William Donald Schaefer, governor and mayor, dies

Championed Harborplace, Camden Yards, the National Aquarium and other projects that changed the face of Baltimore

April 18, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

William Donald Schaefer, the dominant political figure of the last half-century of Maryland history, died Monday after a "do-it-now" career that changed the face of Baltimore while bringing a new burst of energy to the city he loved.

Mr. Schaefer was 89.

In four terms as mayor and two as governor, he was a champion of big projects that transformed Baltimore: Harborplace, Camden Yards, the National Aquarium, the Convention Center and the light rail among them. Yet he was also intensely involved with the mundane details of city neighborhoods. As mayor, he would patrol the city at night and on weekends, calling city officials to demand immediate action to fill a pothole or clean a garbage-strewn alley.

While no cause of death was immediately announced, Mr. Schaefer had recently been treated for pneumonia. His spokesman, Michael Golden, said longtime aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs was holding his hand as he died peacefully at the Charlestown retirement community.

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Mr. Schaefer's death Monday evening and said he will lie in state at the State House and City Hall.

"I think one of the tremendous qualities that he brought to office was that sense that everyone had that he marched to the beat of his own drum. He was not the sort of person who was going to be pushed around or bullied by other elected officials or by the fashions or the whims of the politics of the day. He was a person who had pretty strong opinions and he was a person who was not shy about sharing them," Mr. O'Malley said.

"There wasn't a person in the city of Baltimore that didn't feel like they couldn't stop him and approach him with a problem. ... They knew he was always their mayor and he was always on their side," Mr. O'Malley said at the State House.

Flamboyant but private, irascible but sentimental, quirky but hard-headed, Mr. Schaefer won immense and enduring popularity among voters for his blunt talk and passionate dedication to public service. He prided himself on saying what ordinary people were thinking — even when it went counter to prevailing political norms — but his outspokenness would eventually contribute to his ouster as comptroller in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Mr. Schaefer's temper was legendary, but his eruptions were often calculated for maximum effect. He loved intensely — his mother, his friends, his city and state. And he hated fiercely — most notably in his poisonous relationship with former Gov. Parris N. Glendening and enduring contempt for the late Colts owner Robert Irsay.

As mayor, he was a tireless promoter of Baltimore. As governor, he was a builder whose second term soured in a wrenching fiscal crisis. By the time he left office, a series of gaffes — abusive letters to critical private citizens and his use of a derogatory term to describe the Eastern Shore — had dimmed his popularity.

In his final office, state comptroller, which he won in 1998 after four years of misery in retirement, he acted as an unofficial state gadfly — scolding governors and lesser officials and igniting controversies that might have sunk a lesser politician. But away from the spotlight, the comptroller also moved effectively to restore the reputation of the state's scandal-ridden pension system.

In no other office did he seem quite as happy as when he was the leader of his city.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who noted that she was born just a year before Mr. Schaefer was elected to the office she holds, said in a statement that he "set the standard for what it means to be the mayor of an American city."

Ms. Rawlings-Blake shared her recollections of Mr. Schaefer in front of his statue at the Inner Harbor on Monday evening.

"He was so important, particularly for my generation, he was the first mayor we all knew," Ms. Rawlings-Blake said. "We have lost a true giant, a part of history."

"His biggest gift was his spirit, a spirit of possibility, that we have a promising future," she said.

A lifelong Democrat, Mr. Schaefer transcended political party and played by his own political rules. He supported Republicans over fellow party members when it suited him but held to a fundamental belief that government can be a positive force in people's lives. Philosophically, he defied classification — except as an unrelenting advocate of the real people who were affected by government policies.

"He had Schaeferism. He had his own philosophy," said retired Judge Edgar Silver, a longtime friend.

While he was a serious, hands-on leader who immersed himself in policy details, Mr. Schaefer was also a master of goofy theatrics that sacrificed personal dignity for belly laughs and free publicity.

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