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No one can say Schaefer doesn't care

September 03, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

William Donald Schaefer is running for another term as Maryland's comptroller, but in a Monday interview, he said it's not really his ideal job.

"I'd give 'em all up if they'd let me be mayor again," he said, adding that "I couldn't wait to get up in the morning to do that job. You could really help people."

Schaefer, now 84, has a 50-year record of public service that includes service as a Baltimore City Councilman, as that city's mayor, as Maryland's governor and two terms as Maryland's comptroller.

Like his predecessor, Louis Goldstein, Schaefer is beloved by many and seemed unbeatable until two incidents earlier this year.

In one, he offended women's groups by asking a female aide who had brought him a cup of tea to return so he could watch her walk away again. In another, he irked Korean-Americans with disparaging comments about state support for English language education.

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Asked about the first incident, for which he has apologized, Schaefer said, "I've been a bachelor all my life and there has never been a hint of scandal."

Schaefer said that includes his financial dealings throughout his career.

"I wasn't ever accused of being a thief, of stealing money or of hiding money," he said.

Nor has he gotten rich in public office, he said, telling me that when the Montgomery Ward department store chain was closing, he went shopping to stock up on socks and underwear.

But it's not Schaefer's record as comptroller that has stirred Democratic challengers such as Del. Peter Franchot, D-20th, and Janet Owens, Anne Arundel County executive.

Owens got into the race after Schaefer's incident with the young aide, using the slogan, "It's Time."

Franchot has claimed that he is the only real Democrat in the race, saying that Owens was under consideration as Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's running mate.

As for Schaefer, Franchot said the comptroller has used his seat on the state's three-member Board of Public Works (BPW) to thwart the will of the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

Franchot said that in 2003, Ehrlich proposed raising the state's property tax, yielding $160 million, then asked agencies to find another $230 million in cuts.

In 2005, Franchot said Ehrlich proposed cutting 2 cents off the property tax rate. Franchot said Schaefer opposed the cut during a meeting of the Commission on State Debt, then reversed himself a day later at a BPW meeting.

Schaefer said he backed raising the state tax in 2003 because of the "severe and unprecedented budget shortfall of $1.8 billion."

But, Schaefer said, that by itself the property tax yield "did not, in and of itself, solve the budget problem."

Other cuts were necessary and were unanimously approved by the BPW, said Schaefer, who added that he "fully appreciated the very regrettable impact the cuts would have on government services and programs."

Schaefer did not comment on Franchot's charge that he flip-flopped on the 2-cent matter.

As to Franchot's claim that the comptroller used his BPW vote to delay a software contract that would have facilitated the "early voting" procedure the legislature wanted and Ehrlich, Schaefer denied it.

"This was not a vote against 'early voting' but rather an effort to ensure that the procurement was being conducted properly," Schaefer said.

"Ehrlich has never one brought pressure on me to vote for anything," Schaefer said.

Should he be re-elected, Schaefer said that he would like to increase the office's reliance on technology, leading to an eventual elimination of much of the paper now used.

But as important as technology is, Schaefer said the most important asset in his office is the people who work there.

"When Louis died and I came in here, everyone had been here five to 10 years. They were not very receptive to me at first, but most of them are still here," he said.

In December, after Deputy Comptroller Stephen Cordi retired, Schaefer appointed Linda T. Tanton to that post, saying that the veteran attorney was "smart as a whip."

Despite his vote of confidence in the staff, Schaefer said "There's never a day that you can't get better."

Schaefer proposes to do that in his next term by doing three things:

Reducing operating costs by shutting down underutilized field offices.

Increasing emphasis on compliance efforts.

Continuing to build on the culture of customer service in the agency that he has emphasized over the last eight years and continuing to be an independent voice looking out for Maryland taxpayers and their tax dollars.

At the close of the interview, I asked him how he wanted to be remembered. He said he already knows what he wants on his grave marker.

"It should say 'He cared.' That's all I want. That's all I ask. I'm not a wealthy person, I'm not highly educated, but I did know how to treat people," he said.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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