Schaefer now facing his toughest challenge

After 50 years, Schaefer facing his toughest challenge


Maryland Votes 2006

August 31, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

When Comptroller William Donald Schaefer carried his campaign for re-election to the friendly territory of an eastern Baltimore County retirement community this week, it was easy to see why he's lasted a half-century on the Maryland political scene.

He was charming and witty as he met with residents at Oak Crest Village. He joked, talked about old times, poked fun at himself, made faces and did a little light politicking over lunch.

But this year, the former governor and mayor of Baltimore is facing the toughest foe of his 50-year political career: himself. Poll numbers show that Schaefer is in serious jeopardy in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary against two high-profile opponents.

That is true, in part, because these days Schaefer sometimes presents a far different face to the public than he did at Oak Crest. There's the irascible Schaefer, complaining that immigrants aren't learning English quickly enough. There's the 84- year-old man, openly ogling a 24-year-old woman at a public meeting. There's the stubborn Schaefer, offending important voting blocs such as women and minorities.

Yesterday, Schaefer made an effort to heal his self-inflicted wounds, releasing a radio ad in which he apologizes to anyone he might have offended.

By themselves, the incidents that prompted the apology would probably not be enough to endanger the comptroller in the general election. Maryland voters have long been forgiving when it comes to William Donald Schaefer - perceiving him as a true original even when he behaves unusually. He has many admirers in Republican ranks, foremost among them Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Certainly, no other Maryland candidate can match him in experience, name recognition and the genuine affection people feel for him personally.

But this year, the combination of ideological differences, objections to Schaefer's behavior and questions about his age have combined to draw two strong challengers into the race: Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

So far, Schaefer's response to the twin challenge has appeared less than energetic. He has made few campaign appearances and in parts of Maryland, almost all of the Schaefer signs on the street were put there by U.S. Senate candidate Mike Schaefer.

For most of the year, William Donald Schaefer has hardly bothered to raise money - adding less than $21,000 to his campaign coffers between January and early August. Franchot, with the aid of a $750,000 loan to himself, had twice as much cash on hand when the last reporting period ended Aug. 8. Owens had about $272,000 on hand to Schaefer's $419,000.

For some in the Democratic Party, Schaefer's apology might have come too late and be too general.

For four years, Schaefer has been flaunting his support for Ehrlich's programs, winning admiration among Republicans but showing little concern for the opinions of fellow Democrats. (An exception came yesterday, when he joined with Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to block Ehrlich's proposal to move the state Department of Planning out of Baltimore.)

Departures from party orthodoxy are nothing new to Schaefer, who endorsed President George Bush over Bill Clinton in 1992 but came back six years later to be elected comptroller as a Democrat.

Recent polls have shown Schaefer's numbers in the low to mid-30s, with high unfavorable ratings among Democratic voters. His best hope of renomination in the primary might be that his opponents will split the anti-Schaefer vote.

The job of delivering Schaefer's message has largely been left to his political spokesman, Laslo Boyd, who contends that a candidate with near-universal name recognition should not be expected to run a traditional campaign.

"What we're expecting and counting on is that people will remember the great job he's done in every office he's ever held," Boyd said. "I think everybody expects it's going to be a close race. We're confident he's going to win."

But winning the Democratic primary could be an uphill battle for a candidate who has alienated key elements of the party.

Schaefer's comments criticizing immigrants' language skills have outraged the increasingly influential Latino community. His public statements seeming to link North Korean missile firings with South Korean immigrants - compounded by a refusal to apologize - irked many in the growing Asian voting bloc.

The comptroller's outspoken criticism of land preservation programs has provoked the wrath of environmentalists. He offended gay voters and health care advocates with comments about AIDS patients. His criticism of minority business preferences has strained relations with some African-Americans. Most of the labor endorsements have gone Franchot's way.

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