Josh Kurtz: Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

All of the tributes to the late William Donald Schaefer have rightly focused on the stunning and everlasting imprint he made on his state and on Baltimore in particular – the physical monuments he leaves behind, the restoration and re-creation of so much of the city.

But his political legacy is less talked about.

When you were part of the state’s political fabric for more than half a century, it’s a given that you will have encountered and touched an infinite number of the state’s political leaders – in Schaefer’s case, from Irv Kovens to Ken Ulman, to put rough brackets around his era.

It’s also a given – really, almost a cliché – to say that he towered over state politics. But when you think about the ways in which he dominated the state political scene for so long, it’s both impressive, and a mind-bending exercise.

Schaefer inspired many current and former officeholders from one end of the state to the other. He represented an era in Maryland politics that’s more or less gone. He got a lot of people started in the political game who might not otherwise have joined in. Many of his protégés and former aides continue to hold very important positions around the state, both inside and outside of government.

But not everyone loved him – some people, in fact, loathed him. Lots of skillful political veterans in this state worked to elect him and help him in office. But others, working for Schaefer’s political enemies, found themselves arrayed against him. And Schaefer’s own political decisions and career moves often interfered with and interrupted the ambitions of other politicians.

The experiences of all these Maryland insiders – friends, foes, and neutral observers – continue to inform state politics today.

Let’s take a tour of the political waterfront and Schaefer’s imprint on it:

Any tour probably has to start with Barbara Mikulski. If Schaefer was the king of white, big city, ethnic pols in Maryland, Mikulski is the queen. Forget about their personal similarities for a minute – their explosive temperaments, their rabid devotion to their work, their less than matinee idol looks and their utter lack of personal lives. They may not have seen eye-to-eye on every issue (Mikulski is clearly more liberal), but both are street-level pols in the best sense of the term whose personal popularity transcends all political trends. And the city of Baltimore’s white ethnic enclaves are unlikely to produce powerful leaders like them ever again.

Consider Ben Cardin, the state’s junior senator to Mikulski, but with 45 years (!) of elective office under his belt. He was all set to run for governor in 1986, when he was speaker of the state House, but deferred to Schaefer. What would the state’s political history have been like if Schaefer had decided to stay in City Hall and Cardin had become governor? What would their careers have been like? How would the trajectories of the people who followed in their footsteps been affected?

When Schaefer left Annapolis the first time, and Parris Glendening became governor, the city needed champions in the State House. Luckily, it found them in Pete Rawlings and Barbara Hoffman, who kept the funding spigot wide open. How would their legislative careers have progressed if Schaefer’s shoes didn’t need filling at precisely that moment? Who would have jumped into the fray if they hadn’t been there?

Think about some of the African-American political leaders who Schaefer allied himself with and whose careers he sometimes nurtured, like Rawlings and Bishop Robinson and Kweisi Mfume. They were all talented enough to thrive without a boost from Schaefer – but clearly their careers would have been different without him. Would Stephanie Rawlings-Blake be a credible mayor today without her father’s success? Where would Mfume’s latest flirtation with running for mayor be without the knowledge that Schaefer promoted him for the job back in 1999? Why didn’t Robinson ever run for mayor? Enough people wanted him to.

What about African-American politicians whose careers Schaefer decidedly worked against? Think about Kurt Schmoke; he was the anti-Schaefer in every way – not just because he was black, but because he was cerebral, analytical, detached and humorous, and didn’t operate with the same sense of urgency. He probably would have been more successful if he had.

Think about Doug Duncan – surely the only politician from Montgomery County, where Schaefer always felt out of sorts, who emulated him. Duncan had the same edifice complex as Schaefer. But he was a little too careerist, and a little too straight-laced and self-serious, to really pull off the Schaefer act, even if he too, can look around his jurisdiction and see monuments to his success.

Speaking of Montgomery County pols, what about Mike Barnes? Maybe he’d be early into his fourth term as state comptroller, instead of clinging to public service with his new job on the Washington Metro board, if Schaefer hadn’t insisted on a political comeback back in 1998.

What if Schaefer had been more partisan instead of making so many of his political decisions based on who was loyal to him? He wouldn’t have sought to protect Helen Bentley (and, to a lesser extent, Connie Morella) during the early 1990’s redistricting process. Maybe Tom McMillen would still be in Congress. Or maybe he would have been next in line when Paul Sarbanes retired and would now be the tallest senator in history.

What would the 2002 gubernatorial election have been like if some of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s top advisers hadn’t become obsessed with the idea of appealing to so-called Schaefer Democrats (and Schaefer Republicans)? She might not have selected a Republican political neophyte as her running mate and might have instead tapped a dynamic young African-American, or someone else who could have excited the Democratic base, to be her candidate for lieutenant governor.

Bob Ehrlich was going to win the Schaefer vote that year anyway – he’d been courting those voters for ages – and he won it big, amid a depressed African-American turnout. That was one of KKT’s many mistakes on the campaign trail.

What about Nancy Grasmick? If Schaefer hadn’t plucked her from the obscurity of the Baltimore County school system, would she be the well-known “St. Nancy” of Maryland schools that she is today?

And what about Parris Glendening and Martin O’Malley? What would their careers have been like without Schaefer’s enmity? And would Peter Franchot have ever seized the moment the way he did in 2006 when Schaefer made himself so vulnerable?

All these questions have an “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel to them – of George Bailey being made to confront the possibility of life in Bedford Falls if he hadn’t existed.

Which somehow seems appropriate as we contemplate William Donald Schaefer’s wonderful, unique life – and all the people he touched along the way.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Lion in Winter

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