TGR: The Paradox of William Donald Schaefer By Charles Robinson, Regional Director, NABJ
(BALTIMORE – April 26, 2011) - The death of William Donald Schaefer ends a legacy of big city mayors whose larger than life personas became the story of legend and myth. I was fortunate enough to cover some of his life, but was also an observer and marveled at this politician who could see the vision long before anyone else could.
The Councilman, the Council President, the Mayor, the Governor, and Comptroller held sway over an electorate which loved him in ways that bordered on a cult-like following. His supporters would chastise you if you spoke negatively about him. His legions of fans talked of little gestures which endeared them to him. As with any politician he knew how to turn on the charm, but could be caustic in his ridicule.
As a reporter, Schaefer could belittle a question with the best of them. “He shot from the hip.” This isn’t just about the man, but about contradictions: A fiercely loyal man who got caught in a changing society and ushered in an era.
When William Donald Schaefer became mayor in 1971, he had just lived through the 1968 riots. The city of Baltimore became 50 percent Black and did not deliver on the promise to elect a Black mayor. Some in the Black community suggested the “Schaefer Machine” was instrumental in pitting two popular African-Americans against each other in the primary (Clarence Mitchell, Jr. and George Russell) ensuring the election of a white mayor.
With Schaefer winning, he consolidated a power structure he hoped to exploit. It was evident in his inaugural speech. “Around every city, there is a ring of affordable suburbs – with people who profess to dislike the city, to fear the city. They scorn the city. They ignore the city they refuse to acknowledge the city’s problems are their problems. Yet without a city, those suburbs would not exist.”
A bold statement at the time; and it caused consternation for those who listened. “It is the cities that give those suburbs their jobs, their culture, their entertainment - in fact, their whole comfortable way of life. He goes on to address the burgeoning Black electorate, suggesting racial pride was not the politics of the city, but neighborhoods. He had to assure white business owners to stay in the city. Public relations ruled the day.
His famous line “Do it now!” played out in a story related by Michael Johnson of West Baltimore. In a Facebook post, Johnson said, “I disagreed with him many times, but I will remember when he was mayor and we could not play a game of baseball at the Towanda baseball field…the grass was too long. Mayor Schaefer drove by, and we told him. Thirty minutes later, trucks came and cut the grass and lined the field, and left 4 new baseball bats, 4 new bases, and a box of balls.”
These little acts of kindest gave him hero status in some communities. Complaining became an art form, but somehow he would reach out and touch even his ardent critics.
Wiley Hall, a reporter and columnist, had his run-ins with Mayor Schaefer. “The Schaefer paradox was good for Baltimore.” It surfaced in his neighborhood of West Baltimore. A once melting pot of diverse families was giving way to the urban transformation. On either side of his home were Blacks who appreciated his way of governing. This was almost patriarchal with an attitude: “I know best.” This idea rubbed a number of people the wrong way, but it was visionary.
The Big Idea
Suburbia was safe, the city was not. Mayor Schaefer challenged the idea. He looked to create new development in places where people had abandoned the idea. The term gentrification had not been created, but some would suggest he would singlehandedly cause it to happen.
The “dollar row house” was a strange idea to some. In the mid 70’s, the abandonment of core neighborhoods in downtowns was commonplace. The idea of selling an abandoned piece of property for a dollar, making you live in that home which you had to fix up was an investor’s dream. The catch was you had to stay in the home 8-10 years. To enhance the idea, there had to be other attractions other than cheap housing. The city would clean up the neighborhood and create amenities. For older families, this was a joke; but to those starting out, it was dream come true.
The neighborhoods from Federal Hill, Cross Street, and Ridgley’s Delight became carved out neighborhoods for the “new urban renaissance.” Meanwhile, in neighborhoods transitioning from all white to all Black, the change was dramatic. Overnight people looked to sell their homes - escaping to the suburbs. At first, it was just white families, but some Blacks moved as well. There was a sense of hopelessness. Through the mid-seventies up through the eighties, drugs laid waste to some of Baltimore’s traditional Black neighborhoods. While being neglected, downtown was booming.
