In the waning days of his half-century at the heart of public life in Maryland, William Donald Schaefer sits by himself. The crowds that once cheered him have all drifted away now, and this most pragmatic of men, who found satisfaction in filling the ordinary pot hole and cleaning the urban alley, turns philosophical. Where to cast blame in the shadow of defeat? Only at himself, he says. So the long journey ends uncharacteristically, with Schaefer slipping quietly off stage.
"My own fault," he says. He means the primary election loss in September. He means the manner of his undoing: the weeks of campaign sniping, preceded by months of high-profile outbursts at Board of Public Works meetings. And maybe he means the years of gradually shifting public perception: from Schaefer as Great American Mayor to Schaefer as Governor Annoyed to Comptroller Schaefer, the Man Who Stayed Too Long.
He will wake up one morning soon, and his time in politics will be over. Where will he go from here? "Don't know," he says. "Got no plans. None."
His long-time companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, is gone, but he's had another lady friend for several years now. She lives in Locust Point and works for the Baltimore Police Department. He's a big reader of history. He likes to watch Jerry Springer on TV—"for the fights," he says.
But it's a new world that's opening now. He hasn't driven a car in 19 years. There's no family to sustain him. While others built families, Schaefer chose to build ballparks and roads—and he wonders aloud which "friends" will stay close when he no longer has power or influence to offer.
He moves gingerly through his thoughts, a stunned man emerging from an earthquake and figuring out if the ground's still moving. It was an election loss, sure; but it was also the end of a life played out in public. And now, with the clock moving quickly toward his political finish, he's still trying to piece together what happened back there.
"I just was me," he says. "The times change. It was time for me to lose. I'd been controversial all my life. Most people thought it was funny. They knew my record, they knew I was hard working. It wasn't enough. Something else happened."
In his half-century on stage, we watched him grow old. He turned 85 last month. As he aged, some began to re-evaluate. What once seemed charming and unaffected in a politician eventually roused concern. Years ago, when he famously swam in the Aquarium seal pool, or donned a funny hat, or fumed outrageously, we reveled in the picture: Oh, that crazy Schaefer, we said, look what he's done now. He was part political father figure, part comic cheerleader, all restless, impatient urban genius.
But later when he blew a gasket, or ogled an uncomfortable young lady, or criticized an immigrant woman behind a food counter struggling with her English, he invoked public anger and private whispers: He was too old, too cranky, his critics said. Why was he talking about Janet Owens's looks? He'd gone over the edge, people said.
Schaefer knew the complaints. If he didn't hear it around the State House, he caught it on talk radio. Or he heard it from some of his old friends, who'd been with him since the City Hall days. Calm down, they counseled him. People don't understand characters the way they used to, there's a new political correctness in the land.
But it was too late now for putting on disguises. He was too set in his ways, and too ticked-off that voters who'd once cheered him were now second-guessing him. "I'm not gonna change," he insisted. An old friend lamented, "It's almost like he thought his age was a license to say what he wanted, and to test the public's patience. It was almost like, 'What can I do to top the last remark?' It was like a death wish that played out across the whole summer."
He wanted people to look at his record. What about Harborplace and the Aquarium, what about mass transit and the convention center? And, while we're at it, what about today's sparkling city of Baltimore, risen from the ashes he'd inherited so long ago? If his track record was good enough across all those years, it should be good enough now, shouldn't it?
But, by late last summer, he suspected it wasn't. As he ran for re-election as state comptroller, he began conditioning himself to losing. Maybe it was time to go. And then the voters concurred, voting against him for the first time since he'd run for city council in the early 1950s.
So here he was, two weeks before his 85th birthday (November 2), sitting in a conference room in the comptroller's office, at a long table with nobody around but his long-time spokesman Michael Golden. On a nearby table were a few photographs: Schaefer with George W. Bush; Schaefer with Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, all laughing heartily. Each picture was a reminder of better days. This afternoon was a rumination, a valedictory at the end of half a century's work.
"The best days of all?" Schaefer said. "Being mayor. Only time I really enjoyed myself. Because you could help everybody, and everybody knew you. You went into neighborhoods and saw the things being accomplished. You made people feel better about themselves.
It was 35 years ago when Schaefer first took over at City Hall, after years on the city council. Plenty of today's voters weren't even alive back in '71. Schaefer was a different man back then, so shy it was painful to watch him campaign, and so nervous that Irv Kovens, the old political boss who helped launch his career, used to call him a name: "Shaky Schaefer," says Schaefer, laughing at the memory. "Because I'd get so nervous over every election."
He inherited a city that had lost its heart. The '68 riots were still fresh in everybody's minds. To stroll around bustling downtown Baltimore today, or to marvel at the soaring housing prices in so many neighborhoods, is to forget how forlorn the town was back then. Much of it was emptying out. Those who stayed behind managed to get inside and lock all doors before dark. Nights around the harbor, the only moving bodies were winos staggering about, or pigeons who'd missed the last flight out of town.
But Schaefer did something remarkable. He launched The Big Lie, and then kept telling the same lie: Baltimore is best, he said like a mantra. Never mind the facts: "Baltimore Is Best." Turned it into a municipal slogan. The weird thing is: He got the idea on a trip to Atlanta. Took a bus in from the airport, and this driver kept making announcements: "This is Atlanta. Over here is . . . "
"I sat there," Schaefer recalled now, "and I'm thinking, 'Who gives a [bleep]?' And the guy's going, 'This is the famous Stone Mountain, and this is the famous Underground . . .' He must have said it about a hundred times. And I'm thinking, 'What do I care?' And then it hit me: This is the way to sell a city. We had things to sell in Baltimore, and people didn't know about them."
