“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Consider Mike Schaefer in his 82nd year.
Call him one part Zelig with a touch of Gump and a little Chauncey Gardiner thrown in for good measure. There were times over the years I’d swear the guy was everywhere in the company of the famous, near-famous, and infamous.
And yet, politically speaking, Schaefer has mostly been nowhere. He’s the also-ran’s also-ran.
An attorney by education, the San Diego native graduated from Georgetown School of Law. A successful, and occasionally controversial, real estate investor by profession, he has owned everything from a hotel in Catalina to apartment buildings in Tonopah.
Many Las Vegans will probably remember Schaefer as a perennial candidate who ran for office often and never won a race in Southern Nevada. Although he can brag that he was elected to the San Diego City Council in 1965 at just 27, and beat a bribery charge several years later, Schaefer has run unsuccessfully for elected office 33 times in California, Nevada, Maryland, and Arizona.
Think about it a moment: thirty-three campaigns and almost no success. We’re talking about a one-man ’62 Mets here.
It may not have helped that some stories about him were part of the police blotter. Through the decades he’s been charged with domestic battery in California, filed so many lawsuits he was labeled a “vexatious litigant” by a Los Angeles judge, and was disbarred in Nevada. Early in his career, he was charged along with most of the San Diego City Council with receiving bribes and conspiring to obstruct justice in connection with the taxicab industry. Schaefer was cleared, but suffice to say it didn’t help his political career.
After losing a run for a seat in the California Legislature in 1967 and following it with a defeat in the San Diego mayor’s race in 1971, like many tourists he decided to try his luck in Las Vegas, losing in the 1974 secretary of state primary. Two more losses in California were followed by a loss in the U.S. Senate primary -- in Maryland.
Then it was back to California for losses in races for Los Angeles City Council, the California Assembly, and San Diego district attorney. He downshifted the nonsuccess machine with a failed run for Congress in Nevada in 1996, and added another defeat for San Francisco DA in 1999.
I’m winded just typing this. It’s hard to imagine the energy, audacity, and ego it took to enter all those campaigns knowing the odds were not exactly in his favor.
The new century brought new prospects for losing. There was a setback for a Los Angeles City Council seat in 2001, another for California secretary of state in 2002, and another strikeout later the same year in a campaign for Clark County public administrator.
One week later in Arizona, Michael Schaefer also lost a legislative race in the Republican primary.
An unassisted triple play.
Was that even legal?
Don’t think too much. Just go with it.
The misses kept on coming in 2004 in Nevada for state Senate, in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary in Maryland in 2006, the mayoral primary in Baltimore in 2007, and the Baltimore sheriff’s race in 2010.
And on it went from Nevada back to Los Angeles, over to Palm Springs, and back to the Silver State. Strikeout, strikeout, steeeerikeout!
Then, suddenly, something very strange happened. Some would call it a sign of the End Times approaching. Others would blame it on climate change. Still others would reflect that, if he searches long enough, the blind squirrel finds his acorn.
In the June 2018 open District 4 primary for the California Board of Equalization, a constitutional office in that state, Schaefer garnered 17 percent of the vote and qualified for the general election, coming in a distant second to Joel Anderson.
Thanks to a surge in Democratic voter turnout, and perhaps due to the fact that the election gods possess a wicked sense of humor, on Nov. 6 the underfunded and thoroughly flawed Schaefer breezed to victory with 52.2 percent of the vote to defeat the conservative Anderson. Schaefer didn’t just collect nearly 1.6 million ballots, but he was elected to an office that pays approximately $140,000 per year. The board of equalization exists to ensure property tax assessments are fair and uniform throughout California’s counties. Schaefer, one of the oldest elected officials in state history, represents approximately 10 million residents.
He admits ego is part of the equation, but that’s a prerequisite for politics. He reminds me that Abraham Lincoln lost a lot, too.
“I love being in public life,” Schaefer says. “Running for office is a license to visit your friends and neighbors. I’m always running into interesting people when I’m campaigning. I enjoy politics.”
As if to prove the point, he says someone should remake the feel-good movie “Rudy” about his career, adding, “I am the comeback kid.”
Like Chauncey himself, after all these years Mike Schaefer is just enjoying being there.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith