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War of Words Escalates in L. B. Council Campaigns

Times Staff Writer

Already marked by heated rhetoric and extraordinary spending, four City Council campaigns were further defined this week by a flurry of accusations and name-calling as candidates geared up for Tuesday’s primary election.

Councilwoman Jan Hall accused challenger Jim Serles of improperly collecting applications for absentee ballots from District 3 residents. The process followed by Serles allowed “clear abuses if not outright fraud,” Hall claimed.

After a series of meetings and phone calls Monday and Tuesday, however, city and state officials said Serles’ practices were legal. And Hall said she might take the matter to court if she loses the election.

In District 1, Councilman Marc Wilder finally entered the fray. Wilder, who is not seeking reelection, formally endorsed his legislative aide, Joy Melton, then blasted another candidate, attorney Ron Batson.

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Wilder, who lost to Batson supporter Dennis Brown in a 1984 Assembly race, said Batson has run a campaign “full of lies and innuendoes,” using a phone bank to smear other candidates and maligning Melton by misrepresenting her statements on crime.

‘Irresponsible Comments’

Batson, in turn, said Wilder’s comments were “indicative of Wilder’s whole tenure in office. He doesn’t know what’s going on in the 1st District. . . . His comments are irresponsible, inaccurate and typical.”

Batson said he had nothing to do with the mysterious phone bank. He said that he--along with Melton, Jenny Oropeza and Evan Anderson Braude, the other apparent front-runners in a 14-candidate field--had all been targeted by the anonymous callers.

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In Batson’s case, the callers had pointed out to prospective voters that Batson is divorced and lives at his 3rd Street law office, he said. Batson also said that his campaign literature accurately reflects Melton’s comments on crime and safety in the downtown-area district.

For her part, Melton said she did not think Batson was behind the phone bank, but insisted that Batson had “twisted” her comments on crime to suit his purposes.

In District 7, challenger Ray Grabinski said veteran Councilwoman Eunice Sato “always preaches honesty and integrity,” but violated a state campaign law this year by failing to list on a statement of economic interests a $290,000 home she bought last fall.

Question of Residence

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Grabinski also found fault with Sato for allowing her three grown children to list her home as their legal residence, which qualifies them to vote in her race.

In response, Sato said her children, whose ages range from 30 to 34, “are all renting” and have not established permanent residences since leaving home--two of them several years ago--and therefore are entitled to vote in District 7.

She insisted Monday that she was not required to list the home she bought last fall on an election form because it is in Lakewood. But after checking with the city clerk’s office she learned that real estate within two miles of Long Beach must be listed, and she amended her disclosure statement to include the home.

“Why is he making an issue of these things?” said Sato. “It seems to me he’s getting pretty desperate. He’s trying to find something.”

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In contrast with such goings-on, the 9th District race was relatively quiet. Incumbent Warren Harwood confidently blanketed North Long Beach with mailers, including a letter of support from Mayor Ernie Kell, while retired Fire Department Capt. Ralph Howe emphasized the endorsement of former Long Beach Fire Chief Robert Leslie and downplayed his November arrival to the district.

Called a Carpetbagger

“I’ve got statements from my current neighbors establishing my credibility” as a District 9 candidate, said Howe, who has been attacked by all four opponents as a carpetbagger.

Howe said a random sampling of voters indicates that he is “dead even” with Harwood. But Harwood, who plans to spend at least $15,000 of a $25,000 campaign fund during the last eight days of the race, said his surveys show Howe with 30% to 34% of the vote, the other three candidates with a total of perhaps 14% and him with the majority.

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A majority is needed to win the election on Tuesday. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters in each race will move on to a June 3 runoff election.

A runoff would seem almost certain in District 1, where 14 candidates will split the vote. Oropeza, an aide to Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra) and the recipient of a recent $5,900 loan from him, claimed that her surveys show that she will be in a runoff and it identifies her opponent. She said she will face either Braude, Batson or Melton, but wouldn’t say which one.

Batson also said the 28-year-old Oropeza could be the surprise of the race. Melton, a medical office administrator before she went to work for Wilder three years ago, and Braude, an attorney, each predicted runoffs for themselves.

Braude, stepson of Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Harbor City), has raised $30,000 for the primary. Batson said he will spend about $25,000, two-thirds of it his own money, and Melton and Oropeza perhaps $20,000. Wilder, who did not spend more than $14,000 in his two campaigns, said: “This district has never seen a $30,000 race. (Braude’s) name recognition will be extremely high.”

