Mayor Savors Sweet Survival : Burbank’s Mary Lou Howard Outlasts Opponents
Mary Lou Howard had just completed her first weekly press conference as mayor of Burbank and was preparing to leave the City Hall conference room when she was approached by longtime political gadfly Jules Kimmett.
“We need these press conferences, and I’m glad you brought them back,” Kimmett said excitedly. “What happened to them? What happened to Remy?” he said, referring to E. Daniel Remy, the previous mayor, who was soundly defeated in April by a slate of Howard-supported challengers.
Howard, her voice rising, patted Kimmett on the shoulder. “Mr. Remy was run over by a train,” she said, chuckling. “And I was the engineer.”
Reminded of the comment recently, Howard appeared slightly embarrassed. ‘If I were to make the statement now, I would say that the citizens were the train, and I was just one of the engineers,” Howard said. “The citizens were tired of the arrogance. They got their council back.”
Best of Times for Howard
For Howard, the first female councilwoman and mayor of Burbank, who will celebrate her 48th birthday on Wednesday, these are the best of times.
After six years of struggle and hostility with her male colleagues on the City Council, most whom she said ostracized her and failed to respect her personally and professionally, she finally has come out on top, besting and outlasting her political foes.
Although Howard was not running for re-election herself, she backed candidates who defeated two incumbents with whom she had constantly clashed.
Howard, who was a housewife and medical assistant when she launched her political career in 1977, said her survival and popularity is the result of her constant attempts to reach out to citizens and her genuine concern for their needs.
Her grass-roots approach of regularly walking neighborhoods, hosting old-fashioned town hall meetings and being accessible to Burbank residents and city employees apparently paid off during Burbank’s election.
Shrewd Political Style
But her critics--and to some degree her supporters--also contend that there is another reason for her success: a shrewd, calculated and aggressive political style that can be destructive and vindictive toward those who don’t share her point of view. They also assert that she is more concerned about personalities than issues, and that she practices the same intimidation tactics she has denounced in other city officials.
Her involvement in the campaign became a major issue, detracting from other city concerns such as redevelopment and government spending. When the incumbents were defeated by the Howard-supported candidates, only a few weeks passed before two other Howard opponents, City Manager Andrew Lazzaretto and City Attorney William Rudell, were ousted from office.
The defeated incumbents--Remy and Larry Stamper--repeatedly had opposed Howard during her two terms on the council, subjecting her to what Howard saw as verbal abuse and ridicule during council meetings. She said a large part of the treatment was the result of male chauvinism.
“There was real arrogance on the council, and the old-boy clique did not want to listen to what people had to say,” Howard said. “Remy especially was terrible to me. No matter what I did, he ignored me, and if anyone on the staff talked to me, Remy and the clique would ostracize them. It was a long period of oppression around City Hall, and it was time for a change.”
Howard always has prided herself on her efforts to cater to the needs and wants of citizens. Calling herself a “people person,” she said: “I’m someone they know they can trust. They can get to me very easily. The other councilmen didn’t seem to care, but the people knew I cared about them. “
‘Dealt in Gossip’
However, Stamper, 49, a minister at the First United Methodist Church in Burbank, said he believes Howard “dealt in a lot of gossip, not issues. Being people-oriented sounds noble, but it catches up to you. Leaders have to have the courage of their convictions. Being a leader is not a popularity contest.”
Bob Bowne, who serves on the City Council with Howard, said: “I’ve seen a sincere sensitivity in Mary Lou Howard toward issues which are of concern to Burbank citizens, but there is also a very astute political animal who can match her skills against any opposition which comes along. It’s paradoxical when you see the aspect that is sensitive and compassionate, and then the aspect of the political animal.”
Bowne said he felt that Howard tended to move cautiously on touchy issues in which her decision might run contrary to public opinion.
Stamper and other critics of Howard also have charged that her opinions and actions on city issues are manipulated by her husband, Jack, a personal-injury attorney who gave up political aspirations after losing in a bid for Congress in 1966.
Charges Follow Howards
The charges against Howard and her husband have followed them ever since she first lost a bid for a City Council seat in 1977. They resurfaced again during this year’s campaign when Rudell accused Jack Howard of violating conflict-of-interest statutes when he tried to acquire land in a city redevelopment zone. Mary Lou Howard is a member of the Burbank Redevelopment Agency.
Although Rudell forwarded the accusations to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, investigators later concluded that the accusation had no basis. Howard said Rudell had instigated the investigation as a “political vendetta” to discredit her efforts to oust Remy and Stamper.
Jack Howard said he is angered by allegations that his wife is really carrying out his wishes and living out his fantasy to be mayor of Burbank.
“I wouldn’t want to sit on the Burbank City Council for all the tea in China,” he said. “Of course, I am very supportive of my wife, but she is doing her thing and I am doing mine in my practice. The people who say that are folks like Remy who have all this hostility against us. Mary Lou has more than proven herself, and the people of Burbank know it. She really does care about people and people problems.”
Remy could not be reached for comment.
‘I’m Not a Bully’
“I don’t consider myself controversial at all, but other people see me that way,” Howard said. “Taking a position in the election made me controversial, I guess. Being the first woman on the council made me controversial. I see myself as very open, easy to get along with, willing to work with people and laid-back. I’m not an aggressive woman. I’m not a bully. But I get things done.”
