Volume 14, Issue 14 ~ April 6 - April 12, 2006

conversations with

William Donald Schaefer
Maryland’s Legendary Mayor, Governor and Taxman

with Sandra Olivetti Martin

William Donald Schaefer is Maryland’s most enduring politician. Since 1955, the 84-year-old Baltimorean has won every election he’s tried, rising from the Baltimore City Council to the city’s 15-year mayor to the state’s two-term governor — then popping out of retirement to be our comptroller.

He’s won by overwhelming numbers, riding in as governor with 82 percent of the vote in 1986.

Since Louis Goldstein’s tenure there, the comptroller’s office has become the fiefdom of aging political giants. But Schaefer isn’t resting on old laurels.

As comptroller, he joins Gov. Robert Ehrlich and treasurer Nancy Kopp in a potent triumvirate, the Board of Public Works, which has final authority on state borrowing and spending.

As taxman, the second of the comptroller’s jobs, Schaefer has taken Maryland into the electronic era, promising two-day tax refunds to e-filers, who this year will now make up some 40 percent of taxpayers. He’s hot as the hound of hell on the tail of cigarette pirates, tax cheats and delinquents. Implacably, he withdraws from the pockets of each of us Marylanders 4.5 percent (plus one to three percent more for local taxes) of all earnings, on his way to enriching the state treasury — last year by $11.5 billion.

No other politician touches our lives so intimately or with such power.

William Donald Schaefer has always been a showman, quick to don clown garb and manners to make political hay. Funny hats and goofy glasses are as standard in his wardrobe as starched shirts. He’s popped out of boxes (dressed as an admiral) and jumped into pools (dressed in his striped, turn-of-the-century bathing costume). From calling the Eastern Shore an #&*!house to lambasting immigrants to ogling young aide’s behinds, he’s made political incorrectness a part of his shtick.

His political feuds are as legendary as his friendships. A Democrat, he endorsed the first George Bush for president and is a one-man fan club for Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his wife Kendel. He called his Democratic successor as governor, Parris Glendening, a chicken (and added sound effects) and “the most irresponsible governor we’ve ever had.”

Cantankerous and grumpy are routine modifying adjectives for Schaefer.

Has the man with his hand in all our pockets crossed into the no-man’s land of senility? Or is our former governor, the mayor of Baltimore who revived the Inner Harbor and built Camden Yards, an irrepressible prankster misunderstood by a funless world?

We’re about to find out. With an anything-can-happen look in his blue eyes, William Donald Schaefer ambles into the stately reception room of the Louis Goldstein Treasury Building in downtown Annapolis.

As the tape recorder clicks on, he says, “It’ll cost you $10 for the tape.”

Bay Weekly As the taxman, you’re on the mind of all Marylanders as April 15 approaches. Have you filed your return?

Schaefer Oh, of course.

If you send in your return electronically, you get your refund within 48 hours.

Bay Weekly Did you file your taxes with a smile?

Schaefer I was laughing all the way. No, I wasn’t smiling, but I can’t say anything.

You worry about people of modest income. I’ve always had a feeling for poor people. They struggle. One thing the governor has to do is maintain an understanding of poor people. When you get as big as the governor, you’re a big man, and you get invited to all the country clubs and social events. Sometimes it gets hard to remember that there are many poor people around who don’t have what you have.

Bay Weekly Judging by the tough releases your press office sends out, you take a certain delight in making sure nobody gets away without paying their fair share. Is that so?

Schaefer I have the best administrative staff in government. Most are Louie’s people, and he hired good people. I had six months of tough times, because they were used to Louie for 10 years. I never fired anybody. I didn’t have to. All are professionals.

Their mission is to collect taxes. If you owe them money, they go after you. If you’re in trouble, they’re very compassionate. But if you try to get away with anything [they] will knock you on your backside.

Bay Weekly You’ve been councilman, mayor, governor, comptroller. When you wake up in the middle of the night, before you’ve put on the day’s face, how do you think of yourself?

Schaefer Mayor of the city of Baltimore is the greatest job I ever had. I couldn’t wait to wake up so I could go to work. I was so happy being mayor of the city, I thought I’d give the money back. That’s when you know you’re happy.

I used to walk around the Inner Harbor every day looking for things that were wrong. If a brick would be misplaced, I’d find it. I wouldn’t tell where it was. An abandoned car, I wouldn’t tell them where it was. We used to send out mini-memos on things we found wrong, and every week [my staff would] wait to get them. I also had a radio program on Friday. They [my staff] used to listen. If I mentioned a dirty street, I’d get there and it was perfect. They reacted to make it right before I got there.

