William Donald Schaefer – the large-headed, quick-tempered, city-loving, press-hating Baltimore mayor credited with reinventing his fading industrial hometown as a glittering tourist destination – died yesterday. He was 89.
Schaefer had become ill in March. His longtime aide, Lainy LeBow-Sachs, confirmed on April 1 that he was in a Baltimore hospital with “a slight case of pneumonia.” He died at his home in the Charlestown Retirement Community, LeBow-Sachs told the Associated Press.
The Baltimore-born politician enjoyed a 50-year career that took him from City Hall (he won a seat on the city council in 1955) to the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis (he was elected governor in 1986 and served two terms.)
But Schaefer is best known for the period in between, from 1971 through 1986 – during his four terms as mayor, he blew through the city like a public works and public relations cyclone.
Mugging for the camera and wearing funny hats at news conferences, berating staffers and bureaucrats behind the scenes for failing to fill potholes and complete projects more promptly, Schaefer’s “Do It NOW!” energy made him good copy.
He had a knack for attracting national press, even as he was confounding the local media with his sometimes autocratic ways. His famous swim in the National Aquarium seal pool wearing an old-time bathing suit and the 1984 Richard Ben Cramer profile about him in Esquire (calling him “The Best Mayor in America”) gave Don Schaefer a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Maryland.
More importantly, this sometimes antic energy was seen to be fueling the Baltimore Renaissance, an urban revival that centered on an impressive array of construction projects. These included not only Harborplace, an early effort by pioneer developer James Rouse, but the National Aquarium, the Baltimore subway, the Light Rail line, the Baltimore Convention Center and the combination football-and-baseball stadium complex known as Camden Yards.
Critics said Schaefer’s waterfront-based Renaissance left large swaths of the city in the Dark Ages, and that city projects enriching his developer and builder friends were fast-tracked via a multimillion-dollar development loan bank that The Sun called “the shadow government.”
But defenders said Schaefer’s vision included neighborhoods across the city, pointing to the flowering of ethnic fairs and the offering of “dollar houses” to urban homesteaders under his leadership. There was a new sense of pride and optimism in the city, and Schaefer — odd bird though he was — seemed to be driving it.
“Mayor of Maryland”
Elected governor in 1986 with 82 percent of the vote, Schaefer’s landslide victory placed him in a tougher environment, he soon found. He had a harder time getting his way with independent-minded state lawmakers and two strong legislative leaders, the Senate President and House Speaker.
Notoriously thin-skinned, he wrote angry, sometimes nasty notes to people who criticized him in letters to the editor or radio talk shows.
“You are everything that speaks of stupidity,” he wrote one critic. “Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face,” he wrote another. He left similar notes on reporters’ desks in the State House press room.
Schaefer’s off-color remark during a 1991 State House ceremony (in which he called Maryland’s Eastern Shore a crude term for an outhouse) brought a convoy of angry Shore residents rolling into Annapolis with privies in their pick-up trucks.
In 2006, (during his last period of public service, as State Comptroller) Schaefer drew still more criticism for his request at a public meeting that a 24-year-old staffer walk past him again so that he could look at her backside.
There were also a number of accomplishments during his Annapolis period. Schaefer was able to see the publicly-financed light rail and stadium projects through to completion and was credited with improving education, social programs and pushing initiatives to clean up pollution in Chesapeake Bay.
In 1988, he backed the first statewide referendum on gun control ever approved by a state legislature, straining relations with rural lawmakers and going up against a heavily funded opponent, the National Rifle Association.
A shy only-child
Schaefer’s personal life also came more under the spotlight when he was in Annapolis. A shy only-child, Schaefer never married and lived with his mother in two modest West Baltimore rowhouses all his life, until moving to the Governor’s Mansion at age 65.
There, his longtime friend Hilda Mae Snoops was designated “First Friend” and allowed to redecorate the mansion with a renovation derided by some at the time as “blue, bland and boring.” Snoops died in 1999 and Schaefer leaves no immediate survivors.
In a statement released earlier yesterday, Gov. Martin O’Malley said Schaefer loved the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland “with great exuberance” because there was nothing more important to him than the people he served.
The former governor will lie in state in the State House in Annapolis and in the rotunda of Baltimore City Hall, O’Malley said. The dates and times for those ceremonies and a funeral will be announced later.
He also said that all Maryland flags are to fly at half staff beginning immediately, and that Schaefer will be buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.