The end of an era

September 14, 2006

No one could have expected William Donald Schaefer to go quietly into that good political night. He didn't and he won't. Humility is not in the Schaefer repertoire, but then neither is self-satisfaction. Such is the mortifying, fascinating, insufferable, but never boring duality of an unconventional 84-year-old politician who ran one campaign too many, made about 20 inappropriate remarks too many, and ultimately was defeated by his own overweening pride.

Talking to reporters yesterday, Mr. Schaefer was in classic (scolding, pouting, play-acting, mugging-for-the-cameras) form. He acknowledged Del. Peter Franchot's victory as the Democratic nominee for comptroller but couldn't bring himself to mend fences with his other opponent, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. If voters across the state harbored any doubts about Mr. Schaefer's fitness for office, his rambling personal attacks on her provided a final, self-inflicted coup de grace.

Clowning around and quirkiness have always been part of the Schaefer shtick, of course, but then so has crossing the line of propriety. He jumps into seal pools, he aims a gun at a reporter, he says outrageous things. But he also harbors the thinnest of skins and holds the longest of grudges. Calling the Eastern Shore an outhouse? That's fine for him to do. But woe unto the constituent who dared respond in kind.

These are not the qualities that got Mr. Schaefer elected to office by overwhelming margins over and over again. Mr. Schaefer's unwavering belief in Baltimore, his integrity, his impatience with those who accept the status quo, his ability to persuade the federal government and business leaders to invest here, and most especially his transformation of the Inner Harbor, those are the things that set him apart.

Mr. Schaefer was the driving force behind Baltimore's renaissance through the 1970s and '80s. He returned pride to a city that needed the inspiration - and the economic boost.

For that remarkable achievement, he was swept into statewide office by voters, first as governor and later as comptroller. There was much he achieved in those roles as well, but the fit was never quite right, never as inspired as his days in the mayor's office. His appearances at Board of Public Works meetings became a tired stage show, an often outrageous but ultimately inconsequential monologue.

Voters decided this week that it was time for Mr. Schaefer to leave public office, but that does not mean his accomplishments of the past five decades should be admired any less. Those are his real and lasting legacy.

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