Willie Don: Saint or Sinner?

Willie Don: Saint or Sinner? (Illustration by Tim Hill / September 19, 2014)

One summer in the early 1990s, as I settled into my job as a reporter for the Hartford, Conn., Advocate, the Hartford City Council took a junket to Baltimore to observe the wonders of the Inner Harbor.

All returned pleased by the spectacle, and discussion on the council and elsewhere—particularly in the hushed offices of the local redevelopment authority—turned to ways to replicate that grand success on the banks of the Patapsco. Hartford needed the boost, with several downtown high-rise projects stalled by the commercial real estate slump and the ongoing exodus of employable people of all races. Indeed, plans were afoot to redevelop the land closest to the Connecticut River, a magnificent waterway long cut off from the city proper by the construction of Interstate 95.

Hartford would attract a young, vibrant middle-class community back to the city, residents were told. All it would take were a few hundred million taxpayer bucks for a new convention center, some kind of “attraction,” a hotel, and maybe a gigantic football stadium.

All it would take, in other words, was a civic vision like that employed by Baltimore’s William Donald Schaefer.

Schaefer’s legend was already cemented even then, 20 years ago, even there, 300 miles from Baltimore in a city dominated by Fortune 100 insurance companies. The story of the Man Who Got Things Done (Now!); who built shiny buildings filled with tourists and dolphins; whose new, clean industries broke with the blighted industrial past and portended a brighter future and yet who never forgot the common people seeped into the consciousness of city leaders far and wide.

This is why Schaefer’s death on April 18 prompted an outpouring of reverence bordering on hagiography.

Schaefer, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from 1972-’87, Maryland’s governor from 1987-’95, and state comptroller from 1999-2007, was more than a saint, according to his multitudes of mourners and reverent posthumous media tributes. He was a savior whose aquarium-tank baptism marked both the city’s miraculous renaissance and an unassailable political legend.

About the city, however, the true believers are somewhat mistaken. Since the beginning of Schaefer’s reign, the median annual household income of its citizens has fallen 75 percent (in constant, 2008 dollars) from $70,279 to $40,087 in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. The city’s cohort of drug addicts (60,000, conservatively) has remained at least steady even as its overall population has dwindled by more than 300,000—one third of those present in the 1970 census.

But in touting his legend—his outsized personality, his singular influence on politics and policy—Schaefer’s fans may actually understate the Great Man’s legacy. In recent decades something like a Cult of Schaefer spread across the nation, infecting cities as diverse as Hartford and Cleveland, Ohio, with its brand of evangelistic showmanship, voracious consumption of federal dollars, undemocratic public-private partnerships, and media razzle-dazzle.

Today, nearly every faltering American city from the Deep South to the Northeast to the Midwest boasts its own gleaming convention center and publicly financed hotel. Every one of them with a waterfront has redeveloped it to attract wealth using federally supplied Community Development Block Grants, supposedly targeted to the poor. As they watched manufacturing jobs disappear, acolytes of Schaefer’s Way put their faith in—and pledged their constituents’ credit to—low-wage service jobs and tourism while working overtime to attract or retain professional sports teams via lavish gifts to their owners. These cities now face owed billions not only in the expenses associated with faltering convention centers and other civic attractions, but of unfunded public pension liabilities and desperately needed infrastructure improvements neglected over the past three generations.

As Schaefer’s hagiographers worship at their master’s feet, they would do well to open their eyes to the real legacy lying there for anyone to see.


To be sure, William Donald Schaefer put on a hell of a show, presaging Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and every image-is-everything politician blighting the land today. With his pink socks, 1890s bathing suit, and temper tantrums, Schaefer attracted fawning—and shallow—national media attention for his city. The coverage in Newsweek, Time, and Esquire during Reagan’s first term flattered not only the mayor, but his subjects, and so his cult of personality grew far out of proportion to his deeds.

Those were indeed formidable; however they include many deeds not usually celebrated.

Schaefer formalized and expanded the system of crony economic development that had for decades informally reigned here and elsewhere (in Hartford they were called “the Bishops”). Schaefer’s “Trustees” (or “Shadow Government” as The Baltimore Sun’s C. Fraser Smith dubbed it) concentrated power more firmly in the mayor’s office while both flattering the city’s bigwigs and insulating them from the unpleasantness of actual democracy.

When Charles Benton, Schaefer’s finance man, ran the City Trustees, for example, he was able to steer $5.6 million in public money for repair work on an apartment building owned by Schaefer supporter Henry Knot, Jr., and more than $4 million to refurbish the Belvedere Hotel, then owned by longtime Schaefer pal Victor Frenkil. The hotel went bankrupt shortly after Schaefer left the mayor’s office, and the city lost millions. Benton, meanwhile, retired from city government and ended up the state’s budget director when Schaefer was governor.

The “public-private partnerships” Schaefer’s system spawned, most prominently the Baltimore Development Corporation, became a template for other cities, which copied the opaque process in pursuit of the same mal-investment strategy.

Schaefer’s Do It Now drive and imperious nature, remembered fondly by those both abused and served by it, was the surface layer of a unique political hybridization of old-style machine politics and modern public relations. For Schaefer—like his hero, Chicago’s Richard J. Daley—service to supporters and could-be supporters came first. Funding (meaning Other People’s Money, by any means necessary) was second. Good publicity was always a requirement. Democracy was, at best, an obstacle.

It did not have to be this way. Schaefer came to power at a time when the political machines that had dominated urban politics for 100 years were ripe for replacement. As federal policies encouraging suburbanization began to hollow cities out, leaving the poor and black while the prosperous and white fled to literally greener pastures, the machine men redoubled their grasping, hastening a vicious cycle of decay and disinvestment.