News & Community

100 Years: Willie Don Meets "Big Chief"

Part of our "100 Years: The Twelve Events That Shaped Baltimore" series

William Donald Schaefer, the Michelangelo of Baltimore’s renaissance, first ran for public office under the guidance of Alvie Unglesbie, an earnest but thoroughly unschooled friend from the local neighborhood improvement association. The two of them stepped blithely into a political world owned by Irv Kovens and Jack Pollack.

Those men controlled a citywide network of political clubs regimented into precinct captains, precinct executives, and runners, all eager to show how well they were protecting home turf. A torrent of cash—”walk-around money,” they called it—kept the soldiers focused. Anyone who ran for anything without their blessing was in it for the exercise.
Schaefer’s name appeared on the House of Delegates ballot as Schaefer, William D., yet another handicap. If anyone knew him at all in those days, they knew him as Don.
Still, he thought he had a respectable résumé. He was a vestryman at the Bishop Cummins Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church near his parents’ home on Edgewood Street in West Baltimore. He was a WWII veteran, a member of both the Montfaucon Post American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And he belonged to the Mystic Circle Lodge #104, A. F. & A. M.
He lost big.
Schaefer, William D. ran 13th in a field of 27. He tried again in 1954, finishing seventh, just outside the six-person winner’s circle. Schaefer loved Alvie, but he knew he needed more—namely, Kovens or Pollack. When Kovens or Pollack “took” you on his ballot in those days, everything changed. Schaefer rejected Pollack, whose manner and reputation offended him. Schaefer had watched the big man at Sunday meetings of the city Democrats who convened in the old Emerson Hotel. “He looked like a bird of prey—and then he would start to quote Shakespeare,” Schaefer told me years ago while I was writing his political biography. Pollack had been implicated in a murder (never convicted—or tried; he had friends in the court house).
So Schaefer turned his attention to Kovens. As it turns out, he had an advocate: Edgar Silver, a Pollack man who had gone over to Kovens (and who was among the throng that had beaten Schaefer in 1950). Silver had always been one of those political players who loved putting people together, making things happen, creating atmospheres. He knew Kovens was in the market for a council candidate to run in the 5th district.
“You ought to take a look at this guy I know,” Silver said to Kovens. “He ran for the House of Delegates. Clean-cut, hard-working.”
So Kovens walked up to Schaefer during one of those Sunday meetings.

