Mayor Avoids Headlines, Not the Challenges

Times Staff Writer

When Lawrence E. Horner was growing up in Indianapolis, civics wasn't his favorite subject at school. "What am I going to need this for?" he once asked his mother.

His mother was stubborn, however, and pressed her reluctant son to study government. As it turned out, Horner's studies would be put to good use.

Today, he occupies the mayor's seat on the five-member Thousand Oaks City Council. It is the third time he has been elected by his colleagues to the one-year position during his 11 years on the council.

But his stature in the largely conservative Republican community nonetheless comes as a surprise to some because he is a black man.

His was the first black family to move into the upper-class environs of the Westlake area of Thousand Oaks. He is the father of one of the first black children to attend Newbury Park High School. And he is the first black mayor in Ventura County.

"A lot of people are surprised," Horner said. The black population in the city is minuscule, he said, less than 1,000 out of a population of nearly 94,000.

Horner, 55, sitting in his comfortable Northrop Corp. office where he is manager of quality assurance, said the expressions of amazement from people of all colors are not uncommon.

Different Reactions

"If it's a Caucasian person, they will look surprised and smile and say, 'That's tremendous' and start asking questions about the city."

"If it's a black person, it's almost too hard for them to believe. First, they'll say they didn't know there were any blacks living in Thousand Oaks. And then they'll ask, 'How did you get elected?' "

It is a question Horner has answered frequently. "I'll say, 'Just like a person is elected in the black community: You present yourself, tell them what you're going to do and tell them you'll see them at the polls.' "

Apparently, Thousand Oaks voters have been satisfied with what they have heard and seen, reelecting Horner in 1978 and 1982 by increasing margins after he won his seat by 37 votes in 1974.

Horner, a physical sciences graduate of Indiana University, moved to Thousand Oaks in 1968 when he went to work for Litton Industries Inc. He joined Northrop in 1978. He soon became active in, and later headed, a Westlake homeowners group and the Westlake Athletic Assn., which organizes baseball, football and other leagues for children.

Headed Homeowner Groups

Prior to his election, Horner was president of an umbrella organization representing 34 Westlake homeowner groups. With such deep roots in Westlake, Horner has acted as the area's representative on the council even though council members are elected citywide.

Although a registered Democrat--and the lone Democrat on the council--Horner has supported area Republican politicians ranging from former Assemblyman Paul Priolo and former Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. to current Thousand Oaks Assemblyman Tom McClintock.

His association with Republicans does not offend local Democrats, said George Webb, chairman of the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee. Horner "is a standard Democrat from Ventura County," Webb said. "Basically, he is quite fiscally conservative and a social moderate, but not really an activist."

Horner calls himself an independent, describing the Democratic Party as "tired," but criticizing the GOP for not being "in tune with reality in the area of social needs."

It is his independence and no-nonsense style of council leadership that friends and council observers point to when asked to describe Horner.

"He runs a very tight meeting," said Frank Schillo, who won election to the council in November.

'Very Good Captain'

"He's a very good captain, and he doesn't allow any funny business," said Lynn Bickle, president of the Wildwood Homeowners Assn., a group that has clashed with Horner over the development of private land in the city's northwest corner.

"Anybody who appears before him will know what impression they've made and where they stand, and that's a lot easier than having to work in an ambiguous situation," said Charles Cohen, a former councilman and now an attorney for developers.

Other council observers say Horner was rude and intemperate during his first six or seven years on the council.

"I think he has come a long way since he was first elected councilman," said John Beyer, a senior-citizen activist and faithful council-watcher. "He was a little bit arrogant at first, didn't care too much about public opinion."

"He's a little bit short-fused," Bickle said. "In the past, he has kind of ruffled feathers."

But, over the past year or two, Horner has become more responsive and listens more to people or groups appearing before the council with a problem, council observers say.

'Using Kid Gloves'

"He is now using kid gloves where he would have used boxing gloves," said Madge Schaefer, a councilwoman who has had several differences of opinion with Horner.

Horner agrees that he has mellowed. "You realize there are certain people who call themselves City Council watchers--the loyal opposition," he said. "They're there every meeting, crucifying Christ."

