Norris said.

The survey, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points for the full sample, indicated that Marylanders have a complex, nuanced view of Schaefer.

By a margin of 63 percent to 28 percent, they reject the assertion that he is an embarrassment to the state, though 46 percent of liberals say he is.

By almost 3 to 1, Marylanders say Schaefer has a lot to contribute to the state because of his knowledge and experience. But 59 percent agreed with the statement that the comptroller was a good public official whose day has passed. Only 31 percent disagreed.

The poll shows that Schaefer damaged his standing among Democrats with remarks this year criticizing immigrants with poor English skills and suggesting a registry for people who are HIV positive. More than half of Democrats said they were outraged by his views on those issues, compared with a quarter of Republicans.

M. Frances Daigle is one of the Democrats whom Schaefer offended. The 70-year-old Westminster resident said she would strongly consider voting for a challenger to Schaefer.

"He talks before he thinks, and I think that's harmful to the constituency - be they Republicans or be they Democrats," she said.

That view is shared by some Republicans, including Norma Edwards, 89, of Parkville. "In recent years, he's become sort of a curmudgeon," she said. "He's getting a little too old for the job, and he's making comments that aren't well thought out."

Golden said the Democratic numbers reflect Schaefer's tensions with his party's liberal wing. The comptroller's spokesman said he knows of no plans for Schaefer to run as anything but a Democrat in 2006, when he is widely expected to seek re-election.

"Every time I've heard him speak, he said he considered himself a Democrat," Golden said. He noted that Schaefer has disagreed with Ehrlich on several major issues, including the gasoline tax and corporate taxation.

The poll also shows that Schaefer's political base has changed since his early political career.

Though Schaefer rose to prominence as mayor of Baltimore, that is where his approval numbers are weakest. Conversely, he now enjoys strong support from rural areas such as the Eastern Shore - which he famously described in unprintable terms while governor.

"What an irony," said Norris.

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