ANNAPOLIS- Maryland voters decide Tuesday if William Donald Schaefer will remain in public life or go loudly into the night, after a state comptroller’s race that has been dominated by the two-term incumbent’s unpredictable behavior and cranky commentary.
Analysts who have watched usually sleepy campaigns for comptroller in past years said the three-way battle in Tuesday’s Democratic primary has evolved into a tight race among Schaefer, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and state Delegate Peter V. Franchot, D-Montgomery. The election, they said, will be less a vote for a state office than a referendum on Schaefer himself.
“If you asked 90 percent of the voters what’s important in the next comptroller, people would be struggling to define those qualities and characteristics. The election’s really about William Donald Schaefer. Or not,” said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a firm that conducts polls for the media. “It’s about a larger-than-life persona who’s teetering on inappropriate behavior, certainly for a statewide politician.”
Haller said most of the races in Schaefer’s 51-year political career have been a “big yawn,” with the iconic former governor and Baltimore mayor rolling over opponents. But that has changed in recent weeks, as Schaefer has targeted Owens – and to a lesser degree, Franchot – with personal attacks for which he remains unapologetic.
“His political livelihood is on the chopping block in a way no one would have anticipated several weeks ago,” Haller said.
Recent polls suggest that Maryland voters may have grown weary of Schaefer’s quirky personality. A Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll conducted Aug. 18-25 on behalf of the Owens campaign showed Schaefer leading Owens by a mere 4 points (34 to 30 percent). Franchot held 15 percent of the vote in the poll.
Political analyst Frank A. DeFilippo said the most telling number in the poll is the 21 percent of undecided voters, which he interpreted as people who are “pretty much decided that they’re not going to vote for Schaefer.”
But some experts said none of the candidates should approach next week’s vote with any degree of certainty.
“This is one of those contests where a pundit who pretends to know is merely spinning himself. It’s totally up for grabs,” said Herb Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. “I would not be surprised by any outcome.”
In challenging a politician whose name is as synonymous with Maryland as a steamed crab, Owens and Franchot have faced an uphill battle.
“It’s tough operating from a limited geographic area,” Haller said. “You have to hope for widespread attention by the media.”
Much of that attention, however, has been dominated by Schaefer’s colorful criticisms, particularly his recent description of Owens as “Mother Hubbard” and a “great-great-grandmother.” Meanwhile, Franchot has more quietly reeled in endorsements from The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, as well as several environmental, labor and Democratic groups.
For her part, Owens has campaigned with the slogan “It’s time,” suggesting to voters that Schaefer should finally exit Maryland politics. Her campaign Web site emphasizes her “conservative approach to fiscal management” and “smart growth” policies that have preserved open space during her two terms as county executive.
Though Schaefer contends that Owens started the name-calling by referring to him as a “grandfather,” Owens has tried to stay out of the verbal fray. She released a statement this week saying, “I have no intention of responding to Schaefer’s coarse and insulting remarks . . . I will conduct myself as I have throughout the campaign and continue to run on the issues I think are critical for the citizens of Maryland. And one of these issues will be to restore integrity to the office of Comptroller and to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
The duties that come with being the state’s chief tax collector – especially a seat on the three-member Board of Public Works panel – are what drew Franchot into the race.
“The major issue is getting the state back on the right track,” Franchot said at a gathering of about 25 supporters Wednesday night in Silver Spring. He said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has used Schaefer’s vote on the Board of Public Works to push through his “failed Republican agenda,” resulting in higher college tuition, attempts to sell public parks to private developers and cuts in health care.
Franchot said his competitors have run “content-free campaigns,” but he has stressed his commitment to state funding for education and health care and his opposition to slot machines, a platform consistent with his 20 years in the House of Delegates.
“Those are issues that are very central to the Democratic values and party, and I look forward to being a real Democrat on the Board of Public Works, either as a check and balance to Ehrlich or as a positive partner for Governor O’Malley,” he said.
While Schaefer has lumped Owens and Franchot together as nobodies, Franchot’s campaign has lumped Schaefer and Owens together as Ehrlich cronies. One Franchot television ad depicts the heads of Schaefer, Owens and Ehrlich as three peas in a pod.
His campaign has named him “The Only Democrat for Comptroller,” a tag that Franchot said will carry him to victory. “There’s a choice between Franchot or, if they like Bob Ehrlich, it’s their lucky year – they get to pick between Schaefer or Owens,” Franchot said. “We’ll win because Democrats want a real Democrat as comptroller, not a pro-slots, pro-sprawl, pro-Ehrlich Democrat like Schaefer or Owens.”