Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer had barely settled into his chair at a recent meeting of the Cumberland Chamber of Commerce executive board when one participant unloaded a question that is central to Schaefer's gubernatorial campaign.
"People have one concern," said board Chairman Jerry Womack, "and that is that your affiliation with the city may carry over to the governor's office."
As Schaefer's campaign for the Democratic nomination heats up in the coming months, Womack's question is bound to surface with increasing frequency: Will Schaefer, if he is elected governor, treat Baltimore and Maryland's 24 counties in an evenhanded fashion, or will he use his position to increase the flow of state dollars to his beloved city?
Schaefer is quick to answer that he was visiting and helping other areas of the state many years before anyone "was talking about the governor's race."
His answer, however, does not mean that the question will go away. In recent Maryland political history, no statewide candidate has been so indelibly identified with a particular jurisdiction as the 64-year-old Schaefer, whose 30 years in public office have been entirely within the city's borders. The personification of Baltimore in the familiar figure of Schaefer has been so total that in 1983, when he ran for a fourth term as mayor, his campaign slogan was "Vote for Baltimore."
On one level, Schaefer's association with his city is a major political asset. Baltimore's vaunted transformation -- from a seedy port city that was regarded as little more than a bottleneck on the way to the New Jersey Turnpike, to an urban jewel and tourist attraction -- is widely regarded as a personal triumph for the man who has been the city's mayor for 14 years.
In his campaign for governor, Schaefer and his supporters are arguing that he can do for Maryland what he did for Baltimore, a pitch that has subliminal appeal to the untold thousands of voters who have meandered through Harborplace and marveled at the city's rejuvenation.
But on another level, Schaefer's reputation as an indefatigable promoter of his city and a relentless fighter for its interests in the annual budget wars in Annapolis may be a liability for the mayor as he campaigns to preserve his formidable early lead over state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.
Under Schaefer, Baltimore has been viewed in some quarters as a fiscal bully, a city that has used its political clout in the General Assembly to wrest more than its fair share of funds from the state treasury. Schaefer's argument that the city has special needs because of its poverty and shrinking tax base is rarely disputed, but the extent to which the state should pay for those needs is often a major issue in Annapolis.
Big city mayors elsewhere, such as New York's Ed Koch and Los Angeles' Tom Bradley, have often found it difficult to make the jump to the governor's mansion precisely because their efforts on behalf of their cities are resented in other regions.
David Garth, a political consultant to Koch when Koch lost the New York Democratic gubernatorial primary race in 1981, says that "mayors going for governor are about as successful as mayors going for president." However, Garth notes that Maryland has less of a regional dichotomy than New York.
"You have a more collapsed state in the sense that Baltimore would not seem to me to be the antithesis of suburban Maryland," said Garth. "I would think he Schaefer would not have the kind of problems that Koch or Bradley had."
The price of Schaefer's success in carting home booty from the legislature to fund his schools and police department and build his aquarium and his civic center has been the creation of some ill will elsewhere in the state. That is particularly true in Montgomery County, Maryland's most affluent county, which historically has served as the docile cash cow for Baltimore. It is far less of an issue in Prince George's, which because of its relatively low wealth has tended to benefit by the same fiscal formulas that aid Baltimore.
Montgomery County's resentment reached a high pitch during the 1984 legislative session, when a city senator attempted to deny Montgomery some transit money and Montgomery reacted by momentarily blocking additional education aid to Baltimore. During an emotional debate on the Senate floor, as Schaefer scowled from the gallery above, Montgomery Democratic Sen. Margaret Schweinhaut labeled Baltimore "the city of greed."
"Might a Schaefer gubernatorial administration put a Baltimore agenda ahead of everything else?" former Baltimore archivist William G. LeFurgy asked in a Feb. 22 column on an opinion page of the Baltimore Sun.
"Would Gov. Schaefer channel more state funds to the city at the expense of the counties or through higher taxes? Would a Baltimore clique dominate state government?"
State Sen. John C. Coolahan, a Baltimore County Democrat whose budgetary jousts with Schaefer have become legendary, answers those questions in typically blunt fashion.
"The man's first and only love is Baltimore City," said Coolahan. "You don't turn the light switch off if you become governor. As governor he would be able to give his pet more than ever before, and the entire state will suffer because of it."
To illustrate their fears, Schaefer's critics point to several recent examples of the way the city operates in Annapolis:
* In 1983, Schaefer joined forces with Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening in pushing a 1 percent increase in income taxes paid by Maryland residents earning more than $15,000, to boost local education aid.
