Schaefer's exit takes the cake

Bittersweet end to career at last board meeting

January 04, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

"This is a momentous occasion," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said at the beginning of yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting, grinning at the cameras as an aide brought forward a coconut-frosted confection. "It is the 1,000th free cake Governor Schaefer has gotten out of the Government House kitchen."

It was momentous for more than that: The session was presumably the last Board of Public Works meeting for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose September primary loss appears to have closed a half-century of public service. It was also the last meeting for Ehrlich, who has worked diligently to keep Schaefer as an ally, frequently by using cakes to soothe the irascible comptroller.

But, as has almost always been the case at the public works panel, this was Schaefer's show.

"I leave public life now after 50 years, and I don't leave happy," Schaefer said. "I leave sad, because I wish I could do it all over again."

"I remember Lou Gehrig when he gave his speech," said Schaefer, 85, referring to the New York Yankees first baseman. "I remember him so well when he said he was the luckiest man in the world, and he was. He was a fine man, and I've been lucky, too. I'll walk away today crying a little bit, shedding a tear, going back to my lonely little room by myself to have a TV dinner and think about how everyone has been so nice to me."

Since his election loss last year -- a defeat fueled by remarks he made at board meetings that offended women, immigrants, minorities, AIDS patients and others -- Schaefer has been praised, thanked and honored repeatedly for his service as a Baltimore city councilman, City Council president, mayor, governor and comptroller.

He still has more than two weeks on the job until his successor, Peter Franchot, is sworn in, and the opening of the General Assembly session next week will provide more opportunities for goodbyes.

But Schaefer made his farewell by taking full advantage of the forum he has used to badger bureaucrats, harass governors and crack jokes. In about an hour, Schaefer, Ehrlich and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp invoked laughter, inspired tears and spent about $400 million in state contracts.

Given that approving contracts is the stated purpose of the Board of Public Works, all this drama might seem out of place. But what was remarkable about yesterday's meeting was how little it differed from a run-of-the-mill Board of Public Works session in the Schaefer era.

If anything was unusual, it was that when the board voted to name a piece of state property after someone, it wasn't in tribute to Schaefer. Instead, the board dedicated the Northern Central Rail Trail in Baltimore County to former Department of Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown.

Yesterday's meeting was packed, a standing-room-only crowd including dozens of reporters and photographers from newspapers and radio and television stations across the state. Top-dollar lobbyists, Cabinet secretaries and a couple of state senators crowded into the Governor's Reception Room on the top floor of the capitol to watch the show.

But that has been more or less the norm since Schaefer was elected comptroller in 1998 and took a seat next to his nemesis, Gov. Parris N. Glendening. That's when public works meetings got exciting. Schaefer routinely harangued Glendening -- he even used the occasion of a meeting in 2001 to insinuate that the governor was having an extramarital affair, an event that preceded Glendening's divorce and remarriage.

The Ehrlich years have been more of a long Schaefer love feast. The two politicians share much of their political bases among conservative-leaning Democrats, and they appear to have genuine affection for each other. The compliments that flowed between them yesterday were only slightly more effusive than usual.

"Everybody loves you, not because you are a politician or wore that goofy suit and jumped into the seal pool, although that was a brilliant move," Ehrlich said, referring to a classic Schaefer stunt at the National Aquarium. "Everybody loves you because your heart is bigger than the state of Maryland."

"It has been a pleasure to work with your administration," Schaefer responded. "I never had to worry about you. I never had to worry about you dealing under the table."

Ehrlich and Schaefer also kept up their running Board of Public Works comedy routine, in which the governor cracks wise and the comptroller pretends to get mad. To wit: In the middle of Ehrlich's joke about the cake at the beginning of the meeting, Schaefer butted in, "What kind of cake is it?"

"It's free," Ehrlich said. "Don't worry about it."

And later: "Old governors never die," Schaefer said during a speech about how honest and trustworthy Ehrlich is. "They just float away."

"They become comptroller, I guess," Ehrlich interjected.

"I used to like him," Schaefer said.

Schaefer's performance was somewhat unusual yesterday in that he didn't grill any of Ehrlich's Cabinet secretaries or quibble over the details of any of the contracts that the board approved.

And he said nothing that would be likely to offend anyone. Instead, he came about as close as he ever has to looking back on some of his antics with regret.

"I lost the last election because of stupidity on my own part," Schaefer said. "I wish I hadn't done some of the things I did, but that's the way it goes."

"I've had a good, long run," he said. "And I hope to go out on a positive end."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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