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Schaefer ready for a return to office

October 22, 1998

Bob MaginnisWilliam Donald Schaefer, Maryland's reigning elder statesman since the passing of Louis L. Goldstein, came to Hagerstown last week to talk about his campaign to replace his old friend as the state's comptroller. It wasn't because his campaign is in trouble, but because some wise advisors have apparently told him he needs to work on his image.

His opponent, Larry Epstein, a Baltimore County accountant, is almost a non-factor in the race. Epstein, a Republican who was affiliated with a Republicans-for-Glendening group in 1994, compounded that error with statements saying he didn't really mean to get involved in the group. Just the image the guardian of Maryland's revenues needs - a guy who's not certain why he does what he does.

Against this background, Schaefer seems relaxed and volunteers answers to the questions that most concern those who remember the former governor as a mercurial leader who often interpreted disagreement with his positions as a personal attack.

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No, he won't try to be the governor, he says. He's been a member of the Board of Public Works and he knows how things are supposed to work. He plans no major changes to Goldstein's office, saying that cleaning house of competent staff would be foolish. And yes, he has the financial expertise for the job, going back to his days on the Board of Estimates when he was the Mayor of Baltimore.

But why now, at age 76, after a lifetime of public service, is he so eager to jump back into the trenches again? After all, he had been teaching at some Maryland colleges, explaining government from the politicians' side to students.

Not teaching, said, Schaefer, but lecturing. He realized the difference one night when another professor asked him if he'd like to sit in on a three-hour class on how to set up a prosecutor's office.

Schaefer said it hadn't occurred to him that was something that could be taught. Appoint someone, give them the money to hire 20 lawyers and that would be it, he figured. But Schaefer said that as he watched the professor engage his students, and get them to think about the choices they would face - do you bring high-profile cases to trial faster, or do you take them all in order - he realized that teaching was not his area of greatest expertise.

Still, he said, he never would have thought about re-entering politics if Goldstein hadn't passed away.

"There was a narrow window of opportunity. I had to decide about running and I knew I could do this job," said Schaefer, who hastened to add that he will not try to do it like Goldstein did.

"He became the beloved tax collector, and that's why he got back in, time after time," he said.

Instead, Schaefer said, he would try to be a force for economic development, in part because he doesn't believe the state Chamber of Commerce is doing such a great job promoting the state.

He would like to form a group of businesspeople from across Maryland, a group which would meet at least quarterly and which would be able to react to developments like the recent closing of the Kelly-Springfield tire company's offices in Cumberland, even though the firm had nine years left on a very liberal state lease.

"There's an opportunity there, an opportunity to bring new corporations in from out of state. I've suggested to people in Washington that they need to go out to Western Maryland, where there's a whole manufacturing workforce waiting," Schaefer said.

The group could also work on state-related issues like procurement, which Schaefer says he's been told is difficult for private vendors in Maryland.

But those issues may be child's play compared to the possibilities that await him of the Board of Public Works. With the governor's race still a virtual dead heat, could he work with Ellen Sauerbrey if she were elected?

"She was in the legislature when I was there, of course, as the House Minority Leader. She was not favorable to a lot of the things we did. But now there's a new image and it's much more moderate than she was," he said.

Schaefer doesn't feel he'll have to worry about Sauerbrey because "I think (Glendening's) going to win, even though everybody I know says just the opposite," he said.

"Whoever's up there, they'll get along, because they know they're working for the state," Schaefer said, but added that Sauerbrey's proposed 24 percent tax cut might not fly.

"I hear it, but I don't understand it," he said, noting that 63 percent of the state's budget is mandated. Such a cut might be possible over a long period of years, he said, but not in one or two.

However it turns out, Schaefer is ready for one more ride, confident he can perform well.

"When I was governor, I made it my business to be in every part of the state, and we can show the things we did. Our fingerprints are all over the state."


Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.
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