Closing the curtain on Schaefer's remarkable show

September 17, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

And so it ends - or maybe not.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the "Do it now" man of Baltimore, prepares to leave the stage, shown the door by voters - happily by some, sadly by others.

His friends fretted. Defeat would be unbearable for him. But they forgot one of his attributes: a certain resilience, a willingness to stand up in difficult moments to take his medicine or to dish it out to others.

He had known defeat before, but he never accepted it. The Baltimore Colts left town. Barons of the football world refused to replace them. He took it personally, suffering for his city, insisting that Baltimore was big-league, soldiering on.

He was the Barrymore of Baltimore. He could do hurt and angry, silly and contemplative - the full palette of emotion.

In a world where human beings are instructed by political consultants to turn themselves into identifiable brands, Mr. Schaefer excelled. It was not artifice. It was him.

He did it, not once but over and over, keeping the product fresh and new.

Think of all the ways we came to know him:

The "Do it now" man: impatient, demanding, relentless.

The funny hat man, willing to look ridiculous for his city.

The paragon of "people and caring," his three-word mission statement.

Author of the splash heard round the world, that epic dip in the seal pool.

"Renaissance mayor": the real Baltimore deal.

Married to the city: had no other life, wanted none.

Mayor annoyed: an almost daily headline in The Sun.

Willie Don: needed no introduction.

In the end, though, in the last of his many elections, the tags had become a bit shopworn, forgotten or even unknown to a new generation of Marylanders.

"It's just him" didn't work as an explanation for antics that seemed crude - as when he invited a young, female aide to "walk again" so he could observe her from the rear. The moment jarred friends who knew the moment was not him - but was devastating.

The last campaign, run against the spectacle of the "walk again" moment, was a nearly impossible challenge for his team. Impossible because, physically, he could not campaign vigorously. Vigor was gone. They were forced to hide their man. He had some damage to control, but he couldn't be sent out to do it; what further damage might he do?

In a biography of Mr. Schaefer, I wrote of his feverish determination to save his city. If you were him, "You had to rage against the night of decay and welfare dependency, high school dropout rates and trash, until you were seen as slightly mad. Then you made madness your tool."

But that alchemy was lost to him now. Tradition itself became his enemy. He'd always had a crab cake at Faidley's in Lexington Market as elections approached. He could do that, right? What harm could it do? Plenty.

Reporters there asked if the apologies he had made in radio commercials were sincere? Sincere? He began to sing, making up the lyrics there in the market. He was poking fun at the question, but he seemed out of control

In the past, he had known when his campaigns were going poorly. He sensed when he, himself, had become a problem - and stepped out of the spotlight. This time, he couldn't.

Polls done after all the candidates had officially filed showed him with a lead of 10 percent or more, with a large segment undecided. He won virtually none of those, and may have lost a point or two of support. His opponents, fueled by his performance, sprinted to the finish ahead of him.

Before the campaign began, at a fundraiser, he was asked if he didn't think it was time to step aside. Not at all, he said, and then pantomimed the way he planned to leave office: He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. Everyone got it.

Once the campaign began, "walk again" and other incidents of the recent past got in the way of showcasing the work he had done in the comptroller's office and of his remarkable record. His usually assiduous work in preparing for his role on the Board of Public Works - where he sits in judgment on the million-dollar daily affairs of state - was eclipsed. He couldn't run on his record because he had shifted the focus to his antics.

Even so, his handlers thought he might take one more dip in the reservoir of public support. He came up empty, in effect. Two-thirds of the electorate abandoned him.

In a goodbye press conference, he congratulated Del. Peter Franchot of Takoma Park, the winner. It was Mr. Franchot who had taken the big risk, had seen the old lion's vulnerability, had run a smart campaign.

Mr. Schaefer continued his feud with his other opponent, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. He had said she looked like Mother Hubbard - after she said telling him of her plan to run against him was like taking the car keys from your grandfather. In the end, it was the voters who did that deed.

Then, instead of tears, he offered a new plan for himself. Maybe he would run for mayor of Ocean City.

Make way for "Donnie Ocean."

C. Fraser Smith, senior news analyst for WYPR-FM, is the author of "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography." His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

Leonard Pitts' column will return next Sunday.

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