But, he continued, "you get used to it and you realize the little thing that's bothering them. You penetrate to it, and you don't get quite as curt with them."

However, he warns, "I am unmoved by emotion."

Horner has maintained a pro-development stance on the council, opposing the 1980 Measure A, a successful ballot initiative that set annual limits on the building of homes, and supporting redevelopment.

Horner and other opponents of Measure A take comfort in noting that the limit on home construction set by Measure A has not been reached in any year since the initiative's passage. "I said economics would regulate housing growth," Horner said.

Some observers credit Horner's direct style of leadership with pulling together, at least publicly, a badly divided council since he was elected mayor in November. The council has been split over growth control, redevelopment, the building of a cultural center and the rotation of the mayor's seat among council members.

"I think as he sat down as mayor, there existed a pretty heavy rift between Schaefer and other members of the council, without knowing where Schillo may stand," Cohen said.

'Lot Less Divisiveness'

"I think on a professional and mayoral level he has done everything he can to bring those people together into an efficient and professional working relationship," Cohen said. "There is a lot less divisiveness . . . between council members and almost no diatribe."

Horner is rarely a newsmaker in Thousand Oaks, preferring to work behind the scenes. In that way, he is cut from the mold of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley--unassuming, quiet, but firm when he wants to be, friends and associates say.

Horner said that the comparison to Bradley was "flattering," but he insisted that he is "a little more feisty than Tom is."

Horner's terms on the council have been so quiet that a Washington, D.C., research organization that has listed nearly every black elected official in the country for 15 years has no record of Horner.

When he has made the news, it has often revolved around racial issues. Last year, Horner publicly criticized Ellyn Wilkins, a member of the Conejo Valley school board, for using the term "niggardly" to describe the council, which was then locked in a dispute with the school board over sharing redevelopment funds. Horner said the word could have been misinterpreted for a racially derogatory term.

And in 1979, when a mandatory desegregation plan that included suburban school districts was under discussion, then-Los Angeles school board member and anti-busing leader Bobbi Fiedler went to Thousand Oaks to drum up opposition to the plan.

Horner, who opposes mandatory desegregation, urged Thousand Oaks residents at a public meeting to form their own opposition group and not to join with Fiedler. After the meeting, he and Fiedler got into a well-publicized verbal fracas.

'Pied Piper of Hate'

"I called her the Pied Piper of hate," Horner remembers. But the two have since become friends, exemplified last year when U.S. Rep. Fielder (R-Chatsworth) asked Horner to join as a co-chair on her reelection committee. Horner declined, citing Northrop guidelines against formal, partisan political affiliation.

For his help in settling disputes and assisting blacks in the area, Horner earned the Distinguished Black Citizen Award from the Ventura County chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People two years ago.

"He has been active, but it's interesting, because people don't know that," said John Hatcher, president of the county NAACP. "He doesn't make the newspaper, raising hell. He takes care of issues within the system. He's been a very valuable tool."

As to local civic issues, though, friends and associates could not remember any which Horner has taken up as his cause.

"I was trying to think of something he's done, and I really couldn't," Wilkins said. "To me, that's good. Not everybody has to chart us on a course."

"I could not be looked upon as a champion for any specific causes," Horner said, adding that his broad focus on city concerns owes from his experience in upper-level management.

Behind Horner's businesslike exterior is a friendly sentimentalist who proudly will display his wife's scrapbooks of his political memorabilia since 1974. Horner is the father of three grown children.

Wooed for Higher Office

Horner has been wooed to run for a higher, partisan office as a candidate who can attract from both political parties. Democratic leader Webb even said Horner is second on his list as a possible Democratic candidate for the seat now held by Fielder, who is contemplating a run for U.S. Senate.

But Horner has rejected the offers, satisfied with handling issues such as streets, redevelopment, home building and traffic. He said he is seriously contemplating retiring from the council in 1986, at the end of his third term.

"I think I owe it to my wife, who has had to forgo anniversary and birthday celebrations and vacations," Horner said of Betty, to whom he has been married for 31 years and who attends almost every council meeting. "I'd like to know what she'd want to do."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°