The Alphabet Killer: What Makes Mike Schaefer Run? And Run?

“My name is Mike Schaefer — Schaefer like the ambulance company. I’m the ideal candidate from Central Casting. I am a constitutional scholar. I killed the alphabetical ballot and forced the state of California to change its residency laws for political candidates. I served two terms as a city councilman in San Diego, ran as my party’s candidate for the U.S. Congress, and I got a street named for Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas. I’m also a successful businessman who handles $500,000 in investments, and I own part of the Pierce Brothers Mortuary. My slogan is ‘Be Safer With Schaefer.’”

Moments before he began this rapid-fire spiel, part of a forum at the Wilshire Radisson Hotel for eight of the candidates running for the City Council Fourth District seat, Schaefer, 63, worked the room, distributing “gold” coins bearing his name and the promising legend “Good for One Beer or Wine.” The luncheon audience, the Beverly Hills and Greater L.A. Association of Realtors, was there to learn where the candidates stood on issues that enrage realtors — rent control, gas-shutoff-valve mandates and lawn-sign restrictions. It was a reliably conservative group that collectively gasped in horror when candidate Denise Munro Robb mentioned her membership in Americans for Democratic Action and that grew visibly irritated by the pro-rent-control taunts of Melrose Larry Green, who is also on the ballot. Yet it is a testament to Schaefer’s bizarre campaign that he has made the flamboyant Green, who sat next to him on the dais, appear like a straight man in the vaudeville of L.A. politics.

The attentive realtors quickly got a taste for the kind of micro issues that obsess him. “My campaign assistant was downtown the other day,” he told them, “and tried to park at a meter that said 10 minutes for 25 cents. I said, ‘Henry, put in two quarters —we’ll get 20 minutes.’ He put in two quarters but got 15 minutes. The machines are geared for 7½ minutes, but they say 10 minutes.”

Shaefer, it soon became apparent, presumes his electorate to be angry “little” people fed up with being pushed around by municipal bureaucrats and ignored by a council whose aloof members seem like unconcerned Manchus. They are people who are shocked whenever they phone City Hall at quarter to five on a Friday and find no one there. “If I’m elected,” he said, “I’d dock everybody on the council who’s more than five minutes late $10 a minute.”

Perhaps no one more embodies the career politician that Schaefer says he’s against than David Roberti, another candidate for the Fourth with whom he shared the rostrum. The image of the affable and beefy Roberti, a former longtime assemblyman and quintessential Sacramento insider, seemed peeled from a Daumier caricature. But while Roberti represents a familiar figure (the professional politician seeking new grazing grounds after a term-limited retirement or election defeat), Schaefer presents something entirely different: the thoroughly unelectable dreamer who migrates from one race to the next, like a bruised bull rider following the rodeo circuit.

Since elected as San Diego’s youngest city councilman in the 1960s, Schaefer has entered at least a dozen races and won none. But what makes him such a curiosity is his choice of campaigns. While a Las Vegas resident, he ran in Los Angeles’ Ninth and 10th City Council districts, its 32nd Congressional District and for district attorney of San Francisco. He earned himself a footnote in legal history when he ran to fill the late Sonny Bono’s Riverside County congressional seat in 1998. Although as an out-of-state candidate he was prevented from running, the Ninth Circuit Court later established his — and all such candidates’ — right to do so.

And while for years this lawyer has reminded listeners of his ambulance-company namesake, lately it has been hearses that Schaefer seems most intent on chasing, having run to replace first Bono, then Julian Dixon and now John Ferraro — all three of whom died in office.

When asked why he, a white Republican, ran earlier this year in the heavily black and Democratic 32nd Congressional District, he replies jokingly, “Why did Willie Sutton rob banks?” What, then, made him choose his current battlefield, the Fourth District?

“When I saw this district,” he tells the Weekly, “I went, ‘Wow! It’s got Farmer’s Market. It’s got Los Feliz, Hancock Park.’ I’d like to move over a few blocks to the Gaylord Hotel because I’m a big fan of the HMS Bounty. I like the Fourth District because it’s the district of economic achievement. You’ve got the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at Hollywood and Highland. Our district has a lot of multi-million-dollar homes. I’m running into people who are achievers — doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, producers and writers, people of great art and talent that I don’t run into enough in the 32nd District. I just feel comfortable with all its neighborhoods. I grew up with Farmers Market. I didn’t grow up with Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Crenshaw boulevards.”

