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Slumming It With Mike Schaefer : L.A.'s Notorious Landlord Goes East to Run for the Senate on Someone Else's Good Name

August 31, 1986|SCOTT HARRIS | Scott Harris is a Times staff writer

City inspectors called it a "a slum building in a non-slum neighborhood," and the worst inhabited structure they had ever seen: Filth piling high in the halls. Cockroaches swarming the kitchens--"so big," a tenant said, "they looked like mice." Rats crawling over sleeping children. Gang hoodlums roaming the hallways, vandalizing, robbing, shooting. Once, in the simmering heat of August, raw sewage flowed from broken plumbing into the lobby and out the back door.

More than 100 men, women and children called 757 South Berendo home. Most were Latinos, many of whom did not speak English. Some left in disgust; some wanted to but had no place to go; some chose to stay and fight. Their complaints, court testimony showed, were answered with empty promises, eviction notices and even Schaefer's threats that thugs would be hired to throw them out. City inspectors say Schaefer repeatedly defied their orders to make repairs and provide security.

Legal Aid Foundation lawyers helped the tenants take Schaefer to court and ultimately passed the case on to California's largest law firm--Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher--which provided free counsel. Suing Schaefer, the firm decided, was the essence of pro bono publico , litigation "for the public good." What followed was an extraordinary, bitter legal battle, believed to be the most expensive pro bono case ever in Los Angeles. In the end, under a state law designed to encourage more volunteer legal work, Gibson, Dunn also asked the court to order Schaefer to pay $684,100 in attorney fees, raising his potential risk to $2.51 million.

Schaefer sees himself as persecuted. In his eyes, there are many villains: the "criminal element" among tenants and his own employees; meddling bureaucrats, politicians and do-gooder lawyers; even the jury that heard his lengthy testimony.

Standing outside his latest business venture, the small Schaefer Hotel in downtown Baltimore, he is asked if he considers himself to blame. "I'm not saying I'm lily-white," he answers. "I'm saying I ran into some roadblocks."

Does he ever feel shame or remorse? The question, it seems, is unintentionally amusing. Schaefer grins. "All this stuff doesn't bother me, obviously, or I'd be on an island someplace crying my heart out."

But look at him. Michael Schaefer--this divorced, Catholic, churchgoing father of two boys--seems harmless enough. He is 5 feet, 10 inches tall, slight yet somewhat paunchy, with reddish-brown hair, hazel eyes and a pallid complexion. The hair, he admits, would be grayish-brown but for the Clairol.

"I'm not happy about approaching the big five-oh," he says, but there are no signs he is slowing down. He was a hyperactive child and seems to be a hyperactive adult. He works 80 hours a week, types 80 words a minute and talks at 78 r.p.m., able to leap five or six topics in a single breath. "I'm a Type A personality," he says. "I wake up in the morning and it's zip-a-dee-doo-dah!" Michael Olesker, a columnist with the Baltimore Sun, likened Schaefer to "Wally Cox on speed."

Quick, mincing steps take him into the Schaefer Hotel lobby, past the workmen trying to restore the American Traditional charm, and down a flight of stairs to his cramped two-room living space / office / campaign headquarters in the basement. Schaefer bought the run-down, 130-year-old structure early this year and rechristened it not for himself but for William Donald Schaefer, the city's very popular mayor and a runaway favorite to be Maryland's next governor. Although the two men are not related and are barely acquainted, Michael Schaefer is trying to promote a connection in the public's mind, hanging his political hopes on the coattails of the mayor's good name.

In fact, he says his decision to move from San Diego to Baltimore, to buy and rename the hotel and to run for the Senate--all of this--was triggered by an Esquire magazine article two years ago proclaiming William Donald Schaefer to be America's best mayor. The article told how the name Schaefer could be found on every bus bench and trash can in the city, and how the mayor would probably be Maryland's next governor. "My eyes got big when I saw that," Schaefer says, making his eyes get big.

"A lot of my friends were bi-coastal, and I thought it would be exciting to be involved in two areas. I began to take notice of the name Schaefer being on the landscape of Baltimore and, the more I read, (of ) how it was going to be on the landscape of all Maryland. I thought it was a golden opportunity . . . being involved in the political life of a state that is very comfortable with my name. If my name were Smith or Jones, I wouldn't be running."

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