"It's one of the outstanding moments of my life to be able to stand and chat with the press. It's one of the things I look forward to each day. I can't wait in the morning to get the hell out of bed and think, 'If I can only get downtown, then I'll be able to see the magnificent press there.' Then I start to puke." -- Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer quoted in Regardie's magazine.
Standing under a broiling sun on the Eastern Shore last week, Baltimore's irascible chief executive pushed his cap back and indulged in a favorite pastime, baiting the press.
Mayor William Donald Schaefer often says that reporters are always looking for bad news to write about him and about Baltimore. At his appearance in Crisfield, Md., reporters were quizzing him about obscenities he had directed at his opponent, Stephen H. Sachs, in an interview printed in that day's Baltimore Evening Sun. Schaefer, who has had his share of flattering profiles written about him, said the press was banding together to make him look bad.
"I know you've got a closed society," he said. "You protect each other."
It was a familiar theme.
Schaefer, 64, has spent nearly half his life in elective office, including 15 years at the helm of the state's largest city. But he has never been at ease with the scrutiny of reporters, and it is only during his campaign for governor that he has responded more readily to direct questioning.
In City Hall, press relations was an easy enough task. He managed reporters like he does his staff, by limiting access to his office or cutting them off altogether if they particularly offended him.
He has done that by slamming doors, stomping from rooms, glaring at the offender or, occasionally, ducking out the back way from his office. He has also made sure that members of his cabinet have shut off the flow of information to offending reporters. For the banished, getting the simplest answers out of City Hall became a herculean task.
Within the past year, Schaefer has called a few of the journalists who cover him uncomplimentary names -- in public. One was labeled a "lying son of a bitch" for what Schaefer considered overly negative coverage.
Some political observers have noted that it does not hurt Schaefer's popularity one whit when he criticizes the press or loses his temper. They say it is part of the image that makes him the leading candidate in the polls.
Attorney General Sachs, however, says that Schaefer's famous temper is part of what makes him unsuitable to be governor, calling it an example of the mayor's "immeasurable arrogance." It also should be noted that for years, Sachs himself has meticulously cultivated the press.
In recent months, Schaefer's candor has added an element of entertainment to the campaign. Two weeks ago, when he heeded the advice of his campaign staff at the last minute and appeared at a radio debate, his encounter with Sachs quickly degenerated into a shouting match.
Last week at a crab feast in Crisfield, Schaefer alternately grilled and scoffed at reporters who pulled "I know you've got a closed society. You protect each other." -- Mayor Schaefer, speaking to the press him away from his lunch to ask about the Evening Sun interview.
Schaefer, who hadn't seen the newspaper, first denied that he had called Sachs any names.
Then he acknowledged that he had, but said that his comments had been made off the record in a "relaxed" conversation with Evening Sun reporter Douglas Birch. Birch maintained that the remarks were on the record, and offered to produce a tape to prove it.
"You worked me over, didn't you?" Schaefer said to Birch. "You did a goood job."
Schaefer then went on to cite examples of what he called biased coverage. The morning Baltimore Sun, he said, ran a photograph of his opponent strolling down a boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., with Gov. Harry Hughes and Maryland Democratic Rep. Barbara Mikulski, but had cropped out Schaefer.
Washington Post reporter Tom Kenworthy -- whom Schaefer has repeatedly called "Tom Killworthy" in public and private conversations -- only writes about the controversial issues in his campaign, the mayor complained.
And so it went.
The complaints were familiar to reporters who cover Schaefer regularly. What has changed is his method of dealing with them.
At Crisfield, he resisted the urgings of his Eastern Shore coordinator to walk away from the persistent reporters, an action he would have been happy to take a year ago -- before he began campaigning openly before a statewide audience.
Instead, he stayed put and, without losing his temper, argued back and forth with the reporters until the last question was asked. Along the way, he got in a few digs, calling Sachs, who has proposed a 1-cent increase in the state sales levy, "Mr. Tax."
Asked what backlash, if any, he gets after events such as the radio debate, Schaefer at first avoided the question.
Then the question was rephrased. Do Marylanders on the campaign trail seem to like it when he gets mad?
"All except the press," he responded.Gwen Ifill has covered Schaefer for the Baltimore Evening Sun and The Washington Post.