Democratic identity at stake in primary

November 15, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The unhappiest man in Maryland today is William Donald Schaefer, who will have a campaign fight instead of a coronation. Peter Franchot, the blunt-spoken Democratic Montgomery County delegate, arrived in Fells Point over the weekend to announce he'll run for state comptroller against Schaefer. Then Franchot got really nasty. He called Schaefer a name.

The name was "Republican." This will surprise only the naive. Schaefer has been a Democrat for nearly 70 years, but only nominally for the last 17 or so. He backed George H.W. Bush for president, and then he backed Bob Dole. They are Republicans. He would not endorse Al Gore or John Kerry. They are Democrats. For the past three years, he has gazed misty-eyed upon Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as the son he never had.

Standing in the chilly sunlight at Broadway and Thames over the weekend, in a neighborhood Schaefer considers home turf, Franchot used language that was notably precise and piercing. He opened with a precise kind of apology, and then went to his piercing attack.

"I'm one of [Schaefer's] biggest supporters and oldest friends," Franchot said. In other words: Give the old man his due. Schaefer brought salvation to the city of Baltimore when it was down on its knees; he served the state well as governor. No one should minimize this history. But those were Schaefer's yesterdays, Franchot was saying, and here is a man who has diminished his own legacy.

"Don't be fooled by a wolf in sheep's clothing," Franchot said. He called Schaefer Ehrlich's "biggest supporter" - even bigger, he said, than "the lieutenant governor, who is busy distancing himself from the governor. ... For three years now, our state has been headed in the wrong direction under Bob Ehrlich, and Schaefer has supported him every step of the way."

If any of this is untrue, then Schaefer will have to say so. But it puts him in the first of several awkward positions. He has befriended Ehrlich, and backed him, while knowing this state still has mostly Democratic registration. He is depending on voters clinging fondly to the iconic Schaefer name, and its connection to a flinty integrity. But, in recent years, that icon has been linked to Ehrlich, and that flinty integrity has morphed into an unseemly crankiness and petulance in public places.

Schaefer does not merely run against Franchot - he runs against the figure he has become: the man who interrupts Board of Public Works meetings to deliver his idiosyncratic takes on such topics as immigrants who are slow to learn English and therefore too slow in delivering him his morning muffin. The surrogate son, Ehrlich, famously used those remarks as a setup to deliver his own take on multiculturalism. "Crap," he called it. "Bunk," he called it.

Parents (even surrogate parents) should be careful of their language, lest their wayward children take it up for a little political grandstanding.

Standing behind Franchot as he made his announcement in Fells Point on Saturday were some Baltimore-area politicians who took up the theme of the old Schaefer, and the new.

"[Franchot] is running against an icon," Baltimore Del. Curtis Anderson said. "Schaefer's done a wonderful job. We should build him a statue and admire the things he did. He was a progressive Democrat. But he changed."

"This is the time to look at the future, not the past," added Baltimore County Del. Emmett Burns. "We need a comptroller, not a comic. Schaefer's become a bad joke. Everything that's progressive, he's not. He won't stand up to the governor, and [Franchot] will. And that's the difference."

There is at least one blessing for Schaefer in the midst of such criticism. There are some Democrats urging Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan to drop out of his Democratic gubernatorial bid and run for comptroller against Schaefer. (In fact, there are some who think Schaefer's early endorsement of Duncan against Mayor Martin O'Malley was partly a ploy to keep Duncan in the governor's race.)

Franchot's entrance says Duncan's made up his mind, that he's in the governor's race to stay. "He told me, `Yes, absolutely, he's staying in the race for governor,'" Franchot said. "Of course, [party leaders] could importune him later, but ... "

But it still leaves Schaefer facing Franchot, who is one of Ehrlich's most vocal critics - and, by extension, Schaefer's. Franchot is seen as one of the bright lights of the General Assembly, and a man unafraid to speak his mind.

At his Fells Point announcement, Franchot said the day has arrived "when being a Democrat no longer means being `less Republican.'"

The line has national resonance in a time when liberal Democrats tend to equivocate, and shuffle their feet, and tremble before saying what they really stand for. A Franchot-Schaefer Democratic primary isn't only about two men. It's about the definition of a political party.

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