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Sato Confident of Big Win

Despite constant pressure from an aggressive Grabinski, Sato, who has three times coasted to victory in the face of stiff competition, said she is confident of at least a 2-to-1 margin of victory. Grabinski, a delicatessen owner backed by a number of special-interest and community groups, said he will spend about $16,000 in a tight race. Sato spent less than $20,000 total in previous races, but has raised $24,000 this time.

And in the 3rd District, where Hall and Serles are engaged in a repeat of their free-swinging, $100,000 campaign in 1982, the race is now punctuated by the dispute over absentee ballots.

That complicated disagreement was resolved--at least temporarily--to Serles’ satisfaction and to Hall’s dismay on Tuesday, when the city attorney’s office ruled that City Clerk Shelba Powell should handle absentee ballots cast Tuesday as usual.

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Hall had insisted that nearly 2,000 applications for absentee ballots brought since March 10 to the clerk were “tainted” because Serles had violated state guidelines by hand delivering them, instead of having voters mail them directly to the clerk. (About 3,400 absentee ballot applications were received citywide, the clerk said.)

Hall asked the clerk to separately count the absentee ballots that will result from the hand-delivered applications so that the pro-Serles “bias” of those voters could be documented, said lawyer Charles Greenberg, who represented Hall. That would give Hall evidence with which to challenge the election in court, Greenberg said.

Separate Talley Rejected

But the city attorney ruled against the separate tally.

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“There is no substantial basis for the city clerk to alter normal procedures,” said senior Deputy City Atty. Art Honda.

Honda said that officials from the secretary of state’s office told him that it didn’t matter whether the applications were delivered in person or by mail. A spokeswoman for the state office also said there was no legal problem with hand-delivered applications by candidates.

The confusion over such applications results from a law implemented in January. Guidelines to the city clerk from the secretary of state said, in part, that applications for absentee ballots “are to be mailed directly to the election officer conducting the election. . . .”

Deborah Seiler, assistant secretary of state for elections and political reform, said her office never intended to prohibit hand-delivered applications. She allowed, however, that “now that this has been pointed out, I can see the ambiguity” in the guidelines.

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Powell and her elections supervisor, Linda Burgess, interpreted the guidelines to mean that hand-delivered applications would not be allowed. And they told City Council candidates as much when they filed for office in January.

Hall said she did not deliver applications to prospective voters, a popular candidates’ tool in recent years, because of the city clerk’s direction.

Serles, who had been collecting such applications since August, said he stopped taking them from voters in January, when the new law was pointed out to him. But he pressed the issue with the city clerk and the state, and three weeks ago Powell told him he could renew those efforts, Serles said. Hall said she was not notified of the switch.

The city’s Burgess said that the secretary of state’s office changed its explanation of its guidelines between January and March, while the state’s Seiler said there had been no change, just miscommunication because of the ambiguity of the rules.

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“This whole process has been utter chaos,” a relieved Serles said with a sigh.

Hall agreed with that, but said the dispute is not over.

She maintains that Serles, using a self-addressed envelope, has had voters send their absentee-ballot applications to his home, rather than to the clerk’s office--a move that all sides agree would be illegal. Serles said he has not done that since late January, when he learned about the new law.

Process Questioned

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Hall also questioned the entire absentee-ballot process, which she says is “seemingly so loose and without checks and balances” that it invites abuse and fraud.

That process begins when a resident sends to the city clerk an application for an absentee ballot. If the applicant is a registered voter, a ballot is sent to his or her home. The ballot must be returned to the clerk by mail or in person before polls close on election day.

In reviewing the list of voters who have been sent absentee ballots with Serles’ help, Hall said she found 30 examples of voters who received more than one absentee ballot, and some cases in which people have been issued ballots at addresses that are not their homes.

At one house on Neapolitan Way in Naples, six different people, all with different last names, are registered to vote, Hall said. She knows the couple who live at the address, but has never heard of the others, she said.

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Burgess said Hall would have to prove such assertions herself. “I have no way of knowing whether these people live at these addresses,” Burgess said. “All I know is that the registrar of voters has accepted their registration as valid. I don’t have any investigative authority in this matter.”

Burgess also said it is not uncommon for the clerk to send two absentee ballots to the same person, because people forget they have applied for the ballots through candidates and later apply directly themselves. But if two ballots are returned by the voter, only the first will be counted in the election, she said.

All of which left Hall cold. “This all seems a strange way to run an election,” she said.


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