In 15 years at City Hall, Schaefer did everything but wave pom-poms. There were Baltimore's Best awards every time you turned around, and City Fairs, and festivals for neighborhood and ethnic groups. It was all part of the plan: Get people out of their houses, get 'em out of their siege mentality. We weren't just tolerating each other, we were learning to celebrate some of our differences.
But there was substance behind the ballyhoo. Schaefer was, at heart, a nuts-and-bolts guy, who boiled everything down to a single individual: his mother, the woman he'd lived with over on the west side until she died. He never forgot watching her deal with city bureaucrats who simply weren't paying attention.
She tried to get a light fixed in front of their house. Schaefer was mayor by then, but he stayed out of it. His mother called and called for more than a month before she got somebody at City Hall to pay attention. Then Schaefer went into action. If it happened to his mother, it could happen to anybody. He gathered his inner circle and said, "This can't happen to people."
He found a vacant house filled with trash and vermin. He told the appropriate City Hall types, if the place wasn't fixed up in days, they'd start holding their staff meetings in the middle of the mess. All of a sudden, sanitary crews were all over the place. The neighbors started watching. As Schaefer recalled it, they were learning that somebody cared about them.
"I sat in cabinet meetings for umpteen years," recalls Lainy LeBow-Sachs, former Schaefer staffer now senior vice president of external affairs at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, "and he'd always say, 'What have you done for a person?' You know, for an individual who's in dire need of something. That was his goal. He read every letter written to him, and gave it to the right people, and followed up. He never forgot. And God help you if you forgot."
It went on like this for 15 years, and then it was time to move on. Part of it was Kurt Schmoke waiting on the sidelines—Schmoke, the Ivy League-educated Rhodes scholar with the sunny personality, who seemed carried in on the wings of the city's shifting racial demographic. But part of Schaefer's exit was exhaustion, too. Being governor seemed the next logical step and seemed, frankly, a little less intense than being mayor.
But he hated the damned job. Annapolis understood the miracle he'd pulled off in Baltimore, but the new supporting cast had egos and constituencies of their own. Instead of a city council bowing and scraping, Schaefer found a legislature with scores of separate agendas.
He discovered he no longer had the privacy he'd once enjoyed. Now there were people talking about his relationship with Hilda Mae. Some of it wasn't very nice. Now there were people writing him letters, and Schaefer writing angry letters back. When people heard about this, they began re-evaluating their governor. In Schaefer's mind, he was just being Schaefer, a guy fighting back. But his critics said no, he looked like a bully. These letter writers were just citizens, and he was the leader of a government. It didn't look like a fair fight.
But it wasn't a bad first term: higher education reform, wetlands protection, the new ballpark for the Orioles so they wouldn't run away like the Colts. When he ran for re-election, he won by the largest margin in state history—but somehow, he managed to feel unappreciated. He complained it wasn't big enough. He moped for weeks. It was typical Schaefer: a man incapable of savoring his accomplishments, unable to take stock of his successes before plunging into some new ordeal, to let friends' assurances carry greater weight than his own insecurities.
One night at a tavern with a few pals, Schaefer complained that he had no friends. Gene Raynor, the veteran Board of Elections chief who's been a Schaefer buddy for decades, stopped him in his tracks.
"I'm your friend," Raynor said. "Didn't I take you to the hospital when you fell off that ladder painting your old house? And what about that time you had those stomach pains? Who took you to to the hospital? And your knees. Wasn't I the one who took you to Union Memorial Hospital that time?' What do you think I am?"
Schaefer looked at him and deadpanned, "I think you're bad luck, that's what I think."
That was vintage Schaefer: a man who combined self-pity and a need for reassurance so much that it became a shtick, a kind of knowing self-parody.
He struggled through a second gubernatorial term, then tried private life for about 18 months. Hated it, he says. Tried a little lawyering, tried TV, tried teaching. Hated it all. Didn't know what to do with himself.
The thing about Schaefer's legacy," says old friend Mark Wasserman, vice president, external affairs, for the University of Maryland Medical System, "is not bricks and mortar. It's about feeling optimistic about your home town. In the long run, that relentless optimism spread beyond Baltimore to the whole region. That was his appeal as governor. But his legacy is also about his unquestioned, transparent commitment to public service, and the immense difference that individuals can make. He's the embodiment of that kind of dedication."
So he got back in when Louis Goldstein died. He ran the comptroller's office—though Schaefer's the first to admit, the place practically ran itself. And then, just like that, after half a century, people voted for somebody else.
"This is a man," says LeBow-Sachs, "who gave up a life but did it because he wanted to. Now you wish you had children and grandchildren, but when you're in the thick of it, working like crazy, it wasn't in the cards. I always say, his children are all of us."
So now he wonders if the children will call once he's gone and moved away. He still remembers them all—the living and the dead. Hell, there's Mandel's picture staring at him from the other side of the room. He can still launch into stories about old Tommy D'Alesandro and Hyman Pressman, about "Du" Burns and Wally Orlinsky, about Harold Grady and Phil Goodman, and Irv Kovens, too.
Schaefer knew them all. Fought with some of 'em, too. The thing is, he accomplished more than anybody else, and did it over half a century. We watched him do it, and watched him grow old in the process.
"What can you say," Schaefer muttered, as he rose to walk slowly across his big conference room. "I'm 85 years old."
He said it barely above a whisper. After half a century in the heart of so much action, in the center of so much clamor, he has chosen to go quietly into his political night.