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It took almost 50 years, but Mike Schaefer is back.
The Coronado resident and perennial candidate who’s had more than his fair share of scandals is on his way to winning a seat on the Board of Equalization over Joel Anderson, an outgoing Republican state senator, thanks in large part to high Democratic turnout.
Schaefer got more than a million votes without the support of the Democratic Party, and now the Democratic Party isn’t quite sure what to make of him.
“We don’t know this man well,” said Eric Bauman, the California Democratic Party chairman. “He hasn’t been engaged with the party and his campaign was so low-key.”
But, Bauman added, “we try to support all good Democrats who are in office and take it as our responsibility to educate newly elected Democrats in how our government functions best, and how we best use elected offices to act upon our stated goals and ideals.”
Democrats are no doubt thrilled that the November election boosted their numbers in the state Legislature, in Congress and in city halls across California. But Schaefer’s win shows that there can be downsides to wave elections too — they can usher in candidates the party doesn’t necessarily want to be affiliated with but who nonetheless had a D next to their name on the ballot.
At least one top Democrat, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, encouraged Southern California voters in October to simply leave the Board of Equalization part of their ballot blank. Anderson hurt his own chances after he threatened to “bitch slap” a lobbyist in a Sacramento bar, which drew a reprimand following an investigation commissioned by the Senate Rules Committee.
Most Democrats shunned Schaefer after he won the June primary and ignored his fundraising requests. They assumed he’d lose and go away, as he always has.
He was elected to the San Diego City Council in the 1960s and his political career derailed when he was indicted — later acquitted — as part of a Yellow Cab bribery scandal. He would go on to become, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “one of California’s most notorious slumlords.” In 1993, he was convicted of misdemeanor spousal abuse for allegedly beating his wife in their Point Loma home, according to the Reader. He was later disbarred in Nevada and hit with a restraining order by the man who played Raymond’s brother on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
But he was also an influential elections lawyer in California during those years. Some of the lawsuits he worked on did away with the alphabetical listing of candidates on ballots, allowed for write-in candidates at the local level and eliminated the requirement federal candidates needed to live within the jurisdictions they served.
Schaefer, who’s 80, has run for offices in multiple states and enjoys playing the role of jester, which may help explain why no one took his candidacy seriously this time around. But it’s not always clear when he’s angling for a laugh.
I had lunch with Schaefer in September 2015, while he was running for mayor of Palm Springs, and he boasted of his wackier endorsements, including a Lollipop Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.” At one point, he told me about his new girlfriend and slid a card across the table — for an escort service.
He finished last in the Palm Springs mayor’s race that year, earning a mere 124 votes out of 11,489.
About a week before Election Day 2015, Schaefer was again in court for refusing to pay his live-in landlord. He was upset that, among other things, she’d stopped serving him bagels in the morning. A judge ordered Schaefer to cough up $328. He’d bankrolled his campaign that year with a $60,000 personal loan.
Almost immediately after that election, he went to Nevada and began working on his new congressional bid. It was not successful.
Board of Equalization races don’t typically get much coverage, in part, because the tax appeal agency’s responsibilities were gutted by the Legislature in response to financial scandals. There’s now talk of doing away with the agency altogether through a statewide ballot measure.
If the results hold, Schaefer will be one of four Board of Equalization members — his district includes all of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties and part of San Bernardino County — and most of his staff will be overseen by State Controller Betty Yee. Four out of the five voting members, including Yee, are Democrats.
Schaefer credits his success to a well-written candidate statement, which touted his time in the city attorney’s office and his college education. He also said most people don’t know about or care what the Board of Equalization does — they came out in large numbers as part of a blue wave.
“Awful lot of people voted Democrat without knowing or caring who was attached to it,” Schaefer said.
After years of throwing himself into seemingly every other race — he nearly ran for the Assembly in Los Angeles instead of the Board of Equalization this year — Schaefer was in the right place at the right time.
He conceded that the Board of Equalization is “a shadow of what it used to be,” but said he’d won disputes over assessed valuations in front of the agency in the past.
Within a few days, Schaefer went from persona non grata to the man who can make hires. Several Democrats have called him in recent days seeking jobs, he said, including Gary Gartner, a political consultant who’s worked in the Legislature and on campaigns.
“I told him I just wouldn’t work for anyone,” Gartner told me. “Because of my experience, I can give him good advice on being a good member of the Board of Equalization.”
Gartner aside, there remains a sense of nervousness and curiosity over how Schaefer will behave once in office. He said people have nothing to fear, because they’re “misperceiving” his past.
“I think they’re listening to the wrong people,” Schaefer said. “I think they fail totally to realize I’m in my senior most productive years.”