A field of candidates — many political heavyweights and city insiders — are locked in an expensive battle to become Long Beach's newest mayor, a job that comes with expectations of reviving both the port city's economy and reputation.
The April 8 election has candidates vying for city attorney and a majority of Long Beach's nine council seats, setting the stage for one of the most significant shake-ups in city politics in more than a decade.
But all eyes are on the mayor's race, and with the crowded field a June runoff is likely.
After Mayor Bob Foster announced last year that he would not seek a third term, the race was thrown wide open, attracting a lineup of plugged-in contenders such as Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, council members Robert Garcia and Gerrie Schipske, former NFL player and real estate investor Damon Dunn and Long Beach City College Trustee Doug Otto.
But while Los Angeles County's second-largest city is confronting rising pension costs and a listless economy, the front-runners have focused largely on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, restoring city services and attracting business.
"It's been more of a campaign of 'Kumbaya' rather than distinguishing themselves as candidates," says Jeffrey Adler, a political consultant and Long Beach political observer. "Everybody is so concerned about being one of two [top candidates] that they become timid and afraid of saying anything that might hurt their chances."
At a recent mayoral forum, most candidates steered around controversial topics and preached fiscal restraint.
"The next few years … they're going to be about not overspending and not growing more than we can afford," Garcia said.
Most of the hopefuls were skeptical of one of the city's most ambitious projects, a $200-million-plus downtown civic center, and several criticized council leaders for seeking to select a developer before the new council and mayor are even sworn in.
"At a time when we will have looming budget deficits … I don't think it's a good time to be talking about spending money on a civic center," said Lowenthal, who has lived in Long Beach for more than four decades and previously served on the school board and City Council.
Although Dunn and Garcia have indicated they are open to exploring options for replacing the old civic center, which one city report deemed seismically unsound in a major earthquake, neither took bold stances on the costly project, which could require public-private financing and would change the face of downtown.
The candidates agree that economic development should be a priority in a city where unemployment hovers between 9% and 10%. They have also said that tackling ever-increasing public employee pension costs, which threaten to eviscerate the city's first budget surplus in a decade, is important, but they have offered few specifics.
Lowenthal's name is perhaps the best known in Long Beach; her ex-husband, Alan, and former daughter-in-law, Suja, are familiar campaigners to residents. The assemblywoman has raised $284,934 — including $10,000 of her own money — and received endorsements from Gov. Jerry Brown and a slew of legislators and prominent labor groups.
Dunn, a relative newcomer to the city, has cast himself as an outsider with a rags-to-riches story and sharp business know-how. He has earned the endorsement of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and poured $445,000 of his own money into the campaign while raising nearly $160,000. If elected, he would be the city's first black mayor.
Otto, an attorney and Long Beach City College trustee, has emphasized education as a policy priority. His 11-point jobs plan calls on the city to take a more active role in business development. He has spent $150,000 of his own money on the race and raised $471,697, and he scored the endorsement of respected Long Beach resident and former Gov. George Deukmejian.
Garcia would be the first Latino and first openly gay mayor in a town once known as "Iowa by the sea." Garcia has served on the council for five years and is optimistic about Long Beach's future, describing it as a potential "Silicon Valley of the south." Mayor Foster has endorsed Garcia, who has raised $281,554.
Schipske, another openly gay candidate, has run on a platform of more transparency in government and stripping the budget of waste. The only candidate to agree to spending caps, she has raised $75,964 and received an additional $35,178 in matching funds from the city of Long Beach.
Also running are nonprofit executive Jana Shields, businessman Steve Mozena, state auditor Mineo Gonzalez and residents Richard Anthony Camp and Eric Rock.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will meet in a June 3 runoff.