Under the proposal, Baltimore residents would have contributed 8.2 percent of the $124 million raised but would have received 47 percent, or $53 million, of the $112 million that would have been distributed to local schools. Montgomery County would have provided 29 percent of the new revenue, in exchange for less than 1 percent of the new funds.
* This year, Baltimore is proposing legislation that would establish a state revenue-sharing fund that would distribute $83 million to the 24 counties based on a formula that measures property assessments per capita. Baltimore would get $23.5 million; Montgomery would get $5.9 million.
* Also this year, at a time when the city is pushing legislation that would reduce the amount it must pay for "compensatory education" to supplement poor school districts in the city by almost $7 million, Baltimore is asking the state to provide $10 million for a new aquatic mammal tank at the city aquarium and to make a fundamental change in the allocation of school construction funds that would favor Baltimore.
"They come down here shamelessly to ask for aid year after year," said Tom Lingan, a lobbyist for Montgomery County. "They're used to a certain level of aid, and they're arrogant about it."
But others from Montgomery County, such as Democratic Del. Diane Kirchenbauer, view the Schaefer record in a different light. "He's been doing his job as mayor as well as he can," said Kirchenbauer. "That translates to: When he has another job as governor, he would do that job well."
As he campaigns around the state, Schaefer describes the effort to portray him as someone who "can't see beyond the city's borders" as "part of a strategy" by Sachs that ignores Schaefer's long history of helping Southern and Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. For example:
* Four years ago, when Salisbury officials were looking for advice on how to develop a waterfront redevelopment project on the Wicomico River, Schaefer dispatched the experts who had helped develop Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
* In 1983, when Fairchild Industries closed its aircraft manufacturing plant in Hagerstown, putting more than 1,000 people out of work, Schaefer sent a team of economic development specialists to the Washington County city. Later, Schaefer offered to have Baltimore take over the plant when the state reacted coolly to Fairchild's offer to sell the facility to the state.
* In October 1984, Schaefer agreed to abandon a $117 million busway from the city to Baltimore County to free funds to complete the National Freeway in Western Maryland and the Choptank River bridge in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. In return, Schaefer won key rural support for an extension of Baltimore's subway.
* Last year, Schaefer lent the services of city highway engineers to speed the widening of I-270 in Montgomery County, a project threatened with delays because the state Department of Transportation had a shortage of engineers to design and oversee the project.
* Schaefer has symbolically reached out to other areas of the state in a variety of ways, from sending the Baltimore Orioles' 1983 World Series Trophy on tour around the state, to hosting tobacco auctions at the Inner Harbor to promote Southern Maryland, to taking time out on a tour of China to phone the mayor of Hancock and offer help in coping with last fall's flood in the western part of the state.
State Sen. John N. Bambacus, a Republican from Western Maryland who said he plans to support Schaefer unless the GOP can find a "credible candidate," dismisses the notion that the mayor is too tied to the city to be an equitable governor.
"It's a perception that has little basis in reality," he said. "I think you grow into the position. You put those affinities aside."
"We've helped Southern Maryland and Western Maryland not for political reasons but because it's good for the state," said Schaefer during his visit to Cumberland. "I have an interest in the city, but I also have an interest in the state."
Many political insiders believe that Schaefer came to his decision to run for governor reluctantly, that he would prefer to stay in Baltimore and avoid all the headaches of being the state's chief executive. But, they say, Schaefer feels compelled to run to deny the office to Sachs and to ensure that the next governor is sympathetic to the needs of the city. Although Sachs is also from Baltimore, his public career has been as a state official, and he has criticized Schaefer for looking at issues strictly through a Baltimore prism.
Sachs, who a year ago described his opponent as "petulant and parochial" for insisting that any new sports stadium be built in Baltimore, is indeed trying to characterize Schaefer as a man with too narrow a perspective to head state government.
Last October, in an early television advertising campaign that featured a child trying to put a round peg into a square hole, Sachs portrayed Schaefer as the wrong "fit" for the governor's office.
And in a speech in the city that same month, Sachs unveiled his "one Maryland" theme by stressing Baltimore's interdependence with the rest of the state.
"Baltimore cannot go it alone," said Sachs. "Baltimore cannot be an island. Baltimore cannot be hostile and adverse to her county brothers and sisters around the state . . . . Baltimore will do best with a governor who is trusted all over the state."
The speech provoked an angry editorial from the Baltimore Sun, which accused Sachs of "trying to whip up anti-Baltimore sentiment for political gain."
"The mayor's almost a victim of doing his job too well," argued Mark Wasserman, Schaefer's campaign manager. "Don't you think as governor you'll get the same kind of advocacy? It won't be the mayor and Annapolis, it will be the governor and Washington, the governor and Tokyo, it will be the governor scoring some victories against Virginia."