September 13, 2006

So Long to the (Willie) Don of Maryland Politics

I never thought this day would come.

In a development at once shocking and unsurprising, Maryland living legend William Donald Schaefer was defeated in his bid for re-election as comptroller. It was a close three-way race, with Delegate Peter Franchot and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens challenging him. Most observers figured that, with his opponents splitting the anti-Schaefer vote, the wily veteran politician would slide through for another term (after which, presumably, he could either retire or die with something resembling dignity, as least for him). But it was not to be, as Franchot surged in late balloting to take the win.

(Incidentally, I met Del. Franchot some months back at a rally for the Nats broadcast rights, and I liked him. He made some gracious comments about Schaefer's stature and record in his victory speech, but his true feelings were revealed at the rally, when he told me, "I'm going to beat [Schaefer] like a rented mule.")

I've written a lot about Schaefer over the years, and with good reason. He has been one of the most colorful figures on the political scene throughout his career, from his tenure as Baltimore's "Mayor Annoyed" to his highly entertaining service as Maryland governor to his most recent gig as comptroller, which was largely a victory lap and an opportunity to keep his name in the papers, which is his favorite hobby. In recent years, though, his comments have progressed from humorously cutting to downright mean. There is quite possibly not a single group of people whom Schaefer has not offended in the last few years (well, save for the aging white men who believe his campaign slogan, "He Says What You Think"). Over the course of this campaign, he has gone into deeper decline, leaving observers wondering if he had finally lost whatever marbles he still possessed.

I saw Schaefer on NewsChannel 8 last night, and he was very much himself, although oddly subdued. He opened his coat to show reporters where his opponents "put their knives into me." He groused about how the campaign was rougher and meaner than any he had experienced in his entire career, and complained about his opponents calling him old, saying, "It's discrimination to call someone old just because he's 85... or 84, going on 85 in a couple months." The statement was so absurd on the face of it that I took it as a sign of Schaefer's frustration and exhaustion with the campaign.

Also, it's rather amusing to hear Schaefer cry foul about the meanness of the campaign, given that he claimed that Owens "looked like Mother Hubbard," and said she was getting fat. Like many bullies, it seems, Schaefer can dish it out but can't take it.

Honestly, though I've believed for several years now that Schaefer was over the hill and needed to get off the stage, I didn't think I'd see the day he was actually defeated. On the other hand... was there really another way for him to go? He was pretty clearly never going to retire willingly, so it was either defeat or death for him. And for a combative and colorful politicians who never minced words and never worried about who he was pissing off, it's only fitting that his career came to an end like this. Sooner or later, his friends were going to disappear (suffice to say that the younger set wasn't exactly lining up behind him), and his enemies would become strong and numerous enough to knock him off. And I think he's proud that he went down fighting.

Now that he's gone (I think), the Maryland political will settle down a little bit. There aren't any more Schaefers on the horizon (Helmet-Head Ehrlich may be the closest in Maryland), and today's political climate pretty much guarantees there won't be. Outspoken, brash, reckless, irrascible, unconstrained politicians don't last long these days; they run afoul of the media, or an important interest group, or a key contributor, and they get run out town by an angry populace in a self-righteous lather. While I didn't support Schaefer and think Franchot was a far better choice for comptroller, I'll miss him. So long, Willie Don.

P.S. to Peter Franchot: Be careful what you wish for. Before Schaefer, did anyone know or care who the Maryland state comptroller was? There was a reason for that. Comptroller is not really a high-profile job; Schaefer made it one by the sheer force of his outrageous remarks and outsized personality. I suspect that, by knocking off Schaefer, you see this position as a stepping stone to higher office. Perhaps it will be. But perhaps you'll find that the media will resume its previous level of attention (i.e. none) to the comptroller's office now that Schaefer's no longer in it. Good luck.

UPDATE (9/14): Today's Post had a great retrospective of Schaefer's antics throughout his career. My favorite anecdote:

Once, after a woman in her car gestured to him with her middle finger, he tracked down her address through Motor Vehicle Administration records and wrote her: "Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face. Have a nice day!"
Posted by Mediocre Fred at September 13, 2006 10:19 AM | TrackBack

You've got to love Maryland politics. It's exceeded in inanity only by DC politics, which is an island unto itself.

Still, I can't help but admit that I cracked a smile over the MVA thing - there are dozens of Virginia drivers I see on a daily basis that deserve something like that. But then, you don't see Commonwealth officials pulling that kind of stuff...

Posted by: PapaShaft at September 14, 2006 07:38 AM

I can't for a minute imagine any of the politicians in Virginia even dreaming of doing that. Certainly not cautious Tim Kaine, courtly John Warner, folksy Gomer Allen, or amiable Mark Warner. John Hager is probably the last Commonwealth politico who would have even considered a stunt like that.

Virginia politics are so boring.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at September 14, 2006 10:10 AM

After pondering it overnight, I thought of one Virginia politician who would try the MVA thing: Jim Moran. But, for better or for worse, there's no way in hell he would be elected governor of Virginia.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at September 15, 2006 08:36 AM

Comptroller can have its moments -- Grandma (also known as Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the non-Kinky independent candidate) is using the fame she gained from opposing her own party on the Texas budget to try to run for governor of the state. Then again, governor of a state that prides itself on limited government and no income tax may not be the same rise in stature that it would be in Maryland. Molly Ivins claims, "Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising, by constitutional arrangement, the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office: behind lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner, but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner." The Texas comptroller is particularly powerful because she has most of the duties that other states assign to a treasurer (a position abolished by Texas voters in 1996).

Little known fact: Grandma is mama to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, as well as the recently-resigned national director of Medicaid and Medicare Mark McClellan. She had them with her first husband, who published a book alleging that LBJ (for whose administration he worked) helped to plan and cover up JFK's assassination. All in all, a colorful political family.

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