The frenetic pace Howard maintains is in sharp contrast to the quiet existence she lived in her early years in Adena, a small farming and mining town of about 900 people in Jefferson County, Ohio. Her father owned a drugstore and her grandfather, a state mine inspector, was the only member of the family remotely involved with government.
Her parents divorced when she was young. When Howard, an only child, was 9, she and her mother moved to New York City, where they lived in a fashionable apartment building with her grandmother and aunt. Although she was surrounded by glamour, since her stepfather and her aunt were technical directors of Broadway shows, Howard never leaned toward a career in show business.
“I knew at a young age I had no talent in that department,” she said. “I can’t sing or dance.”
Malts With School Friends
In 1952, the family moved to Burbank to a house on Beachwood Drive. Howard’s fondest memories consisted of attending Bellermine-Jefferson High School and going with her friends to the malt shop in Woolworth’s department store. She later transferred to Mother Cabrini, an all-girl’s Catholic high school, where she graduated.
When she was 17, she married Jack Howard, a student at Bellermine-Jefferson, and they had their first child, a daughter, Jackie, when she was 19. The Howards also have three sons: Brett, 15, John, 21, and Rick, 25.
She had never given serious thought to becoming involved in local government when she was a housewife taking care of her children. She did become involved in John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign “because he expressed so many of the ideals we believed in,” she said.
Howard spent most of her later years as a medical assistant to a Burbank doctor. “If I hadn’t been a politician, I would have liked to have been a nurse,” she said.
Persuaded to Run
After serving on the Los Angeles County grand jury from 1975 to 1976, and the Burbank Library trustees board in 1976, she was persuaded by her husband to run for City Council in 1977 because “there had never been a woman council member and I felt it was time,” Jack Howard said. “I knew she cared about people and she could contribute something.”
Saying she was reluctant to walk neighborhoods because she was so shy and awkward, Howard was unsuccessful in her first council bid. “I was a little relieved, although Jack was devastated,” she said. “But two years later, I decided to try again. For me, the timing was right then. And I won.”
The new council members contend that Howard has provided excellent leadership for Burbank. “I thank my lucky stars that we have someone like Mary Lou Howard as mayor,” said newly elected Councilman Michael Hastings, one of the candidates backed by Howard. “She puts her heart and soul into her job. For someone who has been so brutally bruised the last four years, she has made quite a recovery. I’m very proud of the rebound she made. She could have been a hundred times more vengeful than she was.”
Still Greets Strangers
A gregarious woman, Howard drives around Burbank in a gold Mercedes-Benz with a license plate that reads “MS MAYOR.” She is always fashionably attired in brightly colored dresses. Even though she has not run for reelection since 1983, she still makes it a point to greet strangers in supermarkets, and hugs and kisses friends at community events.
But even though her insatiable appetite for public life and flair for publicity often land her in the spotlight, Howard at times seems somewhat uncomfortable with her celebrity. “I still tend to be shy and reserved, and I get shyer whenever I’m at a function outside Burbank,” she said.
During the highs and lows of her community career, Howard consistently has been one of the more colorful figures in a local government distinguished by a high level of conflict and political maneuvering.
When she ran for reelection in 1983, despite the hostility directed toward her by the other council members, Howard received almost 70% of the 9,098 votes cast. “I knew then I was doing something right, and that there was dissatisfaction with the government,” she said.
After this year’s election, Howard continually made statements that City Attorney Rudell should resign before the council voted to fire him. She also attacked City Manager Lazzaretto for not being a “people person” and suggested that he also might be ousted.
The newly elected council members, Hastings, Mary Kelsey and Al Dossin, said their decision concerning the fate of the two officials would not be controlled by Howard. But two weeks after Howard was appointed mayor, Lazzaretto and Rudell resigned.
Last week, Lazzaretto said he had arranged several meetings with Howard after the election, but “those arrangements were never honored. The comments she made about me was not the professional way to handle that kind of issue. If there was something Mrs. Howard or the council did not like about me, we should have been able to sit down and work it out. But there was never that dialogue, even though I tried.”
Howard countered that she met with Lazzaretto in January and told him his attempts at reconciliation were too late. “I told him the lines of communication were no longer open,” she said, stressing that she felt the city employees were intimidated by Lazzaretto’s manner.
Honeymoon With Citizens
For the most part, the turmoil surrounding the shift in leadership has subsided. The new council headed by Howard is still enjoying a honeymoon with the Burbank citizenry as it considers zoning items, progress of the proposed Towncenter shopping mall and the city budget. New City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom, who was appointed just hours after Lazzaretto resigned, is becoming familiar with city departments.
For the moment, Howard is clearly enjoying her mayoral status.
“City business is the last thing on my mind when I go to bed and the first thing on my mind when I wake up,” Howard said. She lists her home phone number on her business cards.
Balancing Job, Family
“I try to balance my family life and my job, and I don’t do too good a job, but it doesn’t bother me at all that people call upon me and ask me to help them with their problems,” she said.
Although she unsuccessfully ran as a delegate supporting Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart in last year’s state primary, Howard said her political aspirations do not extend beyond Burbank. She said she plans to run for reelection in two years.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said, then paused before adding, with a smile, “I don’t mind it a bit. Maybe I’m just not tired yet.”