ANNAPOLIS – For an underdog candidate struggling to gain name recognition against a Maryland political legend, it might have seemed like a gift from above.
Maryland’s 84-year-old comptroller, William Donald Schaefer, had quite unambiguously ogled a young woman in front of more than 100 spectators at the televised Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, then decided he liked it so much that he called her back and ordered her to “walk again.”
Questioned about the incident later by reporters, Schaefer cursed them out.
But in the firestorm that followed, Delegate Peter V. R. Franchot, D-Montgomery, who is running for the office Schaefer now holds, was having none of it.
“We should move on,” he told reporters who asked him about Schaefer’s latest slip up. Though Franchot, a candidate for comptroller in the Democratic primary, acknowledged that what Schaefer had done was “inappropriate” and “a mistake,” he clearly did not regard the issue as fodder for his campaign.
Such is the aura surrounding Schaefer, who recently marked his 50th anniversary in elected office, that even his political opponents are loathe to jump on his odd behavior and – at least for this era – politically incorrect eruptions.
“If you go after Schaefer it’s going to cost votes, and I think Franchot realizes that,” said Frank A. DeFilippo, political strategist for former Gov. Marvin Mandel.
It’s the kind of break that not everyone gets – just ask Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
At a meeting one evening last week of the Baltimore Jewish Council, Steele compared embryonic stem cell research to the Holocaust, sparking indignant reactions almost immediately from members of the council, state lawmakers and, most noticeably, U.S. Rep Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd.
Cardin, who is one of the many Democrats vying for U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes’ seat along with Steele, held a press conference the very next morning.
By the end of the day Steele had publicly and “humbly” apologized.
But for the often erratic Schaefer, the rules seem to be different.
Though late Friday Schaefer sent a handwritten letter to the young woman saying he was sorry he had put her through a public ordeal – he had earlier apologized to her privately – he said there would be no public apology forthcoming.
“I am not going to apologize,” he insisted.
Since being elected state comptroller in 1998, the former governor and Baltimore mayor has used the twice monthly meeting of the state Board of Public Works – until he came along, a tedious affair involving state spending – as a platform from which to sound off about whatever issue happened to be vexing him.
A visit to McDonald’s two years ago during which two Spanish-speaking employees had trouble understanding him prompted a rant about immigrants who don’t speak English.
People with AIDS, he suggested six months later, should be required to register with a statewide database because they represent a danger to society.
Though increasingly frequent and, some would say, harsh, such outbursts are nothing new for a man who endeared himself to generations of Baltimoreans with softer-edged antics, such as his celebrated leap into the pool of the Baltimore Aquarium clad in a turn of the century bathing suit while holding a rubber duckie.
With the passage of time, even subjects of Schaefer’s notorious temper tend to recall the outbursts affectionately. At an affair last week marking Schaefer’s 50th anniversary in public life, Sen. George W. Della Jr. recalled that when he was on the city council and Schaefer was mayor, Schaefer sought to end an argument over the budget by throwing an ashtray at his head.
The projectile missed him, Della noted gratefully, and hit a door instead.
“He is what he is, he’s a known quantity,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland. “He’s not acting any differently now.”
“This is pretty typical of him and I think people are kind of used to it,” DeFilippo said. “He pops off every once in a while, likes to yank our chains.”
Schaefer’s foil in these matters has traditionally been not his political opposition but the press.
When reporters confronted him about the ogling incident after the Board of Public Works Wednesday, he erupted at them, saying “that’s so goddamn dumb, I can’t believe it.” By Wednesday afternoon, Schaefer’s spokesman was telling reporters the office had nothing more to say – not counting on the fact that Schaefer, of course, did.
“The press is trying to make something that is very small into something big,” Schaefer said Friday when stopped by reporters on his way into a budget hearing.
Schaefer is more than just an oddity in Annapolis – he has gathered a great deal of support during his 50 years in the public eye and occupies a very powerful position as comptroller. Attacking him could prove costly.
“When you cross him or say something bad about him, what you get in return is the verbal equivalent of a nuclear attack,” said Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
On Friday, in fact, Schaefer seemed not to be taking seriously any potential political fallout. The Associated Press reported that Schaefer, when asked if he thought the incident would hurt him politically, replied sarcastically: “It will most likely cause me to lose.”
While Schaefer’s actions are sometimes dismissed as eccentricities, Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, called him a “dirty old man” who only gets away with what he does because the political “good old boys” protect their own.
“Most politicians are afraid of the comptroller and the power that he wields,” she said. “He’s another example of a politician who has so internalized the powers given to him by the people in his roles that he didn’t even think about what he did.”
Christine Valeriann, of the Baltimore chapter of the National Organization of Women, labeled Schaefer’s exploits as “totally unacceptable” and throwback to decades past.
Indeed, Ron Smith, a talk show host and political commentator on WBAL radio in Baltimore, said that he senses the reaction to this latest Schaefer incident has been a little different than the tolerance usual extended to him.
“There has been a groundswell of people…characterizing it as a senior powerful official humiliating somebody way down the line,” Smith said.
But Smith was unsure that there would be any long-term political effects for Schaefer. “He has tremendous currency around the state,” Smith said. “I’d be awfully surprised if Franchot can beat him (in the Democratic primary).”