Bay Weekly How do you manage to get your staff to be so efficient, whether they’re working for you as mayor, governor or comptroller. Is it fear?

Schaefer Fear? They laugh at me. They’ve got a lot of pride. They want to do the right thing. Very rarely do they make mistakes, and if they do, they fix it up.

Bay Weekly What do you think of your enduring achievements?

Schaefer None. Everything.

No matter what you do, that’s what’s most important. People used to kid me about the Inner Harbor as the most important thing in my life. No, the most important thing is being in the neighborhoods.

Being single — I had no wife, no children, though I had a very nice girlfriend, Hilda Mae [Snoops] — I used to go around to the neighborhoods. No one knew when I was coming. I’d rap on doors, sit in the houses, have a cup of coffee. I’ve seen rooms where the roaches walked up one wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall.

The Inner Harbor was second to the neighborhoods. The big deal was the neighborhoods, and that paid off in pride.

Bay Weekly What sparked your interest in politics?

Schaefer The church. I was treasurer of the church, and we wanted to buy a piece of land for the pastor. We offered the most money, but it sold to someone else at a cheaper price. I went to city council and got interested.

Bay Weekly Have you ever lost an election?

Schaefer I lost in 1950 and again in 1954 when I ran for the House of Delegates. Then I won. I got elected to the city council, then to council president, then mayor, then governor.

Bay Weekly Did you like being governor?

Schaefer Not as much as being mayor. The governor has everybody to worry about; the mayor has the city to worry about. You get to worry about individuals.

I’d go to McDonalds, and people would sit with me and tell me their problems. You don’t do nothing for us, they’d say.

Okay, I’d say, What do you want?

A podiatrist. My feet hurt.

So I got him a podiatrist, and I’m a national hero.

Bay Weekly So helping people is your political philosophy?

Schaefer As mayor, I had a sign over my head, Help People. I’d say [to my staff], what have you done to help people? Did you get out and help a person? You can’t sit in an office; get out among people. I learned that a long time ago in the city council.

Bay Weekly Is helping people what’s been rewarding in politics for you?

Schaefer There’s only one job for a politican, and that’s to help people. That’s what they’re elected for.

Politicians fall into three categories: One, leaders; then, those who do help while looking to get elected; and those who look only to reelection.

Bay Weekly Are votes part of the pay-off you get from taking care of people?

Schaefer A lot of people vote for you if you take care of them. People are not dumb. If they ask and you try and you succeed, that’s wonderful. But even if you tried but don’t succeed, they understand.

Bay Weekly You’ve brought a showman’s touch to your work. Donning your bathing suit for a swim in the Aquarium’s outdoor pool, for example, wearing funny glasses to open the 1988 General Assembly. How does showmanship fit into your political philosophy?

Schaefer [Make it a] big deal. People liked me jumping into the pool. They thought I was crazy at first, then they expected me to do something. We got publicity all over the world. Old fogies might not like it, but everybody else thought it was fun. We tried to make the city fun. We sold potholes, 425 of them. We sold sewers. We sold animals. A distant relative bought a giraffe and went to pick it up.

Bay Weekly People accused you of misbehaving occasionally.

Schaefer All the time.

Bay Weekly Is that how you’re having fun in a job that’s more serious?

Schaefer Yeah. You sit in the Board of Public Works and it’s dull as all get-out … unless you get debate going.

That story about my looking at a girl’s backside was [played] way out of proportion. The Sun didn’t have anything else to write about. I got equal billing with [Vice President Richard] Cheney, who shot a guy in the face. Shooting a man in the face is a story. A girl’s [behind] is not a story.

That shows you the type of paper you’re dealing with.

Bay Weekly Do you have a bone to pick with newspapers?

Schaefer The Sun paper has to sell papers. Papers have to write something, and I’m good copy for them. Always have been. Whenever their circulation is down, they look at me. Now their subscriptions are way down.

Bay Weekly So you’re no grumpier than you’ve ever been?

Schaefer I’m what I have been all along.

Bay Weekly What makes a good politician?

Schaefer You can’t be too smart or too dumb. You have to have average intelligence.

And all politicians are actors. They act for their constituents; they act for themselves. You have to put on a bright face when you’re running for office. They’re all actors. The head of the Senate, Mike Miller, has his own style of acting. The head of the House, Mike Busch, he’s a low-key actor rather than Miller’s high key. They’re opposite of each other, but they’re both actors.

