Schaefer trailing in Democratic race


Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 13, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN REPORTER

In the fiercest battle of a political career that has spanned six decades, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was struggling early this morning to hold onto his job - trailing Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot.

With two-thirds of precincts reporting, Owens and Franchot were running neck and neck in the Democratic primary.

"Do you think it could be closer?" Owens said as she entered a room full of supporters at the Nautilus Diner in Crofton late last night. "I'm ready for an outcome and I think the voters are, too."

In downtown Silver Spring, Franchot was thanking those who had worked for him and said he didn't think the final results would be in until today or later.

"Let's just have a beer and relax," he said. "I'm certainly confident that I've run a great campaign. I'm very pleased with my effort and look forward to seeing the final results."

Even when yesterday's regular ballots were counted, state officials said as many as 26,000 Democratic absentee ballots would have to be tallied beginning tomorrow. And in Baltimore and Montgomery County, thousands of provisional ballots also were in the balance.

The winner will face the top vote-getter on the Republican side. Former University of Baltimore business school dean Anne M. McCarthy was leading three other candidates.

The Democratic primary campaign had become a referendum on Schaefer: Many voters interviewed yesterday were either fervent supporters of the comptroller, siding with him as a tribute to his many years in office, or against him, not true backers of either opponent but passionate that it was time for Schaefer to go.

"I have been a William Donald Schaefer fan ever since I've been voting," said Lyberian Massey, a retired Social Security Administration manager who cast a ballot for Franchot at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens in Baltimore.

"My mother was a Schaefer fan. We all liked him. Back then, his view used to be amusing. Now it's just foolishness," she said.

When asked who she voted for, Susan Redmond, a retired secretary from Catonsville, replied: "It wasn't Schaefer, I know that." She soon remembered she chose Owens.

At Dalesio's restaurant in Little Italy, Schaefer - the 84-year-old fixture of Maryland politics - was met early in the evening by several dozen supporters and a phalanx of television cameras.

He readily told reporters who greeted him at the door that it was the worst campaign of his life, one he called "nasty" and marred by "innuendo." He was ushered upstairs to a private room where he was roundly applauded.

Like many at the party last night, speechwriter Vicki Lathom, who has worked for Schaefer for 11 years, was staunchly protective of her longtime boss and disappointed that his more provocative comments have overshadowed his accomplishments.

"Things have changed in the last 20 years, the political correctness," she said. "People want you to speak your mind. They love it. But then you speak your mind, and the sky falls."

The tone of the comptroller's race grew unpleasant in its waning days, with Schaefer making disparaging remarks about Owens, 62.

He called her a "Mother Hubbard" and said she looked like a "great-great-grandmother," was "getting fat" and that "her husband rules her" - all comments made in front of reporters, all just days after he released a radio ad in which he apologized to anyone he might have offended previously.

Owens was outraged by the remarks. Schaefer refused to apologize, then accused her of "age discrimination" based on a remark she made in May: that telling him she would challenge him was like telling a grandfather it was time to give up the car keys.

Franchot, 58, was on the sidelines during much of the name-calling, urging his opponents to talk about the issues. He called himself the only "true Democrat" in the race, linking Schaefer and Owens to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In ads, Franchot called the three "peas in a pod" and accused them of being pro-sprawl and pro-slot machines.

He also picked up newspaper endorsements - and many endorsements from unions and progressive groups.

A five-term delegate, Franchot entered the race nearly a year ago, long before Owens, who has been county executive since 1998, decided to make a run for the job of the state's chief tax collector.

As the year went by, Schaefer began to look more and more vulnerable.

The former city councilman, Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor was always an outspoken character, but in recent years, his antics sometimes got more attention than the civic works for which he was long known.

He used bimonthly public meetings of the state Board of Public Works, on which he sits with the governor and treasurer, as a soapbox for his views, which sometimes drew criticism.

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