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In Schaefer, Ehrlich Has Ally Across The Aisle

William Donald Schaefer, left, says Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is
William Donald Schaefer, left, says Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is "as straight as an arrow" and "fundamentally does things I like." (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, another Democrat with whom Schaefer has feuded, said Schaefer is a "valuable asset" for Ehrlich.

"He works very hard to give the Ehrlich administration cover," said O'Malley, who is a gubernatorial hopeful. "I think he probably prides himself at the degree to which he helps cover up the poor performance of the governor."

During a half-hour interview, Schaefer called Ehrlich "an honest guy" and "a very nice man" and said he is "as straight as an arrow" and "fundamentally does things I like."

But Schaefer turned coy when talking about next year's election. For the Democratic primary, he has endorsed Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, whom he described him as "a good man, maybe the best of the lot."

Schaefer was quoted in the Washington Times several months ago as saying that if Ehrlich faced O'Malley in the general election, he would be forced to go to Bermuda to avoid taking sides.

"Puerto Rico," Schaefer said when asked about that. Pressed further, he cupped his hand around his ear, feigning a problem: "My hearing aide goes off once in a while."

Asked about his 1992 endorsement of Bush and the grief from fellow Democrats that followed, Schaefer explained that he and the then-president developed a friendship during a series of Bush visits to Maryland, including one in which Schaefer showed him some of Baltimore's urban ills. "He actually listened," Schaefer said.

Aides to Ehrlich said they have no expectation that Schaefer will endorse Ehrlich for reelection. Still, some analysts have argued that Schaefer's seeming validation of the governor sends the signal to conservative Democrats that, in essence, the governor is doing okay.

In several key suburban jurisdictions carried by Ehrlich in 2002 -- Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties -- nearly 35 percent of voters cast ballots for both the Republican governor and the Democrat comptroller.

"Ehrlich can't win without those crossover voters," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I think Bob Ehrlich will do everything in his power to keep William Donald Schaefer as happy as a dog on a meat truck for the next 16 months."

Schaefer, who plans to seek another term as comptroller next year, might have his own race with which to contend. He drew a primary challenge four years ago and could well face another next year.

Aides to Ehrlich said his affection for Schaefer is genuine.

"They're both sort of products of a blue-collar environment, worked like hell and were very successful," said Nelson Sabatini, who served as health secretary under Schaefer and Ehrlich. "Schaefer is a guy for whom friendship and loyalty comes before ideology. And honestly, there's not a chasm between them there, either."

Some differences have arisen. In April, Ehrlich pushed a one-cent reduction in the state property tax rate, which is set by the Board of Public Works. Schaefer helped vote it down.

Despite the defeat, Ehrlich scored points with Schaefer for his handling of the issue. Glendening would have twisted his arm to provide the deciding vote, Schaefer said. But that is not Ehrlich's style, he said.

"He didn't take me to task or bawl me out," Schaefer said. "He wouldn't do that."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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