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William Donald Schaefer's death marks end of an era

April 22, 2011

There can be little question that former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer was the last of a dying breed. We might even go so far as to say that the Democrat was the only member of this particular breed, so his passing this week sadly and certainly marks the end of an era.

By the time the mid-’90s rolled around, politics had largely passed Schaefer by. The man who served as governor from 1987 to 1995 never understood political correctness. He couldn’t get why some might put politics ahead of progress — party to him was little more than an unnecessary label; he worked with whoever would work with him, Democrat or Republican. And perhaps most of all, he never saw how anyone could question his vision, considering what he considered to be his unparalleled track record of success.

But when he was in his prime, Schaefer stormed the beaches like no other, taking the failing city of Baltimore, where he served as mayor from 1971 to 1987, and making it known around the world for its progressive inner sanctum.

He built baseball’s best stadium and paved the way for a return of professional football. Baltimore’s aquarium, convention center, light rail and Harborplace all bore the Schaefer seal. Schaefer was big government when big government meant not wars and airport strip-searches, but soaring buildings, elegant plazas and projects that united people in pride for their communities.

Tax and spend was no dishonor for Schaefer, yet he worked with business better than most Republicans, and when hard times hit he understood that financial responsibility depends on both adequate revenue and spending cuts.

He sweated the details like no other, personally scrawling memos to have problems such as poor trash collection and potholes rectified on the spot. If a water main broke, he had a sign erected taking credit for the new community fountain.

Schaefer could be brash and profane, often to the point of meanness, yet where his constituents were concerned he was tender and compassionate. His methods might be questioned, but not the premise that he wanted what was best for all Marylanders.

Nor did Schaefer have any problems in channeling his inner flake. He jumped into a seal tank with a rubber duck, commanded an Annapolis cruise in full dress uniform and, more darkly, tracked down and wrote nasty letters to drivers who let their disapproval of him be known through their gestures.

Schaefer treated Western Maryland well, even though his stance on gun control, among some other things, meant that we could never really be friends. He loudly, though mostly in jest, disparaged rural areas — his derogatory comment characterizing the Eastern Shore as a cesspool drew protests from citizens who dressed up in outhouse costumes to show their displeasure. But when it came time to allocate funds, adjust funding formulas and encourage companies to locate in economically stressed regions, Schaefer’s efforts showed no hint of the revenge that he was often accused of perpetuating.

In return, Schaefer, who was comptroller from 1999 to 2007, asked for recognition — acknowledgment, really — that he knew best and we should all take his word that he was choosing the proper path. In politics, of course, that can never be, and the more people fought him the more irascible he became.

But if the ending were sad, the main act was a tremendous success. And that is how Schaefer is best remembered, as a boisterous wag who could cut a hardcore business deal one minute and dance on the table wearing a lampshade the next. What a ride. And many, many Marylanders are all the better that he lived such a progressive and hard-charging life.

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