Schaefer's falling star

July 23, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Loyalists urged state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer not to run for re-election.

And the urgings continue even now, though it's too late for his name to be removed from the Sept. 12 Democratic primary ballot. A series of recklessly impolitic public performances made him look vulnerable to a strong challenger - if not simply unfit for the demanding job.

Others, led by lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, urged him to stay. Intensely loyal to both men and loath to cut and run, Mr. Schaefer entered the race.

So he's running. But not well.

The 84-year-old former governor and former mayor of Baltimore - who in 1986 set a Maryland record for margin of victory in a race for governor - was the choice of only 31 percent of voters in a Sun poll published last week.

Some 36 percent said they were undecided, an unusually large number for a race in which one of the candidates has virtually 100 percent name recognition. If voters are undecided, it's not because they don't know Mr. Schaefer.

The campaign now might be a contest between his lesser-known challengers. Observers doubt that he will win many of those who have not made a choice - though some of the undecideds might be wondering if they can bring themselves to vote against someone they've supported all their voting lives. The dynamic also could change if his opponents' attacks generate a wave of sympathy.

Mr. Schaefer's star began to fade after a series of eruptions during Board of Public Works meetings in Annapolis. In what may have been the most telling of these episodes, the comptroller asked a young female aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to "walk again" so he could watch her from behind.

Given this nationally rebroadcast event, Mr. Schaefer's vulnerability needed no verification from the polls. Nor was it the only evidence.

During the Fourth of July parade in Dundalk, the folksy, plainspoken comptroller was booed. Mr. Schaefer stuck out his tongue, a gesture captured for another newspaper. In the past, he had so much support that he could get away with this sort of behavior.

Most recently, the comptroller offended Korean-Americans, suggesting their country was firing missiles at the United States. But most Korean-Americans are from South Korea. The missile test was conducted by North Koreans. A Schaefer aide said geography was not one of Mr. Schaefer's strong suits. But humor might not rescue him from the slow, self-inflicted erosion of his support.

Now come his opponents. Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, in the race for only a few weeks, was the choice of 22 percent of the survey respondents. Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot had 11 percent.

Mr. Schaefer's fitness will remain an issue. Mr. Franchot said he will play it "gloves off." He said he will attack what he calls the Republican wing of the Democratic Party, the wing he says is populated by Mr. Bereano and Mr. Mandel, both of whom - along with Mr. Schaefer - have been supportive of Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican.

Mr. Franchot also presses for a debate. It would show, he predicts, that Mr. Schaefer does not have "the mental or emotional fitness" to function as comptroller.

Ms. Owens will approach the race emphasizing her competence and experience - and staying away from sharp attacks. Recently, she declined to respond when Mr. Schaefer said he would not debate her about anything, including how to "bake a chocolate cake." Nor did she have anything to say after the remarks that offended Korean-Americans - not because she approved, but because the comptroller's remarks did more damage than any reaction she might have had.

When Ms. Owens decided to enter the race, she walked across the street from her Anne Arundel County office in Annapolis to meet with Mr. Schaefer in the comptroller's office.

Not certain what to expect, she was surprised to hear him advising her on how to run her campaign - against him.

Mr. Schaefer says Ms. Owens was a friend, but that was then - now she's his opponent.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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