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William Donald Schaefer Exits the Political Stage

“He ate, drank, slept and talked politics.”
—John Cunningham

City Hall by William Hughes

When he was mayor, for the most part Schaefer’s dark side, thanks to a complicit media, was hidden from full public view, along with that “Shadow Government” operation, “The Trustees."
Baltimore, Maryland--It was back in the late ’50s, in this then predominately working class city, when I first met “The Character” known as—William Donald Schaefer.

Thanks to the awesome Political Machine of Irv Kovens, later Marvin Mandel’s, Schaefer would dominate Baltimore and Maryland politics for decades. He served nearly four terms as Baltimore’s Democratic mayor, beginning in 1972, as well as two terms as governor of the state; almost two terms as the State Comptroller; and three four-year terms as a Baltimore City Council member, and even one as its president. That all adds up to around 50 years of public service--one half of a century!

On Tuesday, September 12, 2006, however, Maryland voters closed the door on elective public office for Schaefer, now 84 years of age, probably for good. This doesn’t mean that President George W. Bush won’t toss Schaefer a federal sinecure to pay him back for supporting him and his father’s New World Order-oriented policies over the years. Schaefer, it turned out in the ’90s, was really a Republican at heart, who never saw a U.S. war, a corporate subsidy or a tax break for the rich that he couldn’t embrace.

State Delegate Peter Franchot, a relative of the late actor Franchot Tone, gave Schaefer a whipping at the polls last Tuesday. Schaefer will no longer be the “State Comptroller” of Maryland. He will no longer be allowed to haunt the Board of Public Works meetings in Annapolis and use it to occasionally spew forth his inanities.

The trial lawyer Patrick Doherty, who knew Schaefer growing up as kids together in West Baltimore, regularly referred to him as “Shaky!” What a prophet Doherty was. Before Kovens took charge of Schaefer’s political life, he was an obscure title searcher who aithfully attended his Masonic Lodge meetings. Now, as a result of the Sept. 12th election, he has a one-way ticket to Maryland’s political graveyard.

Back to that first encounter: I was sitting in the City Council’s Chamber in City Hall, on the 4th floor, chatting with my political mentor, Michael “Iron Mike” McHale, a Councilman from my area, the 6th District of South Baltimore. We both worked on the docks together and belonged to the same political club, headed then by Julian “Fats” Carrick, and (God bless her memory) Mary Avara. Yes, that Mary Avara! She was later to serve on the State’s first and only Film Censor Board.

While McHale and I were chewing the fat, in spurted Schaefer, like L.G. “Long Gone” Dupre, a halfback for the Baltimore Colts’ fabled 1958 team. His face was as red as a fire engine. Then a Councilman from the city’s 5th District, he flopped down in the seat next to us. He was cursing away, raving, pounding on his desk. When McHale asked him what was wrong, he stood up, stared at him, and then turned and stormed just as quickly out of the Council Chambers. He didn’t return for another 30 minutes. Later he returned, and during the official City Council proceedings, which lasted an hour, he remained silent, sulking openly at his desk. This was my initial encounter with “The Character,” but not my last.

In the late 60s, thanks to State Sen. Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk, and with a valuable push from then-mayoralty aide, Peter Marudas, I was appointed as an Assistant City Solicitor. The mayor at that time was Tommy “The Younger” D’Alesandro. His sister is Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), now Democratic leader in the House of Representatives. After D’Alesandro decided not to run for re-election, Schaefer was elected mayor.

During those early years as mayor, Schaefer did a pretty good job for the city, and also for the people. It was only after his political boss, Kovens, went to jail on a federal rap that I noticed that Schaefer began to act out more. He started to believe his own B.S. He then cruelly replaced his most trusted aide and began surrounding himself with go-fers, who tended to reinforce all of his grandiose illusions, whacky antics and hot-tempered habits. In was in this period, too, that Schaefer’s massive ego contributed to the then-owner of the Baltimore Colts shifting the NFL franchise to Indianapolis. For the most part, while he was mayor, Schaefer’s dark side, thanks to a complicit media, was hidden from full public view, along with that “Shadow Government” operation, “The Trustees,” which he was running for several years from a back room in City Hall. It has only been in these later years, when Schaefer acted out in front of the TV cameras, that he was hoisted by his own petard.

As may expected, pundits are wondering: How will Schaefer be remembered? Let me suggest it will probably be for one of his silly stunts, like jumping in the National Aquarium’s seal pool, in 1981. The most fleeting kind of fame is the type associated with someone who is defined in the people’s minds as "a character.”

From a serious historical perspective, however, Schaefer’s time in office will not match the herculean accomplishments of Baltimore’s greatest post-WWII Mayor, Tommy “The Elder” D'Alesandro (1947-59); nor of the many solid achievements of Maryland’s finest chief executive of the modern era, Marvin Mandel (1969-79); nor of the illustrative record of public service of Louis L. “The Legend” Goldstein as the State’s Comptroller (1959-1998).

Some will insist that Schaefer deserves credit for “Harborplace.” Not so! That idea was sourced by the developer James Wilson Rouse, a true visionary. It was promoted, too, by a number of Schaefer’s predecessors at City Hall, going back as far as the Theodore R. McKeldin era (1963-67).

As to Schaefer’s fate...the wise Greeks had an answer for that one. Heraclitus said: “Everything is in flux.” Nothing lasts. Change is the law of life and of the universe. Perhaps one day we will see Schaefer sitting alone on a park bench in Mt. Vernon Square, in Baltimore. He is watching the squirrels at play, while laughing to himself. The camera then slowly, very slowly, begins a fade out...

© William Hughes 2006. Hughes, a Baltimore attorney, is the author of Saying ‘No’ to the War Party (IUniverse, Inc.). He can be reached at

A side note provided by Hughes:

Peter N. Marudas was a former newspaper reporter for the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun. He also served as an aide to Baltimore’s Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin, Thomas J. D’Alesandro, III, and Kurt Schmoke. For many years, Marudas ran the office of Congressman, and later U.S. Senator, Paul S. Sarbanes (D-MD). If anybody should write a book about Maryland politics, it’s Marudas, an extremely capable administrator, and also a very insightful observer of the scene. He also knows where all the bodies are buried!

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This story was published on September 15, 2006.