ANNAPOLIS- In more than five decades in Maryland politics, William Donald Schaefer has denigrated an entire region of the state, railed against non-English-speaking immigrants and publicly ogled a young woman’s rear end. But one thing he has rarely done is apologize for his polarizing behavior.
That changed this week with Schaefer’s release of a new radio advertisement in what polls suggest is an increasingly tight race for state comptroller.
“Throughout my public life, I have done things that were out of the mainstream,” Schaefer says in the 60-second spot airing on area radio stations since Wednesday. “I’ve also said some things I shouldn’t. But I never meant to offend anyone. And if I did, I apologize. My objective has always been to get it done, do it right and protect the public interest.”
The apology marked something of a change of course for Schaefer, 84, who has been an unconventional figure through most of his political career. As recently as mid-July, in the wake of a controversy over comments that rankled the League of Korean Americans of Maryland, Schaefer told WBAL-AM, “I don’t have to apologize, I don’t apologize for anything.”
Therefore, some analysts met the radio ad with skepticism.
“He’s never apologized in his life for anything he’s done,” said Frank A. DeFilippo, a political analyst. “He’s done this repeatedly over the years and he’s never expressed any remorse before, so I’m guessing one of the consultants said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this.'”
Likewise, Herb Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College, said, “He’s in a tight race… Questions have been raised about his competency, about his professionalism. As Jerry Brown once said, ‘That was then, this is now.’ It falls under that category.”
But Laslo Boyd, a Schaefer campaign spokesman, said the new message does not reflect a tactical shift. He said it’s just the next step in a campaign focusing on Schaefer’s long history of dedicated and scandal-free public service.
“The campaign strategy is real simple. It’s to emphasize what his record is,” Boyd said. “For some people out there, some of the controversy over some of the [recent] statements has gotten away from his record.”
The ad arrived on airwaves as a new poll showed Schaefer trailing in his bid for a third four-year term as comptroller. In a SurveyUSA poll of 2,000 Maryland voters reported Thursday by WUSA9 of Washington, Democratic challenger Janet S. Owens led Schaefer by seven points (42 percent to Schaefer’s 35 percent), with Democrat Peter V. Franchot running a distant third (15 percent).
While Owens and Franchot have aired television ads, Schaefer’s re-election effort has been limited to public appearances, phone calls and a handful of radio spots. Boyd said voters can expect “a more visible campaign” over the next week.
“This is a guy with 100 percent name recognition,” he said. “We’re comfortable.”
The new apology, however, failed to satisfy all detractors that Schaefer has mended his ways.
“I respect Comptroller Schaefer, but he should have apologized when the incidents occurred,” Franchot said. “I accept him at his word. I think he’s sincere, but I think it’s too little too late.”
Indeed, some believe that Schaefer can’t help himself. “It’s habitual with him,” DeFilippo said.
For example, this summer, several months after Schaefer made national news by asking a female aide to the governor to “walk again” so he could stare at her rear end, he met with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board to seek the newspaper’s endorsement.
At the Sun meeting, he was asked by a female staff member if he had anything he wanted to apologize for. Schaefer not only declined to apologize for the “walk again” incident, but responded to the Sun staffer who raised the issue with a reference to her own backside.
“I don’t think that what he said would be called an apology,” said editorial page editor Dianne Donovan, who was present at the meeting.
Schaefer’s campaign Web site clearly acknowledges his penchant for unpredictability and suggests that his public gaffes, far from being a political liability, should be taken with a sense of humor.
In fact, a 7-minute “Schaefer for Comptroller” video on the site that recaps Schaefer’s long career in Maryland politics has a closing montage set to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” It features shots of Schaefer walking in a McDonald’s and embracing Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the State House as the lyrics declare, “Maybe I’m right / Maybe I’m wrong.”
“They were definitely in reference to some of the things that have come down in the past couple of years,” said Steve Yeager, a Baltimore native and filmmaker who produced the video for the Schaefer campaign. “I think he’s done a great service to the city and the state. He’s got his quirks but sometimes we need to overlook them.” Yeager said the film was well received by Schaefer and his staff at its debut last September. “I think everyone in Schaefer’s office got it,” he said.