Fellow Democrats are livid with William Donald Schaefer, the irascible former Maryland governor who this week decided to broadcast his opinion that people with AIDS are "a danger" and that those suffering from the disease "brought it on themselves."
The remarks, which Schaefer made while advocating the creation of a list of Marylanders carrying the HIV virus, prompted one ranking lawmaker to call for his resignation as state comptroller, an elected office Schaefer has held since 1999.
"I'm so appalled by what he said," said Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), who chairs the House Committee on Health and Government Operations. "I think he seriously needs to think about stepping down. I seriously question his competence, his mental capacity. I can't believe that a public official of his stature would be this insensitive and, frankly, ignorant."
Although other state leaders stopped short of calling for the 82-year-old comptroller's ouster, Schaefer's comments elicited a chorus of condemnation, and more Democrats were willing to say openly what many have whispered for years: that Schaefer's antics, once embraced as quirky and amusing, are now viewed as destructive to the party and to the state.
The man who served two terms as governor and four as mayor of Baltimore "has tarnished his legacy and embarrassed himself," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery),
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) called the comments "sad, mean-spirited and counterproductive." Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett said he anticipates a strong field of candidates to run against Schaefer in 2006 if he seeks reelection at age 85. Leggett predicted that the comptroller will face "a challenge to him the likes of which he's never seen before."
Unrepentant, the comptroller stood by his remarks, though his spokesman said yesterday that when Schaefer referred to those who spread HIV as "bad people," he meant that to apply only to those who passed the virus to others on purpose.
Schaefer's decision to offer his opinions about AIDS came a few months after he kindled a controversy with a complaint about an encounter with a Spanish-speaking McDonald's cashier who struggled with English. His tirades have made volatility a trademark of his four-decade career in public life.
Louise Hayman, who has worked for Schaefer off and on since 1987, said that the man once known as "Mayor Annoyed" has changed little during those years and that his remarks on AIDS were "completely in character for him.
"I think the comptroller is the same person today that he was then," said Hayman, now Schaefer's communications director. "I don't think his personality has changed. I don't think his recall has changed. I don't think his command of facts has changed."
Nevertheless, his statements about AIDS have not received the kind of support that poured into his office after his controversial pitch for English-only service at McDonald's. Schaefer spokesman Michael Golden said yesterday of the 18 contacts the office received about the AIDS remarks, only two were supportive.
Yesterday, even some longtime Schaefer loyalists were unwilling to defend his comments. "He and I have disagreed on many things, and I'm afraid this is one of them," said Gene Raynor, a friend of four decades who managed his last two campaigns.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), a longtime Schaefer ally who gained the comptroller's support for his possible run for governor, declined to be interviewed on the subject. But Duncan released a short statement yesterday in which he said: "I don't agree with the Comptroller's statements regarding those suffering with AIDS. We should be doing more to support those infected with the HIV virus."
In recent years, Schaefer's relations with the state's Democrat-controlled legislature have frayed, particularly as the comptroller has warmly embraced Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. A number of aides from Schaefer's years as governor work in Ehrlich's administration. And the two regularly trade compliments at meetings of the Board of Public Works, in sharp contrast to the days when Schaefer used the board's public sessions to bombard Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D), with insults.
When Schaefer inflamed immigrant advocates with his McDonald's comments in May, Ehrlich rushed to his ally's defense and found himself subject to criticism, as well. Yesterday, Ehrlich's office issued a curt "no comment" about Schaefer's latest remarks.
Earlier this year, House leaders meeting over dinner ventured into a discussion about how best to send the comptroller packing. But the unease with Schaefer was not at the pitch it reached yesterday, several lawmakers said.
Hurson said he called the Maryland attorney general's office for advice on how to remove him from office.
"If the comptroller does not want to take himself out of the picture, I think the governor or the legislature needs to consider taking action," Hurson said. "I don't think we can continue to allow our party to be represented by somebody who is so out of touch with reality."
Other leading Democrats said yesterday that Schaefer could face removal the old-fashioned way -- through an election.
Montgomery County Council President Steve A. Silverman (D-At Large) predicted "a huge amount of support" for any Democrat willing to run against Schaefer. "He seems incapable of understanding the impact of his offhand comments. It isn't a matter of being politically incorrect. It's a matter that he is morally wrong."