Mayor Schaefer kept it clean during dirty times

  • A contractor lifts the statue of William Donald Schaefer onto its permanent platform.
A contractor lifts the statue of William Donald Schaefer onto… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
November 10, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

The irony is 7-foot-2 and made of bronze: A statue of William Donald Schaefer goes up along the Inner Harbor promenade just a week or so before the current mayor of Baltimore goes on trial, accused of stealing gift cards intended for the needy. What a town!

"Baltimore has had some truly courageous, powerful leaders grace the steps of City Hall," Sheila Dixon said in her weekly newsletter to citizens. "William Donald Schaefer's sixteen years as Mayor will forever stand out as a time where the bar was raised and the meaning of leadership redefined. ... I am thankful to have the opportunity to follow the trail these giant footsteps have left behind."

Nice, but I don't recall the trail leading to criminal court.

In fact, Schaefer managed to get through 52 years of elected office without being indicted, which must be some kind of record around here -- Louie Goldstein territory -- and, given the opportunities an old-school, big-city mayor had to pad his pockets, and the ferocity with which federal agents investigated him and his peers, an impressive one at that.

Mr. Schaefer was City Council president and then mayor during the golden age of corruption in Maryland. Assuming there was something rotten going on, people who didn't like Mr. Schaefer -- or reformers who had evidence that he was corrupt -- had ample opportunity to help prosecutors investigate his administration, and they did. He withstood prosecutorial scrutiny at perhaps its most intensive.

Mr. Schaefer was mayor at a time when the U.S. attorney's office here went after white-collar and political corruption allegations with a fresh zeal born from Watergate. The first and biggest to fall was Spiro T. Agnew, the former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor who took kickbacks even after he became Richard Nixon's vice-president. (He took payoffs in the old Executive Office Building.) In October 1973, Mr. Agnew pleaded no contest to federal charges in the old courthouse on Calvert Street, then celebrated his plea bargain -- no jail time -- with dinner in Little Italy.

The next year, Dale Anderson, the Baltimore County executive, and Joe Alton, the Anne Arundel County executive -- Mr. Schaefer's peers to his north and south -- went down on corruption charges and off to prison. So did the state's attorney for Baltimore County.

The feds kept the heat on with an investigation of Mr. Agnew's successor as governor, Marvin Mandel. Mr. Mandel was eventually indicted, along with several co-defendants. (Mr. Mandel's defense attorney was Arnold Weiner, the man at Sheila Dixon's side this week.) One of the complaints we hear from Dixon defenders is that a Republican-appointed special prosecutor has spent four years investigating the Democratic mayor. That's true, but so what? While Mr. Schaefer was mayor and his administration under investigation, the two U.S. Attorneys in Baltimore were George Beall and Jervis Finney, both Republicans. Two of their biggest catches, Mr. Agnew andMr. Alton, were of the same party.

City Hall remained a big target. In 1976, two FBI agents went undercover as upstart contractors in an effort to root out suspected extortionate activities by city officials in charge of awarding contracts. This went on for at least two years, and there was constant speculation that the feds had found something on the mayor.

They didn't, and never came close. They nailed a state delegate on extortion charges, and they busted a ring of six demolition contractors who had been rigging bids on millions of dollars in city contracts for years. A public works official who had knowledge of the bid rigging went to prison, too.

Then the state's attorney for Baltimore was indicted. So was a former congressman -- in the new federal courthouse just named after him!

But none of these cases of offense against the public trust reached the mayor's office, where Mr. Schaefer remained until voters made him governor in 1986.

Mr. Schaefer could be ornery. He held grudges. He too often operated through a "shadow government" and was probably too cozy with businesses that were interested in redeveloping his city. He didn't devote enough of his time and power to public education and the poorest neighborhoods. He said inappropriate things that, in his later years as state comptroller, signaled the end of his long career.

But the Schaefer people should remember when they see Rodney Carroll's statue is the one the sculptor has captured: the persistent, demanding, avuncular mayor who believed Baltimore could be better than the city it had become by the 1960s and 1970s, after the riots and after years of white and middle-class flight, after the loss of so many manufacturing jobs and the shift of political power to the suburbs. Mr. Schaefer stayed focused on getting things done while his peers -- Mr. Agnew and other crooks -- were taking bribes.

In 52 years of public life, with all its battles and controversies, a man is bound to make enemies. He's bound to hear critics scratching and kicking at his legacy. But Mr. Schaefer had many real achievements and an honorable record of public service that deserves at least bronze. The record includes never having had a seat at the defendant's table. He embarrassed us at times, but never by getting indicted. The record shows he committed petty politics, but he was never accused of petty theft.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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