The Best Politician You Never Heard Of
If you’ve ever been to the ballpark in Baltimore – Oriole Park at Camden Yards – and loved it as I have, you have William Donald Schaefer to thank. Or maybe you’ve been able to wander around the gorgeous Inner Harbor in Baltimore and visit the stunning National Aquarium. All the work of Don Schaefer.
In one of the best political profiles ever written, Richard Ben Cramer, called Schaefer, who died on Monday at age 89, Mayor Annoyed. Annoyed because things didn’t happen fast enough in his city, annoyed because greedy developers (and NFL owners) refused to see things his way and annoyed because nitwit reporters tweaked him for his temper and his very old school ways.
He never quit working. Schaefer became legendary for driving around the city at all hours stopping his Buick to check on an abandoned building, talk to some guy on the street or pick up a pile of trash. The mayor, and later the governor, always had work to do.
For 15 years, Schaefer was the mayor of Baltimore and then spent two terms as governor and more time as Maryland’s controller. He never married. Politics was his mistress. He was a builder, a boss, a bully, a booster and, as the Baltimore Sun said in his stunningly interesting obituary, “the dominate figure in Maryland politics over the last half century.”
Don Schaefer was the model of the modern, big city mayor.
Schaefer, often referred to as the “Governor of Baltimore” after he moved to Annapolis, hated that the Baltimore Colts NFL team had left his beloved city. As governor, he was determined to do what it took to get a team back and to keep the Orioles in town. That included making peace with his legislative critics to ensure a $280 million stadium deal was approved. It was and Camden Yards is part of his monument.
As the Sun’s Michael Dresser wrote in his obit: “[Schaefer’s] style in dealing with legislators was cunningly flexible. With strong personalities he would pitch fits punctuated by profanity and obscene gestures before coming to a compromise. With others he played on their sympathies and made them feel so bad about hurting him that they went along.”
He detested Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who Schaefer thought, correctly no doubt, was keeping an NFL team from returning to Baltimore. He had a long-running feud with his successor as governor, Parris Glendenning, once saying of the man who replaced him, also a Democrat, “I will not have any disparaging remarks about him except I hate him. That’s putting it mildly.” He was so independent he endorsed George H.W. Bush and once had dinner with Ronald Reagan and the next day blasted his policies.
America was once blessed with flamboyant, outspoken, get it done today mayors. Guys like James Michael Curley in Boston and Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia in New York and Richard J. Daley in Chicago. Controversy stuck to them, ambition defined them and the little people loved them. Don Schaefer was cut of the same cloth. These guys built great cities.
I had the pleasure of observing Gov. Schaefer a few times during meetings of the National Governors Association in the late 1980’s. Let’s say he did not suffer fools well.
One night I got on the elevator in the Hyatt on Capitol Hill just as the governor was returning, all by himself, from the obligatory black tie dinner at the White House. How was the dinner, I asked, hoping for a little State Dining Room gossip.
Schaefer reached up, pulled on one end of his bow tie to loosen it and offered his assessment of an evening at the White House. “The food was pretty good, but otherwise it was a damn waste of time.” As the elevator stopped on his floor, he said, “good night, I got work to do.”
I remembered that ocassion while reading Cramer’s great 1984 Esquire magazine profile of Mayor Annoyed. Cramer describes Schaefer’s penchant for issuing “action memos” demanding that his staff immediately address some city problem. “Broken pavement at 1700 Carey for TWO MONTHS,” for example.
He once sent an action memo that read simply: “There is an abandoned car…but I’m not telling you where it is.” City crews, Cramer wrote, ran around for a week “like hungry gerbils” trying to find that car. “They must have towed five hundred cars.”
Like the man said, he had work to do. What a character.