With the passage of William Donald Schaefer on April 18, an epoch of the last half of Maryland’s 20th century political world has come to a close. No other person during that time span dominated the political environments of Baltimore and Maryland as completely as Schaefer.
With his initial election as Baltimore’s mayor in 1971, Schaefer enjoyed a complex relationship with the city’s Black community during his four terms as mayor. His defeat of the then-City Solicitor George L. Russell – who was Black – in the 1971 Baltimore mayoral race was a bitter pill for the Black community to digest, but it reflected Schaefer’s ability to attract enough Black votes to secure the citywide victory. This ability to “split” the Black vote was a feat he repeated throughout his four terms as Baltimore’s mayor.
While it is clear that many Black folks loved Schaefer, there were many others who found his tenure to be an immense frustration, stemming from his perceived failure to focus on issues endemic to Black neighborhoods. Such frustration was amplified when the numerous highly visible municipal projects that transformed Baltimore were compared to the looming social problems that began to germinate and eventually consume many of Baltimore’s inner-city Black neighborhoods in the 1970s and ‘80s. Thus, many in the Black community perceived Baltimore as consisting of two distinctly different cities during this period.
Schaefer’s ability to transform Baltimore’s harbor and downtown business areas was, however, matched by his political acumen. Schaefer was a master political engineer and he used that ability to cement much of his Black support during his terms as Baltimore’s mayor. He reflected the old school approach of creating political alliances that generated mutual benefits for his supporters.
In the Black community, such was most visible through his partnership with Clarence du Burns, Baltimore’s first Black City Council president and, later, first Black mayor. It was Schaefer’s well-crafted support that enabled Burns to leverage his Black East Baltimore political coalition to defeat Mary Pat Clark in the tumultuous 1983 citywide election for City Council president. In that same election Schaefer once again demonstrated his own ability to capture the Black vote in securing his fourth and final term as Baltimore’s mayor by out-polling the young, mesmerizing “Billy” Murphy to capture an absolute majority (51.8 percent) of the Black vote.
Burns was not the only Black to benefit from the Schaefer largesse. Benjamin L. Brown, a prominent Black lawyer, was Schaefer’s chief legal counsel for 13 years as Baltimore’s city solicitor. Bishop Robinson was selected by Schaefer to be Baltimore’s first Black police commissioner and followed Schaefer to Annapolis in 1987 to become his secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Indeed, Schaefer clearly was not hesitant to open government’s doors of opportunity to allow Blacks to achieve never before levels of authority.
Therein lies Schaefer’s ambiguity. During his terms as the Maryland state comptroller, Schaefer too often let his mouth slip, using terms or offering opinions that offended a variety of people, such as women, AIDS patients, immigrants, Hispanics and Koreans. Given the duration of his service, the magnitude of his accomplishments, and the enormity of the change he created for his electorate, many were inclined to overlook these momentary lip slips. Many, however, could not—which may be one of the reasons why he finally tasted defeat in his 2006 campaign to continue as Maryland’s comptroller.
Regardless of how Schaefer the man is judged, it is his contribution to making Baltimore and Maryland far better for us all that deserves to be honored; as we do at his passing.
R.I.P., William Donald Schaefer.