Battle Lines

Maryland Votes 2006

September 07, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN REPORTER

A week after airing an ad apologizing for remarks perceived as offensive, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was back in traditional form yesterday, saying primary opponent Janet S. Owens is "getting fat" and "her husband rules her."

Gone was a contrite, almost remorseful Schaefer who debuted in the radio spots. Reappearing at a noon rally in Baltimore yesterday was the outspoken former mayor and governor who has lashed out in recent years at immigrants, non-English speakers and people with AIDS.

"It's turned into a name-calling contest," Schaefer, 84, told reporters following him into Lexington Market at lunchtime. Then he proceeded to call the Anne Arundel County executive a few more, after explaining why he wouldn't apologize for personal remarks he made about her last week.

Yesterday he called Owens' hair "old-fashioned," criticized her clothes and likened the woman 20-some years his junior to a "great-great-grandmother."

"An apology? An apology for what?" he said when someone asked whether one was in order. "I can't help it how she looks."

In an interview yesterday, Owens, 62, called the latest installment of Schaefer's political theater "just pitiful."

"At this stage of the game to be talking about my hair, my dress - it's just totally bizarre and really offensive," she said. "I can't believe he's become so coarse and insulting."

Schaefer hasn't lost an election in 50 years, but he finds himself locked in one of the most difficult political fights of his career. Two primary challengers, Owens and Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County, are arguing that it is time for fresh leadership in the critical state office.

Polls show the race is tight.

With six days until the primary, Schaefer spent a little time telling well-wishers why he should get four more years as the state's chief tax collector and much more time on personal barbs.

His campaign manager, Laslo Boyd, insisted that Schaefer is just being Schaefer, doing the things that have won him friends and foes for decades:

"This race will rest entirely on whether voters are more focused on the comments that annoy them or on his record in office."

Keith Haller, whose Bethesda firm conducts polls for The Sun, said that, politically speaking, Schaefer's latest conduct isn't coming out of any political playbook he is familiar with. He said rivals often disparage one another's records, one another's truthfulness, even one another's morality. But their looks?

"It's inconceivable, it's unimaginable that someone in this late stage [of a campaign] would become so personally nasty. You don't win votes on that basis," he said. "You can't allow a candidate - no matter how well-established - to just self-destruct. ... It's so beyond the boundaries of acceptable politics.

"He may have read the tea leaves and decided he's not going to win and so he's going to go down with all guns blazing."

A July poll conducted by Haller's Potomac Inc. showed Schaefer with 31 percent of the vote among likely primary voters and Owens with 22 percent. Franchot was polling at 11 percent, with more than one in three voters undecided.

Other polls since then suggest the race has grown closer.

Schaefer insisted yesterday that Owens is the one who started what he called "dirty politics" when she likened him to a grandfather during a May radio interview. He took that as a swipe at his age. "She doesn't like older people," he said. "Look at her. She's not so young herself."

Owens said yesterday that she was comparing the conversation she had with Schaefer telling him she would run against him to telling your grandfather it was time to give up the car keys.

At a Takoma Park news conference yesterday to receive endorsements from nearly 100 female legislators and community activists from Montgomery County, Franchot said of Schaefer:

"This is way beyond any kind of normal political discourse. He's clearly not in control of what he's saying. It's a sad end to a colossus. I call him the Babe Ruth of Maryland politics. [But] even Babe Ruth had a terrible last year."

While the office of comptroller is relatively obscure, the person who holds it is one of three voting members - along with the governor and state treasurer - on the state Board of Public Works, which approves most state spending. Schaefer frequently uses bimonthly board meetings as a soapbox for his views, which of late have drawn heavy criticism.

Earlier this year, he was roundly condemned for making suggestive comments to a female aide who had just given him a mug and walked away, commanding her to return and then "Walk again" as he watched.

In recent years, it seems few have been immune from his remarks. He once called for a registry of AIDS patients, calling them a "danger" who "bring it on themselves." Prompted by a visit to a McDonald's, he issued a tirade about immigrants, saying they should learn to speak English.

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