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Political Animal

Don Schaefer’s Town

Even after he left for Annapolis, this was still Don Schaefer’s town.

I was never a Schaefer man. He mowed down my candidate, good-government guy Stephen Sachs—who was far more popular in my (and Martin O’Malley’s) county of Montgomery—in the 1986 Democratic gubernatorial primary, going on to a crushing win over Thomas Mooney in the general election. I may have even voted for Mooney then, a petty personal way to try and deny Schaefer the 82 percent majority he ended up getting.

At that time I was an Air Force veteran and student in College Park, driving friends to the polls mostly to help Barbara Milkulski become the first Democratic female U.S. senator elected in her own right. To me, Schaefer was the bombastic tyrant from that city north of us, a foreign place I had never visited, whose residents came to College Park with their elongated vowels and parochial attitudes.

Boy, was I a snob.

I came to visit Baltimore in 1988, and although Schaefer had been governor for two years already, the city was still chockablock with the signs of his Do It Now projects—curbs here and there still painted a faint pink from his “Pink Positive Day,” and the orange and black “Trashball” wastebaskets still lingering on West Baltimore corners.

My first memory of meeting the man is faint, considering the shocking behavior he exhibited. I was in attendance at the press conference he held in Annapolis where he handled a pistol, pointing it willy-nilly at reporters, during his battle with the National Rifle Association over Saturday night specials. I was stunned at this bigheaded, cantankerous man calling a roomful of (mostly male) reporters “girls” and waving a gun around casually like a toy.

That probably explains why I voted for his sad-sack opponent, William Shepard, in the 1990 election. I had moved here to work on the radio, and I remember interviewing Shepard, looking somewhat forlorn, on Charles Street outside Penn Station. After I finished with him, I saw his chauffeur happened to be his running mate—who also happened to be his wife. That vote was probably more out of pity for Shepard than to deny Schaefer another 60-plus percent margin of victory.

Mostly my experiences with Schaefer came through his actions. At WBAL Radio I spent a comical 45 minutes on the phone with Lt. Gov. Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg after Schaefer had petulantly cut Steinberg’s staff down to nothing but a driver when he refused to sign off on Schaefer’s tax plan. I was trying to get Mickey to say how he felt about it, and the lieutenant governor was being as stereotypically slippery answering one simple question as any cliché of a television politician. As the huge reels on the Ampex tape machine rolled away, Steinberg ducked, dodged, and weaved, which caused News Director Mark Miller to come out of his office, listen to the evasions for about a minute, and then begin to pantomime a frantic tap dance.

Schaefer’s stadiums filled my commutes in and out of town with construction. His deal with developer Willard Hackerman that built the giant InterContinental Harbor Court blocked my home’s view of the city fireworks every July 4th and New Year’s. And every time you turned around, it seemed the business community was naming something else after the man while he was still alive: a building, an airport terminal, a law school.

Funny how time wears down all our sharp edges. My last memory of the man in person came about five years ago, in the hazy heat of the summer. Schaefer and former U.S Rep. Helen Delich Bentley were making the rounds of tables under the tents at the German Festival in Carroll Park. When he came by our table, I reflexively stood up. “Good to see you, Governor.” “How you doin’?” he asked warmly.

I look around this adopted city of mine, and the place I arrived 21 years ago this month is changed, and so much for the better. Sure, there’s still the trash, the crime, the drugs—all the things that have given David Simon set pieces for two books and three television shows. But there’s so much more, so very much more.

There’s a football team and a baseball team, and festivals and skyscrapers and city markets and a glistening harbor anchored by a shining geometric wonder of an aquarium. There is pride. This is the town that, by force of personality, one man turned around. How often do you see that anymore?

On the tomb of the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral in England, it is written, “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” The funeral service for William Donald Schaefer, in a touch of historical synchronicity, will be held today at Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in his beloved city of Baltimore. And if you then walk down the hill to the Inner Harbor, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the 7-foot-tall bronze Rodney Carroll statue of Don Schaefer, you can take in the full meaning of Wren’s epitaph:

“If you seek his monument, look around you.”

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