If Schaefer’s Fourth District epiphany reads less like a statement of principles and more like one of those old cartoon-map placemats that show Los Angeles as a jumble of tacky icons locating the Hollywood sign, Disneyland, Malibu and Chinatown, it is because his vision of the city is one crowded into a historical rearview mirror.

“I remember Farmer’s Market when they had the little painted turtles that you’d mail back East, and Will Wright’s ice-cream places,” he says. “I’ve been in and out of this town, bringing my kids up to see the Toyland Parade every Christmas and to see the live radio shows in the ’40s. I remember seeing Smilin’ Ed McConnell and The Buster Brown Gang and the Jack Benny Show. I grew up in Hollywood going to premieres and stuff. I used to go to the Brown Derby in Los Feliz before it became Michael’s. I enjoyed very much going in there — they had a $5.95 prime rib until 7 o’clock.”

Schaefer, with his carny-bark delivery and cast-iron self-assurance, doesn’t seem a throwback merely to an earlier Los Angeles, but to an Old West culture that exists beyond that of living memory, a California barely past the infancy of statehood and frontier. There is an air of the riverboat and swinging doors about Schaefer, a showman who has undeniably added color to the election, which will be held September 11, followed by a runoff in October. Where Schaefer’s image most jarringly collides with reality is in his explaining away of some of the legal charges that have dogged him over the years. He blames, for example, his 1982 conviction and jailing as an L.A. slumlord on a misunderstanding — the kind that figures in his most recent legal troubles.

“I have never maced a little child,” he says about one case in Las Vegas. “I was accused of macing a 5-year-old girl. We went to trial, and she came in and testified that I was her friend. I was only critical of her grandmother’s boyfriend.”

Then there was the charge that he assaulted a 77-year-old woman who lived in his Vegas condo complex — and the resulting house arrest that forced him to wear an electronic monitoring device in the middle of his campaign for Las Vegas justice of the peace.

“I just tapped the woman on the shoulder, and she turned around and said, ‘Get your fucking hands off of me!’ The police filed a misdemeanor report, and I was convicted of battery. Then she sued me.”

Schaefer, certainly, is no stranger to lawsuits, filing on average, he estimates, about five per year, a record that earned him a “vexatious litigant” status in San Diego. He once sued his former wife, Olga, for intentional infliction of emotional distress because, he claims, she had dozens of magazines sent to his home. (“She was a KGB agent from Russia. I can’t prove that, but she was the mistress of the editor of Pravda.”) At the moment, in fact, he has filed a complaint against the L.A. City Clerk’s Office for not distributing the state’s code of ethics to candidates, as well as another against the city’s posting of street-sweeping signs, claiming they are “inconsistent” with California’s motor vehicle code.

Still, Schaefer denies being a vexatious litigant. “I wouldn’t sue the Weekly,” he says assuringly and claims that one of his victories resulted in California candidates’ names being listed randomly on ballots, instead of alphabetically. But the Nevada supreme court has a different view of his actions, one outlined in a 7,500-word decision affirming his disbarment this past June. From this document’s dry legal language, Schaefer emerges as an out-of-control lawyer running amok in Nevada, California and Texas, a high-plains grifter hectoring adversaries both in and outside of court. “The record reflects,” the Nevada justices wrote, “a blatant disregard by Schaefer for the rights of others and the administration of justice. This pattern is demonstrated by Schaefer’s actions in . . . his attempt to influence a witness’s testimony, his self-serving award of costs without court order, and his false affidavit to the Texas court. Schaefer’s persistent refusal to recognize that any of his actions were improper indicates that his behavior is not likely to improve in the future.”

Schaefer’s campaign has pretty much been confined to appearances at candidate forums and the plastering of “Mike Schaefer” signs throughout Hollywood — signs very similar to the ones that sprouted all over the Crenshaw District during his run for Julian Dixon’s congressional seat last spring.

