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C. Fraser Smith: What to learn from Schaefer

With a total of 29 candidates in the mix, the poor voter’s head must be spinning. (Not to speak of the poor columnist.)

It has occurred to me, though, that we can scroll through the files to consider how mayors of Baltimore have operationalized the idea that the word mayor is actually a verb.

For William Donald Schaefer, mayor from 1971-1985, that idea was right there in his most famous utterance: “Do it now.”

Schaefer epitomized the idea of action in City Hall and in the neighborhoods. As a member of the city council, including his years as city council president, the man called Willy Don knew more about being mayor on his first day in the job than most mayors knew on their last day.

This was true because he worked at it, studied it, recruited star players for his team and never, ever relaxed. People close to him wondered if he ever had a moment to take account of what he accomplished. Probably not. For him that would have been a waste of time.

He worked at everything 20 hours a day. We are unlikely, as they say, to see his like again.

At the same time, it may be possible to identify some habits of leadership that others could emulate. Most of the stories that would illuminate that claim can be found (he said, modestly) in my book, “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography.”

A few thoughts. Schaefer was not an art lover. Not a football or baseball fan. Or a reader. But he knew Baltimoreans were – some important ones, some wealthy and influential ones.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art one day he and a friend came upon a painting – all white with a red dot in the center.

“That is a beautiful painting,” his patron-guide said,

“It is?” said Schaefer. “Geez, I could do that. Throw some white paint on it.”

A brief lecture ensued.

“I learned from her, so I got to where I liked it,” he said.

And then immediately:  I don’t like it. And then, “ But I liked it.”

And learned from it.

Criticized for putting sculpture in public, he said, “People said I was a crazy man, putting sculpture out in public. They said folks in the ghetto will tear it up, smash it to pieces. They didn’t. Not only that, they watched it to be sure nothing happened to it. There was less than 5 percent damage to any piece of sculpture. They understood it.”

Even if he didn’t.

Teaching Romney

Schaefer helpmates told the story of Baltimore’s mayor almost literally screaming at George Romney, President Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development. Federal money for some Baltimore projects was being withdrawn.

A meeting was arranged in Romney’s D.C. office.

“You know Mr. Secretary,” Schaefer told him, “you don’t understand anything about cities. Nothing. You don’t understand how people begin to depend on things and how difficult it is to have things change around after you’ve been working on them for years. Who the hell are you to say we can’t have these projects?”

“What do you mean,”  Romney said indignantly. “I’m the secretary. I’ve been around.”  HUD advisers, Romney said, were unimpressed by some of Baltimore’s ideas. There had been scandals in Detroit involving similar projects.

“I’m not the mayor of Detroit,” said Schaefer leaning across the conference table. Don’t lay the sins of Detroit on Baltimore.”

Here was the basic Schaefer ploy: A shocking frontal assault on whoever was standing in his way, an assault as well on the standards of decorum, flinging them aside in a way that was in itself shocking. Most people, including Cabinet secretaries, fell back when faced with a seemingly unrestrained force willing to inflict embarrassment and pain.

Schaefer’s friend and counselor, the late Walter Sondheim, tried to explain: He can’t bring himself to accept less than perfection. And why should he when the approach worked so often?

That day with Romney, for example, he saved all the projects. (Romney may have wished to avoid another encounter with the man from Baltimore.)

 Learn some lessons

Few of the candidates in this year’s race have had much practice at dealing with Cabinet secretaries and others in power.

But they might profit from a thoughtful review of how Schaefer dealt with day-to-day challenges he faced in Baltimore.  After covering him for 15 years and writing a book about him, I believe there were some rules he followed:

  • Do sweat the small stuff. “I knew the bridge would be built. I didn’t know if the trees would be trimmed.” So he rode out Sundays to find out.
  • “Do it now.”
  • Do not set priorities. Everything is critical and essential. Time is not on our side.
  • Follow up: You’re dealing with human beings … Put one of your best people in charge of following up.
  • Never give in to demands. Ever. Get something in return because you must have the investment of people
  • Demand ideas. Use ideas. Leadership involves finding talented people and showing them their ideas will be tried. That promise will put a further dimension of responsibility in play.  He’s going to do this, they will be thinking, so it better be good or. …
  • Stand by your women. He believed that women were better team players, more loyal, less ego-driven.
  • Be pragmatic, especially when it hurts. Defeated by neighborhood groups in his effort to build a better highway through the city, he met with his tormenters and declared himself a member of their team.
  • Avoid what he called “the residue of failure.” Wait for the right moment. The failure of good ideas for whatever reason leaves a new level of opposition beyond the merits.
  • Act out. Most people will back down in the face of outrageous behavior. Don’t worry when they accuse you of throwing tantrums. When you’re right you’re right. And you’re always right.

His performance was endorsed by do-gooders, Democratic clubhouse operators, slick businessmen and neighborhood leaders. He managed to find the best in each of these without being a servant to any.

He wanted to think of himself as a distinguished city father, a public servant. Notably shy when he wasn’t berating anyone, Willy Don seemed to be the last Baltimorean to see how well he had succeeded.

 C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.