A force of nature who believed in government action

April 19, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

My grandfather would have loved William Donald Schaefer.

Born in 1911, my father's father was a German carpenter with vivid memories of the Great Depression and a frugal, no-nonsense manner. He came of political age in post-war Albany, N.Y., and worked for the city's legendary Democratic machine mayor, Erastus Corning II, who, like Mr. Schaefer, was a plainspoken hero to the working-class voters who re-elected him again and again.

Few big-city mayors in America reigned more powerfully than did Mr. Schaefer during his 15-year rule at Baltimore's City Hall. But Corning far exceeded him in longevity, lording over his own capital-city Democratic fiefdom for 42 years. The two mayors were contemporaries: Mr. Schaefer's first dozen years as Baltimore's mayor, starting in 1971, overlapped with Corning's last 12 in Albany, before he died in 1983.

"Many of your fellow mayors would be interested in learning the secret of your success," Mr. Schaefer wrote to Corning in 1977, on the occasion of Corning becoming the nation's then-longest serving mayor. Mr. Schaefer's own contemporaries and successors no doubt expressed similar sentiments privately at one time or another to Baltimore's longest continuously-serving and, arguably, most influential mayor.

What made Mr. Schaefer successful beyond mere longevity, however, was the fact that his successes, and the manner in which he achieved them, were anything but secret. He operated via sheer force at a time when such force, rather than finesse, was still the more venerated leadership trait. He was a political cudgel — a blunt man and even blunter instrument of power.

William Donald Schaefer wasn't a mover-and-shaker; he was a shover-and-maker.

In particular, he believed in harnessing power in service to bold action, whether it was building the Inner Harbor and sports stadiums, or constructing new roads and light rail lines — to improve the city he loved and that loved him back for it. The Lutheran-born byproduct of Baltimore City schools will be described as a clichéd man "of" the people, but he is more correctly a man "from" the people. Mr. Schaefer's personal and political mien was a rare alchemy of Teddy Roosevelt's gusto, Frances Perkins' compassion, Harry Truman's bootstrapping pluck and Robert Moses' municipal imperialism.

Although he will be remembered as a formidable governor, in many respects Mr. Schaefer was diminished by his 1986 "promotion" to Annapolis to govern the state after three decades as a city councilman, City Council president and mayor.

I moved to Maryland in autumn 1998, almost four years after Mr. Schaefer had left the governor's office. By then, Mr. Schaefer was on the verge of being elected state comptroller, a job he proceeded to use for the dual purposes of staying relevant in state politics and trying to make then-Gov. Parris Glendening feel as irrelevant as possible. It was an unfortunate coda to an otherwise peerless career in city, state and Democratic Party politics.

Although he moved a bit slower in his later years, Mr. Schaefer was still sharp. I always enjoyed watching how Marylanders comported themselves around him, typically mixing grandfatherly dotage with the awed reverence due the state's governor emeritus and city's mayor-for-life. At the end of his career, Mr. Schaefer did best was he best-suited to do: He basked.

At the zenith of his own public career, my grandfather rose to the position of deputy commissioner of buildings for the city of Albany — an unthinkable position to attain today for someone with nothing more than a sixth-grade education. He had an appreciation for big public-works projects and the men he employed, men who showered after work after spending their days turning the dreams of forceful, visionary politicians into tangible, beneficent realities.

All of which is to say that not only would my grandfather have loved William Donald Schaefer, he would have loved working for him, too. If there is a higher public compliment to be paid any person, no less an elected official, I don't know it.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His email is schaller67@gmail.com.

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