Bay Weekly What’s the difference between being an actor, or a showman, which you admire, and being a showboat, which you despise?

Schaefer It all depends on how and why, whether you’re sincere. It’s almost as if you know instinctively when you should show off and when to pull back. It’s fun to have fun, but not at somebody else’s expense and try to hurt them.

Bay Weekly Once upon a time, after your terms as governor, you retired from politics. What brought you back?

Schaefer That was forced retirement. My term was up. But I missed being in office. Then, unfortunately, Louie [Goldstein] died, and I felt I could do the job [of comptroller]. I’d been on the Board of Public Works [as governor, and the comptroller also sits on that board] so I didn’t have any trouble.

Bay Weekly So what do people want in a person they trust to collect their money as comptroller?

Schaefer Honesty. That’s one thing I got from my father. My mother didn’t want me to go into politics; my father did. The only thing my father ever told me was Be yourself and be honest. Everybody’s tempted to take money or something like that, after [you’re tempted] once or twice, never again.

Bay Weekly Are you seeking re-election, Comptroller?

Schaefer Sure I’m going to run.

Bay Weekly Do you know this Peter Franchot fellow challenging you in the primary? What do you think of him?

Schaefer When Peter [came to the House of Delegates] he drove up in a red convertible, got out and ran up the steps. I thought, Gee that’s a good guy. I liked him. We became good friends, campaigning and raising money for each other. His mother was a good friend of mine. I just couldn’t believe it when he ran against me. It was quite a shock to me. Franchot was my friend.

Bay Weekly Over the years, you’ve given your support to Republicans as well as Democrats. You supported the first President Bush, for example.

Schaefer He was a great man. I liked him; he was a friend. I went up to Camp David with him. I remember one time he had on a pair of shoes I liked. “Where’d you get those shoes,” I asked.

He got me my shoes, but he didn’t pay for them.

I knew he was honest.

Bay Weekly What do you think of the second President Bush?

Schaefer I don’t have a close relationship with him. I support him. I think he tries awfully hard.

Bay Weekly As well as the first president Bush, you’re notably chummy with Gov. Ehrlich. Have you evolved beyond politics?

Schaefer It’s incumbent on anyone to vote for the best name for president. When you have a personal relationship, party doesn’t make a difference. At lower levels, you can be partisan.

Bay Weekly You’ve developed a strong personal relationship with Gov. Ehrlich, a Republican …

Schaefer I love Ehrlich. He is such a nice fellow. He makes so much sense, and has done so well.

I like him because he’s not complicated. He has a style of living I like: family first, then he worries about government, then he worries about playing golf. So he’s a well-rounded man.

When he goes to do something, he doesn’t go for a lot of show in the newspapers and get on television to show how great he is. He just handles the situation. This guy got rid of a $4 billion deficit. No big deal; the deficit was there and he worked hard.

I chide him to tell a bit about himself, and now he’s started talking about the good things he’s done and pat himself on back, which he should do.

I’m very fond of him. I don’t like to tell him that because he’ll ask for a raise.

Bay Weekly And his opponents from your party who are running against him for governor? What do you think of them?

Schaefer I like [Doug] Duncan very much. He is one of the finest county executives I’ve ever known; he runs the best county in the state. He’s a hard worker, not a show boat. He’s got great ability, a good family. He’s a good looking fellow, big. He’s got everything going for him. But he’s a little too low key.

Bay Weekly And Martin O’Malley, who has your old job as mayor of Baltimore?

Schaefer The other fellow is flashy … he’s a showboat. I don’t like to criticize, but you’ve got to love the city.

He’s got the Sun newspaper behind him, and he gets every break in the world, while Duncan and Ehrlich get no breaks.

Bay Weekly Who will you support in the general election, your friend or your party?

Schaefer I never endorse.

Bay Weekly How about the Democratic party? Is it losing strength?

Schaefer The Democratic party has too many chiefs, and the chiefs don’t want to let it go. There are some good politicians who can rouse a crowd. The Democrats should win [this presidential election]. They’re fundamentally the best party, but sometimes the leadership lacks inclusiveness.

Bay Weekly Who do you think can win the presidency?

Schaefer I don’t know. One I don’t want to run is Mrs. Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi. Her father, Tommy D’Alesandro, was the best mayor I’ve ever seen. But she’s too tough on Republicans. You can be tough, but you don’t have to be nasty. The same with Hillary Clinton. A little bit of humility goes a long way.

Bay Weekly What advice do you have for Marylanders at tax time?

Schaefer First, pay your taxes on time. Second file electronically.

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