Harborplace was and is Schaefer’s crown jewel. He beat back critics in a voter referendum to transform a haven for longshoremen to a tourist destination. He took advantage of federal Block grants to finance a dilapidated waterfront. The Baltimore City Fair seemed to showcase all the possibilities of a multicultural community Baltimore could be and become. As the ultimate showman, Mayor Schaefer made good on a bet to swim with seals if the Aquarium wasn’t completed on time. It was an image seen around the world.
African-Americans joined in the celebration of the new tourist attraction. There was also a seamy underside of the city. Black enclaves just outside of this core area (Flag House Courts and Murphy Homes) saw little help. Feeding this hopelessness was a drug epidemic fueled in the eighties with the introduction of crack cocaine. It was catalytic. The good feeling of downtown booming and neighborhoods cracking seemed out of touch.
Challenges and Challengers
In the late 70’s, it seem everything the Mayor touched to turned to gold. His successes dwarfed his failures. Rolling the dice on another big idea, the Schaefer Machine looked to link the western suburbs with the city. The idea was simple take out some of Baltimore’s notorious neighborhoods and put in an expressway to connect downtown. It seemed to be great idea, but in the end it had the wrong implementation strategy. The Westside Expressway was by far a signal the Mayor had overreached. Displacing some historic black neighborhoods, laying waste to an urban park, and the growing environmental movement was his so called ‘Waterloo’ (a reference to Napoleonic battle that ended his reign).
There was also this growing questioning from reporters and columnists in Baltimore. While the quirky public relations campaign from “trash ball” to “think pink” were cute, this was indeed a battle. The mayor was going to displace little old ladies. In the end, his personality could not win the day. In losing, he had the last laugh. He left the half finished expressway as a monument to not getting his way. Currently, they are tearing down the ramp which would link the expressway.
The challenger to a Schaefer came in the way of politics. African-Americans had displaced a white congressman on the Westside of Baltimore and elected Parren J. Mitchell to represent them in the halls of Congress. Congressman Mitchell of the famed Mitchell family understood Black political power better than most. He started the Congressional Black Caucus. A group of minister and political insiders who called themselves the “Gang of Six” went looking for a suitable challenger to Schaefer.
They found him in a young Black lawyer who seemed to have all the right pedigree: William “Billy” Murphy. In 1980, Murphy successfully ran for judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, only to resign three years later to run for mayor of Baltimore against Schaefer.
This was a brutal campaign. Households were divided, and Black Baltimore was divided (again). The patronage system proved to be a winning formula with Schaefer backing an eastside machine run by Councilman Clarence “Du” Burns. Murphy would lose.
At a time when major cities in America were electing Black mayors, Baltimore was a throwback. The eighties had thrown so many challenges at cities. Democrats were literally in retreat with the election of Republican President Ronald Regan. There was Schaefer standing tall as a bulwark to GOP successes. Despite his love of the city, he was urged to take on a bigger challenge.
Sports and Schaefer
The last challenge in his Baltimore career came with the late night departure of the Baltimore Colts franchise. Sports has a way of healing any political difference. The owner of the Colts, Robert Irsay, had assured the Mayor he had no intention of leaving, but “in the still of the night,” they did it.
A teary-eyed Schaefer summed up his feelings in a press briefing endearing him to a generation (including myself). He really never got over loosing the football team. “You can’t be a major city without pro football,” he told the assembled media.
His attention would turn quickly to Orioles, the baseball franchise. Edward Bennett Williams, the baseball owner, wasn’t satisfied with Memorial Stadium. The city wanted a long-term deal, but the owner wanted a better deal. In another paradox that laid bare, the Mayor’s showmanship occurred in 1988. The team was in the midst of major league baseball’s longest losing streak, 1-24. They were returning home from a road trip to a sellout crowd. It was unthinkable. The marketing for the event was called “Fantastic Fans Night.” The Mayor would acknowledge the crowd and announced a long-term deal with the Orioles and the building of a new stadium in the old railroad area called Camden Yards. This was just pure theater, once again enduring him to an electorate.
To be continued …
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