An oft-told story about William Donald Schaefer, who died yesterday at age 89, recounts how, as mayor, he would come banging into the City Hall in a rage about an abandoned car he passed on his way to work, or pothole that needed fixing. He would harangue his beleaguered staff, huff into his office, slam the door, and by close of business that afternoon, the car would be gone, the pothole filled.
That tale, which I’ve now heard from several former members of Schaefer’s mayoral administration, has always struck me as a perfect illustration of everything both heroic and tragically flawed about the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and state comptroller.
He was inspiring and infuriating. He was a visionary with a penchant for micromanagement. He was possessed of a larger-than-life personality that he chronically allowed to get in his own way. He was a bare-knuckled politician with little patience for policy wonks. He could be charming and he could be belligerent. He loved his hometown of Baltimore with a towering passion, but it was a passion that hindered his ability to govern the state as a whole. He couldn’t decide whether he preferred the trenches or the limelight. He had the tenacity of a mule, but also its obstinacy. He never backed down from a fight, but he never knew when he should just shut up and walk away.
Schaefer was notorious for straying from his script, a habit that was celebrated by some, lamented by others, and dreaded by his staff. A friend of mine was a greenhorn speechwriter for the then-Mayor back in the 80’s. He recalled how Schaefer would approach the lectern, glance dismissively at his prepared remarks, tell the audience about the “bright young man in the back” who had “written a nice speech” for him, and then proceed to ad-lib for 20 minutes.
That off-the-cuff tendency got Schaefer into trouble on more than one occasion. Relations were frosty with the Clinton administration after he crossed party lines to endorse Republican George H.W. Bush for president in 1992. More recently, then-Comptroller Schaefer raised eyebrows and ire by criticizing immigrants and making sexist remarks about female staffers in Annapolis.
I admit I was never one of William Donald Schaefer’s biggest fans. I arrived in Baltimore in 1989, shortly after he vaunted to well-deserved stardom for the miraculous transformation of the dilapidated docks at the intersection of Light and Pratt streets into the now-world-famous Inner Harbor. My first recollection of him was an unflattering news article that described how Schaefer had tracked down and verbally abused a Baltimore man who had criticized him in the press. Then came the Bush endorsement, and then, years after that, Schaefer’s truculent refusal to endorse fellow Democrat Martin O’Malley in his bid for the governor’s mansion.
But it was Schaefer’s second term as comptroller that cemented in my mind the idea of him as a remnant of a happily bygone age in American politics, a fighter who didn’t know when to quit the ring. He drew outrage from the immigrant community in 2004 when he claimed that a foreign-born employee at a fast food restaurant couldn’t speak English. That same year, he asserted that people with AIDS “brought [the disease] upon themselves.”
In 2006, Schaefer made lewdly suggestive comments to a female gubernatorial aide, then referred to a female reporter as a “sweet little girl.” He sealed his political fate during his run for a third term as state comptroller, when he referred to his rival as a “prissy little miss” who “looks like Mother Hubbard – it’s sort of like she was a man.” He was voted out of his job, and out of the spotlight he loved, that year.
I met Schaefer three times, two of them after his departure from public office. The last time I saw him was at an event to announce the launch of a charitable fund in his honor that benefits Baltimore neighborhoods. This was shortly before he was moved (involuntarily, I should note) from the East Baltimore rowhome where he had spent much of his life, to a long-term care facility in Catonsville.
He was clearly in ill health. His slurred speech, glassy eyes, and confused expression betrayed hints of dementia. At first he refused to take the podium, a demurral that caused some alarm among the organizers of the event. When he finally rose to speak, a baited hush fell over the room as all the assembled news crews, friends, and community residents waited to see whether Schaefer would be able to struggle through his brief prepared remarks. The tremor in his hands was evident as he gripped the lectern. He stood there silently for several seemingly interminable seconds before opening his mouth.
And then he just blew the doors off the place. Just as he had done in countless press conferences before, Schaefer proceeded to ignore his notes and speak with customary frankness and bracing clarity. He was funny. He was insightful. He was inspiring. He mugged. He played to the cameras. He courteously acknowledged then-Mayor Sheila Dixon, who would later suffer her own fall from grace. He displayed none of the petulant incoherence that had characterized his recent public appearances. Through it all shone a dedication to his city that had never wavered in a long and hard-fought career.
Schaefer reminisced fondly about his four terms as mayor, calling it “the best job I ever had.” He said that if you want to be a good mayor, you have to “wage war” on blight and garbage, you have to take “every brick out of place” in the city as a personal affront. That you have to care about the neighborhoods and the people in them.
As he delivered this fiery yet wistful valediction, I realized why he was so beloved by so many. It wasn’t just that he had given 50 years of his life to public service. It wasn’t just because of his operatic personality and considerable charisma. It wasn’t just that he was the man behind Harborplace, Oriole Park, the Light Rail, and the surprising staying power of the slogan “Charm City.”
Baltimore loves William Donald Schaefer because he loved Baltimore. He fought hard for it for over half a century. People love Schaefer because when he saw an a pothole on the way to work, he felt responsible for making sure it was filled. People love him because he took every brick out of place personally.
Godspeed, Mr. Mayor.
Anyone wishing to honor William Donald Schaefer’s memory and legacy may make a contribution to the William Donald Schaefer Civic Fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation. The fund supports projects in the Baltimore neighborhoods Schaefer loved.