Schaefer, by the way, says he’s a part-time actor and met his campaign assistant, Henry Fleming Wood, while the two were working on the TV program The Watcher. “Henry gets all the gold coins he wants,” Schaefer says, “three meals a day and a place to live. If I get elected, I may give him some salaried job.”

Beyond the election, his plans are vague, although he says he’s negotiating to buy a property on Beverly Boulevard next to Schaefer Ambulance, where he’s “going to fix up a beautiful apartment with state-of-the-art everything.”

Despite the loss of his lawyer’s license in Nevada, Schaefer remains active in Los Angeles, both as an attorney, landlord and candidate. His willingness to serve the public remains unshaken: “I’ve made enough money so that I can afford to donate my time pro bono to saving the world.”

—Steven Mikulan

Look — there’s that guy who was in that thing: Hundreds of tourists trained their lenses on Nicolas Cage as he dipped several appendages into the moist sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard on Tuesday. Clockwise, from center: Is that him?, Whoa!, Omigod!, Naaahh!, Omigod!, Nicolaaaaaas!, We LO-O-O-VE YOO!, Aaaaaaaauugh! and Whatever . . . Photo by Ted Soqui

Reader’s Digest: High Crimes and Canapé Misdemeanors

At 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, well-dressed members of America’s upper crust pull up in shining vehicles outside Raffles L’Ermitage on Burton Way. They have come to hear one of the highest-paid print journalists in America read from Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments, a collection of articles about gory murders originally published in Vanity Fair. Dominick Dunne, the crusading chronicler of gilded malfeasance, gossipy symbol of the belief that justice is not always served, has attracted a high-roller crowd. Book readings are usually fairly democratic affairs, open to all. This one, the first in the hotel’s “Wine & Word” series, is by invitation only.

To those of us condemned to life imprisonment in middle-class America, it’s always startling to be confronted by a large group of people wearing visibly expensive clothes. If clothes can sneer, theirs do. Inside the hotel’s restaurant, JAAN, the men wear suits and ties; the women dress like Ladies Who Lunch or — in the case of the younger, racier ones — as if they were auditioning for a role in the next James Bond movie. Every single table has a card on it that says “Reserved.” Meekly, almost everyone stands. I sit and am immediately rewarded by a waitress carrying a tray of canapés placed on silver tablespoons. “It’s cured Indonesian salmon and smoked trout,” she informs me.

“I just put this in my mouth?” I ask, referring to the spoon.

“Yes sir.”

I follow her instructions, and feel like an old, decadent baby. I return the spoon â and wash down the fishy goo with Perrier-Jouet. Then a woman with legs like the long muscular stalks of two exotic and probably poisonous jungle flowers walks into the room. White rayon shorts cover about an eighth of her thighs. It is time to do some interviewing. Her name is Lori New, and she is so ethereally beautiful that I think I might be speaking to a hologram. Her job, she jokes, is “to stay young and pretty and 18 forever” — she is an actress. She isn’t here for the reading, but she knows all about Dominick Dunne. “I’m an actress who actually reads,” she explains. Then she goes off to look for her date.

The reading takes place on the hotel’s roof, which offers a panoramic view of the city. Planes float upward through the fading blue sky. A helicopter buzzes. Standing with his back to West L.A. before a table bearing a bouquet of yellow hydrangeas, Dunne is dressed in a dark pinstriped suit, a blue shirt with a white collar, and a dusky red polka-dotted tie. The seats arrayed before him are covered in white linen slipcovers fastened with bows, and every seat is taken except for the two next to Salman Rushdie. The author of The Satanic Verses sits bolt upright at the far end of a row, looking like a stern, scholarly bird. Eventually, two reporters sit next to him.

Gray-haired and wearing George Burns glasses, Dunne coughs and harrumphs and stumbles over his words. There is something endearingly fuddy-duddy about him. Presenting himself as “an advocate for victims,” he establishes an unmistakably moral tone. He explains that, in 1982, his daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, and speaks movingly of how Sweeney was given an insultingly light sentence that was halved before he’d even left the courtroom. “How I hated him,” he says of his daughter’s murderer, “even as I knew that hate is not a state in which to linger. I even thought about hiring someone to kill him, but I ended up writing about it instead.” And found a vocation as a chronicler of crime: “For the first time in my life, I felt in step with my life.”

