Volume 14, Issue 30 ~ July 27 - August 2, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

In Defense of a Straight Shooter

Should Schaefer’s bluntness cost him his job?

To remain silent when one should speak out makes cowards out of men.

–Abraham Lincoln.

I first heard those above words nearly a half century ago, and they came via radio as I was driving back from a Susquehanna River shad fishing trip with a new friend, the late Louis Goldstein, then president of the Maryland State Senate. It was Louis who quoted those words via a canned five-minute commentary carried over WBAL radio.

This prompted a discussion with Louis in person about Lincoln’s sage philosophy, and I learned much about Mr. Maryland that day. He was not only a student of Lincoln, but also of Maryland, every nook and cranny of the state he loved.

I quickly realized he was sincere, unbiased, enthusiastic and deep; in short, there was much more to him than his trademark “God bless you all real good” sign-off when campaigning or talking to any group of citizens large or small.

Seeing that shortly thereafter Louis succeeded J. Millard Tawes as state comptroller, a job he held until his death six years ago, as the ’06 primaries and elections near, perhaps it’s appropriate to recycle Louis’ words of Lincoln.

Shooting Straight …

I’d rather speak out and let the chips fall where they may about a boiling controversy of today than sit back and hope for the best. Few things are worse than regretting silence when one should speak out.

To read editorials, letters to the editor, poll results and news, one would believe Louis’ successor, William Donald Schaefer, is nearing the final political scrap of a long career of public service that included Baltimore city councilman, mayor, governor of Maryland and now chief of our state’s financial matters.

In his current job, Schaefer had an exceptionally tough act to follow, for his predecessor was as talented and taxpayer friendly as any head of finance past or present across the country.

Willie Don, though a Marylander through and through, took the old Yankee approach to comptrolling: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There came no big reshuffling of personnel and no appreciable policy changes.

Also, no shortages in the balance sheets, no scandals, no bonafide complaints of favoritism, political or otherwise. For two terms, everything within his domain has run smoothly, efficiently and without controversy.

… and from the Hip

But Maryland’s comptroller has the added duties of serving on the Board of Public Works, along with the governor and state treasurer, where big-money decisions are thrashed out. At Board sessions, the hip-shooting comptroller has put his foot in his mouth a few times. Being an angler of sorts, he should know a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut.

But Willie Don didn’t rack up a half century of distinguished public service by always sitting back and thinking things through. They didn’t call him Do-It-Now Schaefer without cause. He was and remains impatient, as many are, and he got much done. Protocol be damned, do it now, with emphasis on the now. The same with say it now.

So now he finds himself in hot water; some women cry out he is insensitive, aids patients ridicule him as senile, Koreans claim he has insulted them, and the supporters of immigrants, especially those who take fast food orders at McDonald’s, bemoan his comment that they should learn to speak English. There’s also the comment the he would not debate how to bake a chocolate cake with Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens, one of two candidates trying to unseat him in the Democratic primary.

Methinks he did Owens a favor by refusing to debate her. He’s sharp, and how could she defend herself against withering questioning about her role in the Anne Arundel County $35 million golf course fiasco in Pasadena? Where was the sound financial thinking required of a comptroller as that mess played out on her watch?

The other candidate, Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot, is typical of lawmakers from that county. He’s even to the left of legislators in the Grand Republic of Oregon. Schaefer would cut him to pieces.

One woman I know says she would vote for anyone other than Schaefer, except for Owens, who she criticizes for the county’s financial plight. She claims the comptroller doesn’t deserve the votes of women — yet she remains charmed by Bill Clinton who didn’t stop at mere words. You figure.

Up to the Task?

Who hasn’t been momentarily frustrated at the drive-in window of a fast food joint when, amidst all the cackling of the audio system, it’s sometimes virtually impossible to communicate through the fractured English of the person at the other end of the mike. Some grin and bear it; others gripe.

There are also complaints that Donald Schaefer doesn’t always go the route of the Democrats; he doesn’t hesitate to bolt. I’d say that’s a plus for him; we need independent thinkers. What would our country be if everyone followed the party line? Conscience, individual assessment and common sense must rule.

Is he too old for the job? Age impacts some more than others, and the comptroller remains sharp, slipping in judgment on the occasional word rather than any deed.

We’ve had our differences over the years; not infrequently he was King Crab in this column. But never did I doubt his public service or his honesty or his interest in the common man — and woman. I found refreshing his antics to promote Baltimore and the state, like the striped bathing suit.

If only he would abide by other words of Lincoln, who said in his second annual message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862: In times like the present, men should say nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.

I apply Lincoln’s words to myself as well as to William Donald Schaefer. Without hesitation I wrote ’em, would repeat ’em, and do believe ’em.

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Let the criticism pour forth; the snail mail and e-mail boxes at Bay Weekly are cavernous. Enough said.

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