For Duncan, Schaefer aid a boon and a puzzle

July 29, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHEN DOUG Duncan was first elected mayor of Rockville, he telephoned William Donald Schaefer and asked for an audience with the great man. Schaefer nearly fainted. He was closing out his eight years as governor of Maryland and invited Duncan to Annapolis. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or a great political sucker punch.

"I was new on the job, and Schaefer had been the greatest mayor in America," Duncan was saying this week. "He always had an urgency to get things done. I have it, too. I figured, who's a better guy to go to?"

At the State House, Duncan says, he walked into Schaefer's office and said, "I want your advice."

Schaefer clutched his heart, started moaning and slumped in his seat. Duncan, a newcomer to such Schaeferian theatrics, says he thought the governor was having a heart attack. Then Schaefer sat up and laughed, and told Duncan, "I've been waiting for years for somebody from Montgomery County to ask for my help."

Historically, that's a sign of the multiple Marylands: Montgomery Countians tend to see themselves as part of this state, but only nominally. Their souls, their sense of culture, of economics, of social status, often align them with Washington. Schaefer was seen as a governor whose heart belonged to Baltimore.

But the meeting was a harbinger of politics to come. As Duncan moves about the state these days, gearing up his Democratic primary campaign for governor, he's got Schaefer leading cheers for him. At the city's Flower Mart several weeks ago, Schaefer practically took Duncan by the hand. Everybody around here knows Schaefer by sight, and most embrace him as a favorite uncle. But almost nobody knows Duncan, the Montgomery County executive.

Schaefer started filling in a few blanks for them. "This is Doug Duncan," he kept saying at the Flower Mart. "He's running for governor. He'd be a great governor."

This is not precisely an endorsement, though it might come to that. But it indicates that, from the start, Duncan figured out a few things about the state comptroller. Schaefer's a man of intense loyalties. He appreciates the personal gesture. He likes attention. And he responds to such gestures.

But the Duncan-Schaefer relationship also presents a puzzlement. Schaefer, the Democrat who endorsed Republican George Bush the elder for president, is famously friendly with the current governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - at the same time he's pushing Duncan's candidacy.

There are Democrats who sniff an odor of conspiracy in all of this, saying Duncan is naive to imagine Schaefer is really in his camp while Ehrlich has been making nice to the comptroller for the past three years.

In their worst-case anxiety, Democrats imagine Schaefer briefly propping up Duncan to knock down Mayor Martin O'Malley in the party's gubernatorial primary, helping Duncan raise money (and spend it) in a campaign in which O'Malley and Duncan would beat each other up so badly that Ehrlich would be the chief beneficiary.

If successful, they imagine Schaefer taking a sudden hard turn and declaring, "Even though I liked Duncan against O'Malley, I'm going for Ehrlich now."

Duncan says he's heard such talk and - though he's gotten no assurances from Schaefer - is convinced the theory's wrong.

A few weeks ago, as he campaigned in Baltimore County, Duncan said, "If [Schaefer] was only telling me ... but he's told an awful lot of people I'd be the best governor by far. It'd be hard for him to say, `Gee, I was wrong' once we got past the primary. I don't see how he could backtrack."

This week, two days after a Washington Post article detailing Schaefer's great affection for Ehrlich, Duncan was asked about it again.

"Schaefer's Schaefer," Duncan said. This means: unpredictable. "But I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. He's taken me around, he's introduced me to people and said good things about me, and asked them to consider me. I know he likes Ehrlich. He's very open about that. But people have come to me and said Schaefer's told them I'm the best of the three candidates.

"I've got tremendous respect for him. I'm proud to have his support, and we'll take it through the primary and see what happens then. We've talked about an endorsement. He hesitates when I bring it up. It's a question of timing. But he's helping me get better known in the Baltimore area. He gives me credibility where people don't know me. And he says he's going to continue doing that."

Schaefer, vacationing this week in Ocean City, was unreachable for comment. Ehrlich, for this columnist, has been unreachable since last year.

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