Schaefer not far ahead of rivals

Many likely voters withhold support, study other candidates

Maryland Votes 2006

July 19, 2006|By STEPHANIE DESMON | STEPHANIE DESMON,SUN REPORTER

Despite nearly 50 years in politics, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - the straight-shooting and irascible former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor - could be in for the fight of his political life as he seeks a third term as the state's chief tax collector, a new Sun poll suggests.

With eight weeks to go before the September primary, the poll shows that three in 10 likely Democratic voters would support Schaefer if the election were held today and that his lesser-known opponents are in close pursuit.

The poll, which surveyed 604 likely Democratic voters, gives Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens 22 percent of the vote and Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot 11 percent.

The number that is proving telling to political watchers, however, is the large percentage of voters who are still undecided - 36 percent. With an incumbent as universally known as Schaefer on the ballot, undecided voters might be reconsidering their allegiance to a leader once seen as politically invincible, observers say.

The poll suggests that Schaefer's recent behavior - which has included remarks deemed offensive by immigrants, minorities and women - might be taking a toll on his campaign.

"His base continues to hemorrhage and this is a ... dangerous sign," said Keith Haller, the president of Potomac Inc., an independent policy research and polling firm in Bethesda that conducted the poll for The Sun.

The survey was conducted July 6-10, and the comptroller question has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

The poll asked those who are not committed to Schaefer - including the large undecided bloc - why they are not backing the former governor.

Thirty-eight percent cited his recent behavior toward women and minorities, and 21 percent said "he's too old" to do the job. Schaefer will turn 85 this year.

Haller, the pollster, said that, taken together, nearly three in five gave these "disqualifying answers."

"Seniors sometimes can pick up very clearly when some of their fellow seniors are starting to lose some of their capacities," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, 63, who was on the receiving end of many Schaefer blows when the two sat together on the state Board of Public Works from 1999 to 2003. "That may be well what we're seeing."

Older Marylanders - those over 65 - were more likely to feel that Schaefer's age could be getting in the way.

"I don't think Schaefer is really functioning. He just strikes me as being a little too old for the job," said Carol Noble, a 66-year-old Rockville resident who is supporting Franchot for the comptroller post.

"My mother is 89. My father died ... at age 91. They realized as they got older, there comes a time when you do have to do things differently. You don't have the physical stamina. You don't have the mental acuity you had 10 years ago. Perhaps we realize that more than some of the younger people because they think they'll live forever."

Schaefer's storied career in politics dates to 1955, when he was first elected to the Baltimore City Council. After a brief hiatus that began when his second term as governor ended in 1995, Schaefer made a high-profile comeback.

Ninety minutes before a candidate filing deadline in 1998 - and just days after the death of longtime Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein - Schaefer became a candidate for comptroller. He won the race with 62 percent of the vote in the general election.

The Sun poll suggests the 2006 primary could be much closer.

"This is not a surprise to me and not a surprise to anyone - except maybe the comptroller - to anyone who follows politics in Maryland," said Glendening, who is now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. "People who know him aren't sure they want him anymore."

Some poll respondents said that Schaefer is still up to the task. Lois Mehle, a 70-year-old retired secretary from Baltimore, has always supported Schaefer and she said she plans to vote for him again. "He's said and done some things I don't like but he seems like the everyday kind of person who looks out for the everyday person," Mehle said.

"I think he would know if he was too old."

Schaefer, the "do-it-now" mayor of Baltimore known for his attention to the little details such as potholes and the big details such as transforming Baltimore's Inner Harbor and spearheading the construction of Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, has always been a bit of a character.

He also had a fiercely loyal following that helped him to win the 1986 gubernatorial election with 82 percent of the vote statewide, carrying every jurisdiction in Maryland.

"There's a very deep well of affection for him," said C. Fraser Smith, senior news analyst at WYPR and a regular Sun contributor who has written a book on Schaefer. "He has known what people want to see in a public official. He gave the city and the state his life. The question becomes how long should he be indulged."

A loss wouldn't do too much damage to Schaefer's legacy, Smith and others say.

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