The lessons of Schaefer

Our view: The former mayor wasn't perfect — far from it — but the public loved him all the same

here's what our current crop of politicians could learn from his legacy

April 24, 2011

Among the many observations made about William Donald Schaefer since his death on Monday, one of the most common has been the lament that we don't have leaders like him anymore. It's certainly true; with all due respect to our current crop of elected officials, none of them has anything close to his legacy. Maybe he was one of a kind, and maybe he was a product of circumstances that cannot (and perhaps should not) be repeated. Nonetheless, Mr. Schaefer's remarkable career offers plenty of lessons to those who aspire to leave an imprint on the state like the one he did. Here are a few tips to politicians looking for the secret of his success:

Build things

There aren't a lot of statues erected in honor of mayors who managed to hold the line on property taxes or successfully outsourced trash collection. But there is one of Mr. Schaefer next to the Inner Harbor, which he succeeded in getting built despite widespread opposition. You could put one of him next to Oriole Park, M&T Bank Stadium, the Baltimore Convention Center, the light rail, bridges on the Eastern Shore or any number of other projects across the city and state. Even the bungled "highway to nowhere" served as a monument to his legacy.

Sweat the small stuff

If he saw a pothole, he wanted it filled. If he saw trash, he wanted it picked up. If he saw an abandoned car, he wanted it gone. The transformational projects that renewed Baltimore's waterfront and surrounding neighborhoods would never have happened if the people didn't believe he shared their concerns, and what really bothers people aren't necessarily the city's big problems but the ones right in front of their doors. Mr. Schaefer conveyed the sense that he was just as annoyed by the graffiti on a wall as the person who owned it, and nobody had to ask him to deal with it, he found it on his own. He wasn't just out there trying to convince people the city was a great place, he was making sure it actually was.

Do things for the right reasons

A notable detail from Mr. Schaefer's biography: Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never went to jail. He wasn't even indicted. For someone who served at the same time as Spiro Agnew, Dale Anderson, Marvin Mandel and many others in a dark period of Maryland politics, that's saying something. It's not that Mr. Schaefer was the poster child for by-the-books government transparency; he cut corners, bypassed the City Council and steered plenty of government contracts to his friends. As much as he liked to brush it off, the complaints that he set up a "shadow government" were real.

But the reason people were willing to forgive it was that he never did any of it for personal gain. Plenty of people got rich because of the way he did business, but he wasn't one of them. Modern day politicians wouldn't be wise to try to emulate his approach to procurement rules and accountability — Mr. Schaefer may have gotten things done his way, but probably at a steep premium for the city's coffers. But they should understand that they can be forgiven for a lot of mistakes if people believe their motives aren't selfish.

Work your way up

When he was first elected mayor of Baltimore, Mr. Schaefer was older than Gov. Martin O'Malley is now. He was not some kind of phenom politician but rather a product of wait-your-turn machine politics. There were plenty of things wrong with the machine — not the least of which was a legacy of racial exclusion — but one benefit was that politicians got plenty of seasoning before they moved up the ranks. By the time he became mayor, Mr. Schaefer knew who he was, what he wanted to do and how to get it done.

Be an executive, preferably mayor

Mr. Schaefer would never have built the kind of legacy he did if he had stayed on the City Council, or if he had won one of those two elections for House of Delegates he lost in the early 1950s. Take the example of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. She shares much in common with Mr. Schaefer — she is colorful, demanding, pugnacious and authentically Baltimorean. But she is one of 100, forced to work through the committee and party structures of Washington. As much as she brings home the bacon for Maryland, her accomplishments are all shared. Mr. Schaefer was one of one, and his accomplishments are his alone.

Being mayor provided the ideal platform for someone like Mr. Schaefer. It was big enough to accommodate his vision but small enough that he did not lose touch with the people who put him in office. At the end of Mr. Schaefer's political career, he said nothing he ever did was better than being mayor because it gave him the chance to directly help people every day. Governors and presidents may have more power, but they probably can't make the same claim.

Focus on the job you have

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