Then it’s on to the gossip, which is what the crowd is waiting for. The O.J. Simpson trial, “a great trash novel come to life”; the Menendez brothers, “I feel sorry for them, though I hate what they did. I’d like to visit them in prison”; and Claus von Bulow, “Claus is a fake. His name is a fake. He’s always been a fake. Claus is trompe l’oeil.” (Take that, Claus!) Dunne presents his theory on the Chandra Levy case, which is that some Hell’s Angels friends of Gary Condit drove her out of town on the back of a motorcycle. But he has disappointing news on Robert Blake: The case is cold and getting colder. “As you can see,” he sums up, “I’m not attracted to street crime. I like rich-people crime.” And the rich people laugh.

—Brendan Bernhard

Endings: Al’s Bar Unplugged

The PA was crappy, the air conditioning and ventilation nonexistent, and the club didn’t even have a full liquor license, selling only beer and wine. Yet Al’s Bar, which closed its doors Saturday night with little fanfare, possessed something you can’t find at the faux-rock emporiums for tourists on the Sunset Strip: soul. The locus of the Downtown Arts District, Al’s Bar had a policy — enacted by Lizzie Balough in the ’80s and proudly maintained by more recent booking agents Toast and Jim Miller — of giving preference to experimental, arty and uncommercial groups. You didn’t see the usual heavy metal and pop-rock careerists who infest other joints. And speaking of joints, I suppose it’s now safe to divulge that the back patio at Al’s was a pot smoker’s oasis, since cops and fire marshals rarely bothered to enter the bar, situated halfway between Skid Row and Little Tokyo.

There had been rumors for several months that Al’s Bar would shut down after a new owner, Magnum Properties, purchased the century-old brick building that houses the historic downtown nightclub and adjoining American Hotel. But barflies, scenesters and even employees were nonetheless caught off guard when the club hosted its final show, leaving behind several weeks’ worth of now-cancelled bookings. The last band to officially perform at Al’s wasn’t even scheduled to play: After hearing news of the impending closure, stocking-masked surf combo the Black Widows rushed over from an earlier gig at Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park, set up their equipment in the tiny backstage area to save time, and played an instrumental set there for the small, but frantic crowd.

You could argue that Al’s Bar was L.A.’s version of Manhattan’s legendary CBGB: Both were graffiti-slathered dives in not “nice” neighborhoods that grew out of the punk revolution. (L7, the Replacements, Love, Gun Club, Betty Blowtorch, Dwight Yoakam and Beck are some of the notable artists who’ve played at Al’s after owner Marc Kreisel took over the former truckers’ bar in 1979.) Yet CBGB’s artistic relevance largely faded after the ’70s, whereas Al’s was hosting compelling bands up until its last night, with a bill that included meandering mood-rockers the Warlocks, the Fuse, the Witches and high-energy Detroit trio the Sights.

Even before the Black Widows finished their show, much of the audience, caught up in a sentimental frenzy, began tearing souvenirs off the wall: stickers, posters, even chunks of the stage backdrop. Several guys somehow managed to unbolt the door to the men’s restroom, and carried it off in the confusion. Someone else smuggled out one of the barstools. A sublime, unframed portrait of Greta Garbo was torn in half by overeager fans trying to pry it from the wall, while greedy collectors ripped away the green felt of the pool table, with its distinctive white stenciled Al’s Bar logos, when Toast wasn’t looking. It was like the fall of Saigon, with a more amiable form of desperation. Among the teary-eyed revelers who weren’t ransacking the place: Spaceland booker Jennifer Tefft, music archivists Van Frazier and Dean “the Tape Machine” Abramovitch, Greg “the Pope” Romero (now into his fifth decade of clubgoing), and members of the Neurotones, the Excessories, Flash Express, the Dagons, EMA 3 and Project K.

After the remaining stalwarts staggered uncertainly into the night (“Where are we going to hang out now?” they muttered to each other), imposing doorman Cliff Shegog locked the front door with its nautical porthole window one last time. Toast and beloved bartender Stay-C Little cleared away the empty beer bottles and switched off the lights, as dozens of small cockroaches scurried along the quiet bar, its only survivors.

—Falling James