By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Maryland comptroller candidate Janet S. Owens denounced her opponent yesterday for dubbing her "Mother Hubbard," characterizing the remarks by incumbent William Donald Schaefer as "coarse and insulting."
Schaefer told Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher in comments published yesterday that Owens, the Anne Arundel County executive, is a "prissy little miss" who wears "long dresses, looks like Mother Hubbard -- it's sort of like she was a man." Schaefer made similar comments in a taped interview with NewsChannel 8. "She's got these long clothes on and an old-fashioned hairdo," he said. "You know it sort of makes you real mad."
The 84-year-old former governor and Baltimore mayor is running for a third term as comptroller, but polls show he is facing a tough challenge from Owens and Del. Peter Franchot (Montgomery) in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
The remarks came as Schaefer is airing a television ad apologizing for past comments that have offended women, immigrants and other groups. He drew heavy criticism this year for ogling a young female aide to Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr. (R) and for suggesting that Korean immigrants were connected to missile tests by North Korea.
But Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said Schaefer's latest remarks could alienate an important part of his remaining core constituency: senior citizens, in particular women. "There are a lot of Mother Hubbards," Crenson said.
An irritated Owens, 62, read from a short prepared statement yesterday morning, suggesting that it is Schaefer who should be left without a bone when voters go to the polls.
Owens, whose hair was in her usual blond coif and who was wearing a professional dark suit, said her dresses were made by a local designer. "I'm not a man," she added several times, with obvious indignation.
Schaefer took time at a campaign stop in St. Mary's County yesterday to defend himself against the persistent criticism of his treatment of women. "Show me a man who is 84 years old who doesn't look at girls' backsides," he said, drawing a hearty laugh from about 20 supporters gathered at a pizza parlor in Callaway. "People make anything you say into something wrong."
"This has been a nasty race," Schaefer added. "There was a time when people used to be nice to each other. They're not nice anymore."
Last week, Schaefer began airing radio ads apologizing for previous remarks. "I've . . . said some things I shouldn't," he says in the ad. "But I never meant to offend anyone. And if I did, I apologize."
Owens said she "had hoped his apology last week perhaps indicated that he understood his behavior and statements of the past were totally inappropriate. But his personal attack on me once again confirms that Mr. Schaefer's apology was nothing more than an insincere and shallow political ploy."
Franchot joined in the condemnation of Schaefer's remarks and said he should apologize to Owens. "It's just another example of why William Donald Schaefer should not be reelected," he said.
"This is the kind of tactic that men have been using for decades in order to belittle women in voters' eyes," said Kathleen Schafer, chairwoman of Harriet's List, a Maryland political action committee that supports female candidates and has endorsed Owens.
Laslo Boyd, Schaefer's campaign coordinator, said the comments were no more insulting than Owens's suggestion that Schaefer is too old for the job.
"It's unfortunate when two people who've been friends for a long time start making personal comments about each other," Boyd said.
Boyd said no new apology would be issued. "This is about a specific person in a specific race," he said.
The latest flap comes with polls showing Owens in a tight race with Schaefer. A survey of registered Democrats by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies showed Schaefer favored by 34 percent, followed by Owens with 30 percent and Franchot with 15 percent.
The poll showed that Schaefer, despite extremely high name recognition statewide, has support from only about a third of Democratic voters. "I don't think there are a lot of warm fuzzies for him," said Kurt L. Schmoke, Schaefer's successor as Baltimore mayor.
Schaefer's fortunes are improved, though, because voters are splitting between the two challengers. Although Owens has an edge in polls, Franchot has won endorsements from The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and several labor unions. Franchot began airing television ads yesterday in the Washington and Baltimore markets.
Franchot has aimed his campaign at the liberal wing of his party, calling himself the only "real Democrat" in the race, while Owens is viewed as more moderate.
"I think the two endorsements may have the unintended effect of renominating Schaefer," said Steve Abrams, one of four candidates seeking the GOP nomination for comptroller.
Crenson estimated that Schaefer still has a slight edge in the race despite his recent comments. "The people who are left with him are the people who are used to this," he said.
Staff writers Mary Otto and Megan Greenwell contributed to this report.