Schaefer couldn't leave on his own

Democrats got tired of Schaefer

Analysis: a political life

Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 14, 2006|By Michael Dresser and M. Dion Thompson | Michael Dresser and M. Dion Thompson,Sun reporters

In the end, Maryland Democrats wanted no more of William Donald Schaefer.

Whether it was the unseemly behavior that became too much to ignore, or the cumulative effect of years of befriending Republicans, or simply the sense that the 84-year-old Schaefer was a relic of a bygone era, the party that nominated him for elective office since the 1950s had tired of him. When the votes were counted, Schaefer not only hadn't won, he'd finished third out of three, behind winner Peter Franchot and runner-up Janet S. Owens. The message was clear, the rejection resounding.

Schaefer's closest friends saw it coming. Many had urged him to step gracefully into retirement, but it was a word he equated with death. When all was said and done, he didn't know how not to run. He couldn't leave the political stage without being pushed.

Like the hero of Edwin O'Connor's 1956 novel, The Last Hurrah, about the final campaign of an aging city machine politician, Schaefer's career has apparently ended in a defeat by a younger rival whose achievements paled beside his own.

A dismayed but proudly unapologetic Schaefer addressed the media yesterday morning, hours after the confirmation of his defeat, while the fresh loss still stung.

He entered a dimly lit conference room down the hall from his Annapolis office to prolonged applause from his staff, which he eventually waved off to gamely play off his post-primary shock, eulogize his own accomplishments, joke about seeking other political offices and jab repeatedly at the media, which he blamed for his loss.

With his arms folded across his chest, he said he would not take anything back and would certainly not apologize for a thing.

"In politics, everyone wants you to make a mistake," he said. "Everyone wants to see you do something wrong."

Schaefer's 50-year career in public service would take him from the Baltimore City Council, to the presidency of that body, to four terms as mayor, two as governor and -- after a miserable four years on the political sidelines -- two as comptroller.

He never married, never had children. His political friends and supporters were his family, and his work was his life.

Even his foes hailed his dedication to public service -- as they suggested it was time for him to go.

His last campaign was a half-hearted one -- devoid of energy, insulated from news media scrutiny and barely visible. His ads praised accomplishments that were undeniable but long in the past. His friends pointed to his integrity, which was never in serious question, while Democratic voters wondered about his judgment, behavior, energy and outspoken support for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

At his few public appearances, he seemed every bit his age. He could still turn on the charm with his longtime supporters. But then he opened his mouth and out poured ugly observations about one of his opponents, not her politics but her appearance. Even those who had stuck with Schaefer for years winced. Many concluded that enough was finally enough.

By then, he was hardly the same William Donald Schaefer who spearheaded the development of downtown Baltimore, who built Camden Yards and led the state through a budget crisis.

But in his time -- and what a time it was -- he was a phenomenon unmatched in Maryland history. Taking over as mayor in the early 1970s, at a time when Baltimore was foundering and dispirited, he infused the city with a sense of energy and pride.

Under his leadership, the gleaming Inner Harbor as it is today took shape, but his achievements as mayor were more than bricks and mortar. He came to power as the city was making a painful transition from white dominance to a black majority. His handling of racial issues didn't satisfy everyone, but blacks of older generations remembered that he appointed the first African-American city solicitor and police commissioner. And long after other whites had fled West Baltimore, he remained in the house he shared with his mother.

Schaefer, a descendant of German immigrants, was born in Baltimore in 1921. He served in World War II and established a career as a lawyer, though the profession never captured his imagination.

He was drawn to politics as a young man and lost two races for the House of Delegates before winning the favorable attention of political kingmaker Irvin Kovens.

With Kovens' support he ran for City Council in 1955 and achieved the first of dozens of electoral victories in an unbeaten streak that came to an end Tuesday.

In 1967, he ran for City Council president and won. Four years later he ran for mayor and won, with nearly 85 percent of the vote.

He was perfect for a town in desperate need of a boost. He was hardworking and solidly middle class, unpretentious in a town wary of wealth, lineage and airs. He could not have come from Roland Park or Guilford.

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