By John O’Connor
BALTIMORE – Baltimore Mayor Martin J. O’Malley, wrapping his armsaround William Donald Schaefer, made his choice for comptroller in thestate Democratic primary perfectly clear.
“He’s my comptroller,” said O’Malley Thursday at a lunchtime campaignstop at Baltimore’s Lexington Market. “Mayor for life. Comptroller forlife.”
Even though he’s a former governor, former mayor of Baltimore and the incumbent, Schaefer could still use the hug.
Schaefer expected little challenge for re-election to the state’schief tax collection job, but then Secretary of State John T. Willisstepped in on the final day of the filing period.
With Tuesday’s primary approaching, the incumbent is feeling a little taxed.
Willis is largely unknown in most of the state, but has 30 years of political experience, as well as backing from his mentor Gov. Parris N. Glendening. When Glendening was Prince George’s County executive, Willisserved as his chief of staff.
Raising Willis’ profile the most – and the ire of Schaefer backers -are a series of radio ads bankrolled by Glendening that claim thecomptroller has been insensitive to minorities and women, often referringto women as “little girls.”
There’s little love lost between Glendening and Schaefer. The twooften clash at the state’s Board of Public Works meetings, where they aretwo of the three members of the board. Willis’ campaign is anotherexample of Glendening’s “petty” grudge against Schaefer, said Michael D.Golden, Schaefer’s spokesman.
“It’s been manufactured and abetted by the governor,” he said. “It’sthe only reason John Willis is running.”
The ads have rallied support for Schaefer, which is why he, O’Malleyand other Democratic city leaders such as Delegate Howard P. Rawlings andSen. Clarence M. Mitchell engaged in some traditional Baltimore-stylecampaigning Thursday.
Schaefer defended his service and his style, especially his battleswith Glendening on BPW, which must approve all state contracts more than$200,000.
“When he’s (Glendening) wrong and I want to find out how he’s spendingthe money, I ask tough questions,” said Schaefer. “I don’t believe in hispolicies. He spent money he didn’t have.
“If you look at the record, I’ve been mayor, governor and comptroller,and we have the best comptroller’s office in the country.”
Willis is campaigning on three fronts, said Ray McInerney, Willis’ spokesman: “respect of the issues Marylanders care about; respect for theoffice of comptroller; and respect for the party.”
Willis has criticized Schaefer for his opposition to landpreservation, saying that he, Willis, is the more progressive candidate.New radio ads out this week back up that stance. McInerney said Williswould also use the comptroller’s office to more vigorously support publiceducation and support a new federal study of the Inter-county Connector.
Although Schaefer enjoys far better name recognition among Maryland voters, Willis has closed some of the gap, and recent polls showSchaefer’s support was weakening in his home base of Baltimore.
An August poll released by Gonzales/Arscott Research showed Schaefer holding a 25-point lead, with 27 percent of voters still undecided. But,Willis’ support grew five points to 23 percent from July to August.Willis has also won support from the Sierra Club, the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police and the Association of State, County andMunicipal Employees, a union with 30,000 members statewide.
Schaefer lengthened the work week without increasing compensation and opposed collective bargaining for state employees while governor, said anAFSCME spokeswoman. The union wants him off the Board of Public Works,where all state employee financial issues are vetted, she said.
Schaefer is still a formidable opponent with much support in theparty. Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend hasendorsed Schaefer, and some state black leaders have accused Glendeningof race baiting in the ads he sponsored. Also looming in the backgroundis the projected $1 billion budget deficit facing the state next year, aproduct of the Glendening administration.
“He does a terrific job as comptroller,” said O’Malley of Schaefer. “I only wished we had listened to him a year ago when he was warning usabout these budget deficits.”
Willis’ support is stronger than most believe, said McInerney.
“He’s got this amazing network across the state of Democraticactivists,” he said. “He’s got a good sense of where their heads are.”