"Our church wanted to buy a piece of city- owned land." This was in 1953 or 1954, and William Donald Schaefer is explaining how he got into politics. "We put in a bid, and it was rejected. If we put in the high bid, why didn't we get the land? It just didn't seem right." Schaefer, a lawyer specializing in real estate work, was asked to investigate. "I came down to city hall and saw Warren Buckler and John Reed, and Mr. Flynn, who was on the council. I saw a couple of council sessions." And he found out that there was a good reason for the city's decision: the plot was adjacent to a large tract; a developer needed it to complete a big project. Some people get into politics out of outrage; the first lesson that Donald Schaefer learned was that the system works. A corollary is, you work the system: he got involved in improvement and planning groups which "did really fine work in housing."
Schaefer already "knew the courthouse, knew all the judges." His father was a lawyer, and knew west-side councilman Leon Abramson. The senior Schaefer "was very honest, very hard-working; he felt he should give more to his employer than he was paid for," working from 8 til 6 or 7 and on Saturdays. His father's people came from Germany, his mother's from Wales and England; they were "always in Baltimore." The future mayor lived first on Lafayette Square on the near west side, then on Appleton Street, and in 1928 or '29 moved to a light-brick rowhouse at 620 Edgewood Street, between busy Edmondson Avenue and Gwynns Falls Park.
Middle America, three miles west of downtown Baltimore. Schaefer remembers "bank presidents and artisans. There were never locked doors or windows; everyone knew everyone on the block." His father worked through the Depression, and "we always had food and clothes. They had enough to buy me a ball glove and ice skats." He went to City College in 1936-39, to law school in 1939-42, then into the Army. He was adjutant at hospitals in England and on the Continent.
After the war he returned to Baltimore and practiced law. He started with a title company, worked for a real estate law firm, then formed a law firm with Norman Waltjen and Mary Arabian. Their work sounds humdrum -- checking titles, preparing contracts -- and Schaefer admits he "didn't particularly care about the law." He ran for the House of Delegates in 1950 and 1954, both times as an independent and "lost but did very well." Then in 1955 "I was picked up by the political organization" and slated for the City Council, to balance the ticket (he is Protestant; the other candidates were Jewish). Once again, the system worked, recognizing merit and rewarding hard work.
Since 1955 this modest-looking lawyer has mastered the politics of a yeasty, diverse city. He gives credit to the people he found. "We had some of the most interesting and knowledgeable people on the council," he says, "brilliant men." He reels off dozens of names -- Duffy, Staszak, Bonnett and many more ("each one taught me something about people and the city").
He worked hard at it. "I made it a full-time job," he says. "I was single, the law business did fairly well." He was vice chairman of the committee that passed the Charles Center redevelopment, and as others left he lined up the votes to become vice president and president of the council. Then when "Young Tommy" D'Alessandro came in and told him he was quitting after one term as mayor, in 1971, Donald Schaefer decided to run. "I had a lot of business support and a lot of political support," and he won. He has won three more times since, in a city that has changed, as Edgewood Street did some time ago, from majority white to majority black. In 1983, against a black opponent from a well-known political family, Schaefer not only won but would have won if not a single white had voted.
Blacks "know I care about them. I have walked their alleys, taken the trash out of there." The mayor is famous for his travels around the city, demanding action from city departments; "they can't fool me, I remember that house -- the roof is falling in." If he finds "a house with trash up to the first floor, I'd ask, 'How would you like to live next door? If we don't clean it up, I'm going to rent a house in the neighborhood.' getting people from different agencies and the private sector in a room together and insisting on action. He insists on specific tasks and deadlines, and "it isn't easy, because hard lines are drawn. After we get mad at each other once more, we've got to solve it."
Schaefer became a Democrat "just because my father was." He talks not about ideas but about solving problems. In politics "there are people who get things accomplished, and people who don't." He is quick to cite Marvin Mandel's accomplishments; he is one who gets things done. He does not say so, but you could easily conclude that he thinks his opponents are not.
Schaefer talks fluently and -- except about his opponents -- forthrightly. But there is a tension; the famous temper lurks just under the surface. He fights hard, but in private, to forge a consensus, and he is not comfortable with public criticism. "In communities they can talk to me, and sometimes they hurt. They can get at me." Running for governor is "going to hurt" too, with "people discrediting things I've done." Schaefer has raised $1 million for a race and is far ahead in polls; he is traveling around the state and is greeted warmly. Even so he seems on the defensive, against critics and opponents of the people who get things done and make life better for those they serve.