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C. Fraser Smith: Life with William Donald Schaefer

I heard about him before I got to The Sun in 1977. Some sort of miracle worker. Some sort of wacky, colorful galoot. Whatever, I thought .

That was before I learned that “whatever“ wouldn’t cut it with William Donald Schaefer. You had to be on his team, know where the goal post was and offer a thought about how to get there.

Yes, you. You’re a reporter? So what?

My reporter colleagues and I were not getting on the team of any elected official. Why didn’t he understand that? He did, of course. But the invitation stood.

In time, I found myself assigned to him and his city. Baltimoreans in those days were already accustomed to news stories with “Mayor Annoyed” as the headline. In the newsroom, that became his name.

Annoyed or upset or angry were different words for his default position. No one could be happy or satisfied or complacent. That would mean things were okay or acceptable. They weren’t.

He was annoyed when the newspaper reported disappointing test scores from city schools. He was annoyed when he didn’t get every nickel he’d asked for from the state — a time when his pal, Gov. Marvin Mandel, was sending him just about every nickel he’d asked for.

Reporters used to occasionally have breakfast with him in those days. We’d take turns bringing the doughnuts — until we found out that Egg McMuffin was his breakfast of choice. Sometimes he would get so upset he couldn’t eat.

How about the cows?

In time, I went to work on a series of articles about what The Sun called his “Shadow Government,” an assembly of quasi-governmental bodies designed to accelerate or evade the process of various projects he wanted. He hated it.

He showed up at the annual meeting of the Greater Baltimore Committee with a black cape and floppy black hat as — The Shadow. Game over. The business guys loved it. They were on the team.

Somewhere along the way, it got a little personal. He called me a nitwit. Later, after I’d moved to Annapolis to cover the General Assembly, he called me something worse.

Former State Sen. John Coolahan offered to represent me pro bono if I would take Schaefer to court. But reporters don’t take public officials to court.

Schaefer worked hard to establish a Baltimore-like relationship with the entire state. We kind of laughed at him when he discovered there were mountains in Western Maryland. But people from Cumberland said no governor had ever been such a good a friend to them. They were on the team.

He wasn’t real happy in the governor’s job, but he worked at it as hard as he had worked in Baltimore. He was never satisfied in Annapolis, either. After he got a disaster plan for an incoming blizzard, he wanted to know what was being done about the cows.

He had fights with General Assembly leaders, of course. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. was offended by some of Schafer’s antics. A student of history, Miller thought Schaefer didn’t know about checks and balances. Actually, Schaefer just didn’t care about checks and balances.

At one point, while talking with then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Schaefer said, “You’re in the job I should have and I’m in the job you should have.”

This was an almost friendly bit of conversation between two men who didn’t always get along — Schaefer mostly to blame.

Not a team player

A lifelong Democrat, Schaefer endorsed Republican President George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton. Then he went to a luncheon Clinton had for governors in the ornate Library of Congress. He might have claimed a previous engagement, but he was going to take his medicine. There to cover the event, I saw him searching for his seat assignment as if he might have been consigned to the parking lot.

“That’s what I would have done,” he said later.

Near the end of his tenure as governor, I decided to write a book about him. I sent letters, asking if he would cooperate. I spoke to some of his staffers. No response. Nothing. He was busy.

A year or two after he was, in his word, “deposed,” I got a call from Marion Pines, one of his close aides in Baltimore. Schaefer was bored. He would be open to the book idea.

She arranged lunch at the Hopkins Club.

As we were sitting down, she said, “This man wants to write a book about you. Are you going to cooperate?”

“Oh, sure,” he said, as if there had ever been any question.

Over the next year or so, he and I had lunch and dinner and chatted about his life and times. I heard he got upset once or twice when I interviewed people he didn’t much like.

When the book came out, he claimed he’d read 40 pages but quit when he thought I’d been critical of his patron, Irv Kovens.

In the preface, I wrote, “He was a career politician who ran for office to serve — to work for people, to care about their welfare. He wanted to think of himself and to have others think of him, as a distinguished city father, a public servant. He seemed to be the last Baltimorean to see how well he succeeded.”

I was not on his team, but he had a great one without me.

Yet like many Baltimoreans, I was happy to be a member of his family. I think he knew that. I hope so.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR, 88.1. His column appears Fridays and occasionally on other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org. He is the author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography,” published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.