Still in the game

September 25, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

He says what you think. - a "Re-elect Schaefer" campaign bumper sticker

William Donald Schaefer is outrageous - like a fox.

He knows what some people, critics and supporters, are saying: "They'll have to take him out feet first." The statement is a tribute. He won't quit and he can't lose.

So what does he say?

They're right. That's what he says. He acted the whole thing out during his recent fundraiser at Martin's West.

"People say to me, `Don't you think it's time for you to retire? When are you going to call it a day?'" Without another word, standing there on a stage in front of several hundred of the faithful, he closed his eyes, folded his arms across his chest and stood silently for a few seconds. A stifled gasp at the mordant undertone, some laughs and applause.

So here's the question: Is the 83-year-old icon of Maryland politics just popular, or is he still a player, someone to be reckoned with? All of the above. He's the only political figure in Maryland whose endorsement would matter in an election for, say, governor.

That's why Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the incumbent governor, was standing on the stage introducing him to a roomful of life-long Democrats.

Mr. Schaefer, he said, "is the one we love because he loves us back." The audience applauded, and Mr. Schaefer, who had taken the stage by then, applauded back. He loves the encomiums, but he says he's never heard such bull. More laughter and applause.

No wonder Mayor Martin O'Malley is announcing his gubernatorial candidacy early - Wednesday. You could almost say Mr. Schaefer is making him do it by giving Governor Ehrlich a leg up. It's more complicated and nuanced than that, but in terms of raw numbers, you can take Mr. Schaefer's support to the bank. The Ehrlich-Schaefer combine means something real, maybe for both men.

Another friend of Mr. Schaefer's insisted last week for the umpteenth time that the comptroller - nominally a Democrat - will vote for the Democratic nominee if it turns out to be Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. Mr. Duncan was in the crowd at Martin's West, and he's been as covetous of the comptroller's support as Governor Ehrlich.

There are those who suggest the foxy Mr. Schaefer is playing games. An outrageous libel, says the Democrat, who endorsed Republican George H. W. Bush for president over Bill Clinton, a Democrat. His apoplectic friends had said, "Never!"

Rest assured there's a game on. It's the old clubhouse instinct. The players survey the field, not just for the race they're in but for all the races with some potential for self-serving mischief. If others disdain that sort of small stitching, the players ask if disdain ever won anything.

This year, says another deep thinker, the game stars Mr. Schaefer as Earnest Good Government and Mr. Duncan as the Big Dope. He's not a dope, of course, but that's the storyline. He has no choice, really. He needs every bit of support he can get, and he probably can't beat Mr. Schaefer.

So he decides that Mr. Schaefer's often-stated admiration is real and will endure through the primary with Mr. O'Malley - who the comptroller disdains - and into the general election vs. Governor Ehrlich. Comes then the sneer: Mr. Schaefer will endorse someone other than Bob Ehrlich when pigs fly!

If Mr. Schaefer is playing games, he plays without much risk of having to betray anyone. Here's the insiders' bet: Mr. O'Malley will win, but the Duncan challenge will leave the mayor penniless and panhandling on the political street. He will be a pigeon for Mr. Schaefer's real choice, a lavishly financed governor.

It's an old clubhouse rule: Be with the winner, Democrat if possible, Republican if necessary.

But wait, there's a game within the game. Call it the "All About Me" game. What you're looking for if you're William Donald Schaefer, at any age, is re-election by acclamation.

What he doesn't want is an attractive opponent, someone like Doug Duncan who might decide he can't beat Mr. O'Malley and decides to run for comptroller. That kind of race could make people wonder if they really do think what William Donald Schaefer says.

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

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