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Laslo Boyd: Joe Flacco and William Donald Schaefer

Imagine that there is no M&T Bank Stadium. Imagine that there is no Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Imagine that there is no NFL team in Baltimore.

The thrill and civic pride that engulfed Ravens’ fan as the result of their Super Bowl victory last Sunday would belong to some other city, perhaps Cleveland or Jacksonville. That Joe Flacco, the MVP of the big game, was wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey can be linked directly to a series of far-sighted and politically difficult decisions that were made years ago by a former mayor of Baltimore City, Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Go back in time to the 1980s. The Colts, under cover of darkness, left town for Indianapolis — loser in the first round of this year’s playoffs to the Ravens. At the same time, there was growing concern that team owner Edward Bennett Williams would relocate the Orioles south to the Nation’s Capital.

William Donald Schaefer, a larger than life political force in Maryland though not particularly a sports fan, was elected governor of the state in 1986. The combination of his overwhelming victory in the election, his activist approach to governing, and his understanding of the importance that professional athletic teams play in the psyche of a city led him to undertake what many at the time thought was an impossible challenge.

Schaefer decided to place his considerable political capital behind legislation that would authorize the construction of two new stadiums in downtown Baltimore. The first, a baseball only facility, was intended to insure that the Orioles made a commitment to stay in Baltimore. Oriole Park, as we all know, became the proto-type for a whole new generation of baseball stadiums and is still regarded as among the very best. And the Orioles are still here more than two decades later.

The bigger gamble was trying to win authorization for a new football stadium to be built only if the city were able to attract an NFL franchise to replace the Colts. Any mention of ravens back then was limited to Edgar Allen Poe fans, the total number of whom might have filled a small, local bar but certainly not a stadium.

Enacting the stadium bill required convincing legislators from other parts of the state that public funds should be used for a facility in Baltimore City. The full array of Schaefer’s political skills and the powers of the governor’s office were just enough to get the legislation passed. For some, the “Yea” vote became a career-ender.

No occupant for the authorized but as yet not built stadium arrived until 1996 after Schaefer had left the Governor’s Office, when Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns franchise to Baltimore. Modell would not have come here if were it not for the promise of a new stadium and the favorable financial deal that accompanied it.

I thought about the connection between Schaefer’s victory all those years ago and the Super Bowl euphoria sweeping the City and the State when I attended a panel discussion on his legacy last Monday at the University of Baltimore’s — wait for it — Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

The speakers — Nancy Grasmick, Sandy Hillman, and Mark Wasserman, along with moderator C. Fraser Smith — had known Schaefer over many years and had great stories to share. More importantly, they all offered thoughtful insights about the challenges of leadership in state and local government.

You can look at the stadium complex decision as a case study in executive leadership. Schaefer identified a problem and pursued a solution with decisiveness and determination. He didn’t worry about the critics, about opposition, or about the possibility of not succeeding.

The outcome was a phenomenal success going well beyond the achievements of any one team in any one year. I know that some people question the value of sports teams and of publicly-financed stadiums, but Schaefer saw the issue less in those narrow economic terms — although the sports complex has been an important part of downtown revitalization in Baltimore — and more in terms of building a sense of community.

The panelists all agreed that one of the keys to understanding Schaefer was his genuine commitment to public service rather than to his own advancement. That commitment, augmented by the extraordinary political skills that he developed over the years, provided the foundation for his approach to governing.

Joe Flacco, despite a lot of questions and criticisms during his five years with the Ravens, demonstrated this season both the football skills and the leadership ability to get the Ravens to their ultimate objective. He has decisively answered the question of whether he is in the elite circle of top quarterbacks in the league.

Similarly, we need to look for and insist upon that same quality of excellence in the people we elect to key positions in government. William Donald Schaefer provided the model and example by which all the others can be judged.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His experience in public policy includes government, higher education and consulting. His email address is [email protected]