Josh Kurtz: The Lion in Winter

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For those of us who didn’t get to Maryland until after William Donald Schaefer was governor and mayor – particularly for those of us who never lived in Baltimore – well, we never totally “got” Schaefer.

We know well what a legend this man was – how the city was his life, and how thoroughly he transformed it. We know how this man, who had no family of his own, engendered fierce loyalty among the people who worked for him – how they became his de facto family, and stayed by his side long after he could be of any use to them (or do them any harm). We know how his record of accomplishment, how his drive and performance, inspired generations of Maryland leaders who came after him, even though none was as authentic – or as bombastic or as colorful – as the real thing.

And we know he will deserve every accolade that’s thrown his way in the days ahead, as the city and state mourn not only his passing, but the end of an era, and the death of a larger-than-life personality who probably could not have succeeded in these days of poll-driven, blow-dried candidates who measure every word before they utter it and labor mightily to steer clear of controversy.

We know all these things, and we salute William Donald Schaefer for all he believed and all he achieved.

And yet, while we mourn the man and his dedication to public service, we cannot forget Schaefer in his later years – the way he behaved, and what he came to represent.

It’s easy to understand his unhappiness at his forced retirement – term limited as governor, unable to hand-pick his own successor, and then, along with all his allies from Baltimore, powerless as he watched an interloper from the Washington suburbs take control in Annapolis.

Parris Glendening was no William Donald Schaefer, but his election was in its own way a seminal moment in Maryland history, a signal that – even though his two immediate successors came from the Baltimore area – the Washington region was coming into its own. And indeed, both in pure numbers and in positions and spheres of influence, the D.C. region is getting stronger every day – at Baltimore’s expense.

Schaefer never accepted that – and certainly never accepted Glendening. And while some of his closest allies made their peace with Glendening, there remained in Maryland a kind of government-in-exile, Baltimore-centric to a fault, with Schaefer as its titular leader. Bob Ehrlich’s election – with old Schaefer hand Paul Schurick at his side and a coterie of Schaefer money men supplying the capital – seemed like a restoration. But it was propelled mostly by hubris, and no real governing vision, and it was doomed to failure.

Even though Martin O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore, he is from Montgomery County – born and bred and a product of its political culture, both in the grandest sense (proximity to D.C. and all that power) and in the smallest (the tiny group of Irish insiders who dominated courthouse jobs in Rockville for decades). And even though Montgomery insiders may brood that O’Malley isn’t doing enough for them and their communities, it’s a stark contrast to Schaefer, who saw Montgomery as the teat to provide the sustenance for his pet projects back home, or Ehrlich, who never realized that Montgomery was more than just his golfing buddies from Potomac.

Maryland is a way more diverse and dynamic state than it was when Schaefer was governor, driven – yes – to a great extent by the polyglot and rapidly changing communities in the D.C. suburbs. Schaefer never saw it – and his acolytes never acknowledged it. And we’re all a little worse off for their limited vision.

Schaefer, of course, did find his way back into government – and the limelight – muscling his way into the comptroller’s job following the death of Louis Goldstein. And he certainly embraced the aspects of the job that required him to be a fiscal hawk – far more aggressively than Goldstein ever did.

Then, too, there was a feeling of a restoration – a last gasp from an old guard that no longer really existed and had long outlived its usefulness. No obituary of Schaefer is now complete without cataloguing the pettiness and vindictiveness that characterized his years as comptroller, and the bizarre, sexist and xenophobic statements he made at the end. It doesn’t diminish his accomplishments – but it does tarnish his legacy.

And that’s a shame. The people who loved Schaefer best felt he deserved that chance to come out of retirement, to serve as comptroller. But they didn’t think it through: Just as Glendening was no Schaefer, Schaefer was no Louis Goldstein. You can be cantankerous; you can prod people to action, when you’re the head man. But when you’re the old guy in a corner throwing spitballs, you look a little silly. No one tired of the courtly Goldstein’s act.

As time passes, those last, unfortunate images of William Donald Schaefer will recede, and the true monuments of his half-century in public life will endure. Rest in peace, you extraordinary man. We won’t see the likes of you again.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal

Seinfeld in Maryland

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.