Schaefer flirts with possible re-election bid

83-year-old comptroller holds fundraising event

September 16, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka and Andrew A. Green | Jennifer Skalka and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

If ever a Maryland politician has had carte blanche to say or do what he wants, it's William Donald Schaefer.

So when the 83-year-old former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, known for his cantankerous moments, chooses not to say yet whether he's running for re-election as state comptroller, it's no surprise. But, his aides say, his fundraiser last night at Martin's West in Woodlawn was a clear indication that he's moving in that direction.

About 500 people attended, paying either $1,000 for an early-evening VIP meeting with the comptroller or $250 for the party. Gene M. Raynor, a Schaefer campaign worker, said that with the night's take, Schaefer will have about $500,000 in the bank.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan both attended the event.

Schaefer came tantalizingly close to announcing a re-election bid, but stopped short. He also indicated that he preferred to die in office rather than retire.

"I can't announce I'm running, but I think you get the idea," he told the crowd.

"People have asked me `Oh. Don't you think it's time to retire?' I say it's time to retire when ... ," the comptroller said, stopping his sentence, closing his eyes and crossing his arms over his chest.

More than a formidable politician, many call Schaefer an institution. But should he choose to run again, his presence on the Democratic ticket will pose a challenge for the party.

Schaefer has increasingly alienated many Democrats over the past several years. His critical remarks of non-English speakers, AIDS patients and minority-business set-asides have infuriated liberal lawmakers, and his chummy relationship with Ehrlich is undermining the Democratic Party's efforts to make the state's first GOP governor in more than 30 years a one-term officeholder.

Given his popularity, though, the head of his party isn't about to abandon him. "He's a reflection of how big the Democratic tent can be for all people," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

And with the election more than a year away, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, says, "He's got plenty of time to go back to being a Democrat."

If Schaefer runs and wins re-election, he would be 89 at the end of his term. But Maryland voters aren't ones to shy away from politicians of a certain age.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, 72, would have been the favorite to win a sixth term had he not decided this spring to retire. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is 69. U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett is 79. State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman died in office at 78. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is 74. Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire is 75 and raising money for another term. In 2002, Helen Delich Bentley nearly won back her old seat in Congress at the age of 79.

The ultimate example of Maryland political longevity is the man who held Schaefer's job for 39 years, Louis L. Goldstein, who died in office in 1998 at the age of 85. He had just filed for re-election.

Schaefer shows no signs of being ready to end his public career. He seizes opportunities to be in the limelight, relishing his role as the irascible curmudgeon of Maryland politics. Since he was elected comptroller, Board of Public Works meetings, where state contracts are approved, are a favorite venue for Schaefer's antics. During Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration, Schaefer would routinely berate the governor sitting to his left.

The comptroller does more than grandstand at the meetings, however. He is usually more aggressive than the governor or treasurer in questioning potential contracts, often demanding answers from state bureaucrats about why bids weren't lower.

He has also frequently found himself at the center of controversy after his Public Works tirades. His rant about a McDonald's worker whose English wasn't up to his standards sparked protests from immigrant groups. A leading legislator called on Schaefer to resign after he said people with AIDS were a danger to society. And minority groups lambasted him after Schaefer demanded to know when the state's Minority Business Enterprise program would end.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and perennial Ehrlich antagonist who is considering running against Schaefer, said he believes Democratic primary voters will be angry at the comptroller for more than his controversial pronouncements.

"It's the vote after vote after vote on the Board of Public Works undermining key programs that Democrats have supported over the years and time after time publicly and privately all but endorsing the governor," Franchot said. "I think being viewed as Bob Ehrlich's biggest supporter is not a positive in the Democratic primary."

Still, Schaefer is in an elite tier of Maryland politicians, one of just four in recent years who have won more than 1 million votes in a statewide contest.

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