“I want to see you,” he said. It must have sounded like an order.
“All right, yes sir,” Schaefer replied.
They met that night at Kovens’s house. As the Jewish leader of a mostly Jewish delegation to City Hall, Kovens wanted a non-Jew to run in the mostly Protestant southern precincts of the 5th. He thought he’d found his man.
Though Schaefer’s future was on the line during that first meeting at the boss’s house, he dared to give the imperious and impatient Kovens his terms. Kovens could have the political stuff, the little jobs, and the small favors. But Schaefer’s vote would be his own. He would vote the way he thought best. He just wanted the boss to know.
“He must have been laughing himself to death,” Schaefer said, recalling the moment years later.
The story gains credence from the boss himself. Edgar Silver recalls that Kovens called him the next day. “That’s a strange guy you’ve got there,” Kovens said. “He said he wouldn’t do anything he wouldn’t be proud of in church.”
Thus did William Donald Schaefer enter political life in Baltimore—and the state of Maryland—as Irv Kovens’s designated gentile. It was a fateful and fortuitous union.
“The word came down,” recalls state Senator George W. Della Jr., the son of a former senate president who had been beaten by a Kovens man. “All of a sudden doors opened.”
With Kovens backing him, Schaefer grew strong in the northern reaches of the 5th. They, too, had gotten the word.
“William Donald, William Donald,” the faithful chanted as they campaigned for him.
In time, everyone in Maryland would know him as William Donald Schaefer or Don or, most famously, Willie Don. He was the 5th District team’s top vote-getter in 1955. Name recognition was never a problem after that.
Kovens once observed that his team had some of the smartest, most talented politicians in the city. It was true. Neither he nor Pollack sent seat-warmers to the City Council. Determined as they were to control the political landscape, they felt accountable to their constituencies. They wanted talented people to represent them. And now, Kovens—though he could hardly have expected it—had given Baltimore and Maryland one of its most important and colorful political leaders.
Shy but nervy, Schaefer broke in at a time when machine politics had reached their high point in Baltimore. And his patron, Kovens, was the prime engine. Over the years, Kovens developed a kind of mocking affection for Schaefer, laughing at his election-year nerves. Knowing that outcomes were never in doubt for the machine, he chuckled at Schaefer’s moaning, “I’m-going-to-lose” approach to every campaign. Kovens called him “Shaky.” Schaefer, reverentially, called Kovens “Mr. Kovens” or “Big Chief.”
He marveled at Kovens’s aura.
“People came up to him like a honey pot,” Schaefer recalled. “He knew everyone. I’d walk along behind him. He’d be smoking his cigar and flicking the ashes back in my face. I didn’t care.”
Schaefer knew people would think he had sold his soul in exchange for Kovens’s backing. So he insisted over and over that Kovens had never asked him for anything. There was a hint of protesting too much in this, but no one ever proved otherwise.
What’s more, the relationship was not quite as one-sided as one might think. “Kovens blessed him, but he needed Schaefer as much as Schaefer needed him,” says Gene Raynor, Schaefer’s friend and former city and state elections chief.
In time, Schaefer would amass political cachet that exceeded the power of both Kovens and Pollack, nurturing support that gave him constituencies, both in the Democratic clubhouses and the network of community organizations that were then becoming more influential in the city.
“He was one of the first local politicians who ingratiated himself to the citizens associations,” explains former Mayor Thomas A. D’Alesandro III. “And they were very, very appreciative. He was building a new base of support in the precincts.”
As Schaefer amassed his own power and his career gathered momentum, there were those who said he didn’t need the boss anymore. He didn’t agree and he never shunned the man who got him started.
Kovens rewarded Schaefer’s loyalty in 1971, when he came back to Baltimore from Florida to help his protégé win the mayoralty. The political clubs had begun to slip by then. Big government had taken over the social welfare work which was once the exclusive province of the clubs—and television had begun to replace the legions of campaign workers.
“When TV came along, all of a sudden I’m in your living room. That ripped the old organizations apart,” says D’Alesandro. Political support of the sort D’Alesandro cultivated was less important after TV.
Kovens’s power, which had strong ties to the business community, continued to grow. He could raise the money for Shaky and Shaky could win with his broad array of supporters in the black, white, ethnic, and upper-class neighborhoods of the city.
“Schaefer developed a situation where he was a step [removed] from the political manipulations,” D’Alesandro says. “He left that to Kovens.”
After Schaefer became Mayor, it was Kovens who kept the City Council in line. Schaefer was free to think about the big picture and to find talented lieutenants who could make the big ideas happen. With Kovens lining up the votes for Schaefer’s building projects, Schaefer waved the wand of urban—and psychological—renewal over Baltimore’s marble steps, transforming the city into a tourist destination with a splendid waterside marketplace.
Kovens had built the platform. Schaefer became the personification of Baltimore, discovering in the process that he was something of an actor. He mugged it like Bert Lahr or Charlie Chaplin, dressed up like H. L. Mencken. He put Baltimore on the national and even the world map—famously donning an orange and yellow Victorian swimsuit and jumping into the new aquarium’s seal pool with the seals—to give a smokestack and steel town new panache. He instinctively seemed to know the right facial expressions and poses—whatever the event demanded.
“He was like the Wizard of Oz,” says Senator Della Jr. “He gave the city heart. He gave it courage.”
City Hall was his home. He had no other life. He always worked late.
U. S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, once Schaefer’s colleague in the City Council, says he could co-opt you—or “vaporize” you. She had been elected to block a highway then planned through various city neighborhoods. Schaefer wanted the project to proceed.
“He said, ‘Barb, you’re a great lady but I’m going to have to roll you,'” Mikulski recalls. “‘You kept your promise to the neighborhood. But you’re just a council lady.'” She lost her first effort to stop the road 17-to-3, but prevailed later, and Schaefer credited her with recognizing a potential disaster. The highway would have defaced the city.
“I didn’t see it. But she did,” he said, looking back this year.
“The amazing thing about him,” says Senator Della Jr., “I mean, he had Kovens—but he had this uncanny ability of surrounding himself with very talented people the likes of which haven’t gathered since.”
Uncanny, too, was the renaissance chemistry stirred in Kovens’s 5th Ward clubhouse. Another of its stalwarts, Marvin Mandel, rose to the governor’s office. He was there when Schaefer became the Mayor. Kovens would send emissaries to Annapolis with specific messages: Don needs a convention center. Don needs a World Trade Center. Don needs a subway. And Mandel would deliver. These buildings were, in a sense, monuments to the value of bosses and machines.
“Kovens, Mandel, Schaefer, and the Democratic Party were in perfect harmony. It all came together. It was just fortuitous for the city,” says Frank DeFilippo, a newspaper columnist, commentator, and former Mandel press secretary.
With Kovens’s backing, Schaefer never lost a race. In the 50 years that followed that first conversation, Schaefer ran for and was elected to the Baltimore City Council four times, president of the council once, mayor four times, governor of Maryland twice, and the state’s comptroller of the treasury twice. Had Kovens not died in 1989, Schaefer might well have served until the day he himself died—always and happily being little “Shaky” to Irv Kovens’s “Big Chief.”

Why it matters

• After running for the House of Delegates and losing twice, William Donald Schaefer teamed up with kingmaker Irv “Big Chief” Kovens

• With Kovens in Schaefer’s corner, a political dynasty was born, changing Baltimore forever