The USA Television Network has a branding campaign coined “Characters Welcome,” to promote the quirky and off-beat anti-heros of their primetime programming. This effort came to mind with the recent passing of former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer — a character par excellence – and has me thinking about just how “welcome” (or apparent) this quirky breed of pol may still be in American politics.
Certainly, each election cycle we are treated to some unique personalities. In 2010, who could forget US Senate Candidate Alvin Greene in South Carolina or Dale Peterson down in Alabama. Closer to home, we had our own Congressional candidate Rose Izzo.
Now those interesting people certainly brought some much-needed color to their respective campaigns, and perhaps in a few rare (very rare) instances they even shed new light on a few important issues. But that’s not exactly the kind of “character-politician” I have in mind.
I’m talking about characters that might be a little flaky, but they’ve got some vision. Capable characters that motivate and inspire the people in their community to get behind change – big change, and have the ability to make it happen. Effective promoters and can-doers – don’t-say-no-ers. People that relish feisty engagement with a crowd – and give as good as they get. Politicians who don’t take themselves too seriously, and aren’t afraid to have a little fun – or have it poked at them. Individuals with a sense of irony. Pols that speak clearly and freely and eschew tired talking points. Elected leaders that rarely play it safe.
Now there are always risks with character-politicians, and they typically come in several forms. First, by nature these are mercurial individuals, and are often owners of short attention-spans.
One Character Hall of Famer is former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. Like Schaefer, Weld loved to put on a great show and he enjoyed a cold beer now and again. His fully-clothed dive into the Charles River cemented his image as a fun-loving dude who was also smart as heck and could get things done. But like many characters, Weld’s impetuous nature got the best of him, and, eager to move on to new things, he prematurely resigned his governorship prior to being confirmed as Ambassador to Mexico – a confirmation that never came to pass (due to his snub of Jesse Helms, but that is another story). Later he made a brief, quixotic, and ill-considered run for governor in New York. It is this kind of decision-making that can result in the character-politician not being taken seriously, a constant occupational risk.
Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson is another modern American political character. Renowned for his salty, mountain-state plain-speak, Simpson offended just about everyone at one point or another in his career, but he always did so with a twinkle in his eye. He was candid and respected and effective. Simpson’s “character issue” is the flip side of his candor: the longer they serve, politicians of his ilk tend to get increasingly ornery, and they don’t suffer fools. Or the media. Or anyone who challenges them. So over the longer term, this ultimately limits their effectiveness as public servants.
Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker would seem to fall into this category. The mayor is certainly a character; he tells it like he sees it but he sure seems awfully cranky. And his never-well-hidden contempt for City Council has decimated his ability to work productively with them and others to meaningfully address the huge problems the city confronts.
California Governor Jerry Brown is a unique character-politician. After failed bids for the presidency, the Jesuit-seminarian/Transcendental-Meditating/Linda-Rondstadt-dating “Governor Moonbeam” of the 1970’s came back in the 21st Century to successfully reinvent himself as Mayor of Oakland and California’s Attorney General. And even more impossibly, at the age of 73 he recently reclaimed the top job in Sacramento after a nearly 30-year hiatus. This kind of comeback is near unheard of for the character-politician.
Schaefer, of course, was king of the genre, sui generis. “Mr. Mayor” was a promoter and a builder, the man who goofily donned a Victorian bathing suit to celebrate Baltimore’s new aquarium, a centerpiece of the Inner-Harbor he made his life’s work to revitalize. Like other character-politicians, his style could wear thin and a petulant and sometimes bizarre underside increasingly emerged as time went on (calling the Eastern Shore an “outhouse” being one example; pointing an unloaded assault-rifle at a reporter another).
One of the lessons of Schaefer’s career is that character-politicians need to be in the right job. For Schaefer, there was never another role as grand and fitting as that of mayor of his beloved hometown. He thrived in that office but petered out as Governor. Some public offices – the presidency an obvious example – should be off-limits for this breed of pol.
Lastly, it should also be said that not all world-class characters are well-suited for politics, Donald Trump perhaps being the latest individual who daily seems to be going out of his way to serve as exhibit A.
While the half-life of character-politicians can sometimes be short, and is usually controversial, their time on the public stage is like a splash of bright color on a drab wall. They bring life to the body politic. They shake things up.
And we could use a few more of them.
 Yes, among other elected posts he was also Maryland’s governor but that was a step-down the political food chain, so far as he was concerned
 New York Magazine, Jan 14, 2006: “After the dour Dukakis years, Weld delighted Massachusetts with his freewheeling, libertine ways. The image of the Charles River dive was splashed across newspapers. Weld attended Grateful Dead shows and bragged that he raised a “wee small one” of booze before speaking at an annual Saint Patrick’s Day breakfast. His annual Christmas parties became legendary for the sheer volume of liquor, not to mention Weld’s predilection for doing duck calls after a few glasses of what he liked to call “the amber liquid.”
 Local aside: I had the opportunity to see first-hand Schaefer’s unvarnished enthusiasm for his waterfront projects when then-Gov. Tom Carper brought him to Wilmington in the early 1990’s at a meeting to help sell plans to redevelop the Christina Riverfront. I will always remember how animated he became when talking about the symbolic importance of bringing life again to the great big Domino Sugar neon sign.