Richard Schifter who died October 4 at the age of 97 was known around the world as a champion of human rights. He served three presidents over 20 years as ambassador and assistant secretary of state. For the last 20 he continued his humanitarian and human rights advocacy with the quiet firmness that produced results in unexpected places.
His international achievements eclipsed his local accomplishments, and are mentioned barely, if at all, in the national and world press reports of his death. Among friends he would often remark, however, that lessons he learned in Montgomery County politics were an important part of his preparation for his role in world affairs.
A 15-year old refugee from the Austrian Anschluss, he graduated first in his class in high school and college, which he completed in three years. He joined the Army in 1943 and became one of the famed Ritchie Boys that interrogated German prisoners of war. After law school at Yale, he joined a DC law firm where he became on the nation’s leading experts on Indian Law while maintaining an interest in civil rights and international affairs. Obviously with time on his hands, the became engaged in Montgomery County politics where he and his wife, Lilo, settled and reared their family. He started at the bottom of the ladder—as a precinct chairman.
Dick’s taste for fairness and equality led him into the reform movement in Montgomery County where in th early 1960s he became the leader of Democratic activists and precinct officials that challenged the old line organization of Col. Brooke Lee, the long-time county boss. “Dick Schifter’s basement” became the insurgent headquarters of reformers where primary slates were were organized that resulted in partial victories in 1962 and 1966 and a complete victory for council and legislative delegation in 1970. In this process, Dick was the quiet negotiator among egos, the strategist who played a long game and leveraged short victories, and most of all, taught us how counting votes was more effective than grand declamations. For example, he negotiated the alliance of Republican David Scull and the Democratic minority on the council elected in 1966, pointing out that they had more in common than David had with the other Republicans. Had that alliance not occurred it is very likely the Wedges and Corridors Plan would not have been approved to guide county growth, the 1968 Charter would not have been written, and the ground laid for policies that placed the county at the front of progress for a generation. Dick was a partisan who managed to put the good of county, state and nation above party. He quietly organized support against a Democratic gubernatorial candidate that had based his campaign on a racist appeal. His essential skills of recognizing opportunities but of seeking a moral path made him an effective Ambassador for Human Rights at the UN. He was a moralist that could count.
Dick’s experience with Indian tribes and his long service on the Maryland Board of Education during the years of school desegregation and on the Board of Visitors of the Maryland School for the Deaf, as well as his own experience as a refuge deepened his understanding of those subjected to discrimination, and worse, helped prepare his humanitarian endeavors that resulted in release of political prisoners and freedom for thousands to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He had an intuitive sense of justice, reinforced with experience, study, and contemplation of what was the right thing to do.
In the late 1990s I brought a graduate seminar on leadership public affairs I directed at UMBC to see Dick at his office in the State Department, I was interested to hear how a group of budding public servants reacted to the conversation with him. They were enthralled by his humility and by his description of the importance of moral claims, combined with deep study of history and people, in making good things happen. They also captured something all that have know and loved Dick found so intriguing. He was so quietly persuasive because he was so often irrefutably right.