Southeast Shake-Up by Voters : 12 Incumbents Fall in 9 Council Elections

Times Staff Writer

On nine political battlefields across the Southeast, a dozen city council incumbents fell to defeat Tuesday after fighting reelection campaigns often heightened by big spending or bitter feelings.

From larger cities such as Norwalk and Cerritos to smaller ones such as Commerce and Cudahy, voters turned out in mostly moderate numbers to shake up the establishment or, as in Bellflower, nearly replace it.

Successful candidates were frequently those who came armed with single issues: In Cudahy, an anti-gambling slate found favor with the voters, while in Bell it was three opponents of a proposed hazardous-waste incineration plant.

Political firsts were also achieved in two of the largest cities where races were particularly close and emotional.

Norwalk

In one of the largest cities, Grace Musquiz Napolitano made Norwalk history by squeaking out a 28-vote win over incumbent Councilman Lou Banas, who said Wednesday he would not ask for a recount.

Not since 1958 had an incumbent council member in Norwalk lost a bid for reelection.

Napolitano polled 2,384 votes to Banas' 2,356 to become the first Latino woman to be elected to the council. The top vote-getter in the nine-candidate race was Mayor Marcial Rodriguez, who captured a second term, while Cecil N. Green finished second to win a fourth term. All three were elected to four-year terms.

Among the unsuccessful candidates was former City Administrator William H. Kraus, who, in a political comeback attempt, had 2,148 votes to finish fifth. Kraus was forced to resign in 1983 by the current council.

Kraus resigned after a city report questioned his personal business dealings, which it said were marked by a number of loan defaults and contacts with convicted criminals. No charges were brought in the matter.

The race was the costliest and perhaps the most bitter in the city's history. While no candidate had ever raised more than $9,000 in any previous election, Green raised $38,023 and Rodriguez $30,632 to hang on to jobs that pay $622 a month, according to the most recent campaign finance statements filed late last month.

In her campaign, Napolitano raised $22,591, of which $15,420 was her own money. Napolitano's biggest issue was council spending on travel and meetings, which she repeatedly attacked as extravagant and wasteful. The council spent $87,019 on travel and meeting expenses in the 1984-85 fiscal year, including one conference at Palm Springs that cost the city $32,596.

For Napolitano, the victory was doubly sweet because it brought her a measure of political revenge. She had served on the city's International Friendship Commission for 12 years before being removed from that panel in 1984 by the present council.

Napolitano was removed from the friendship commission after council members accused her of interfering in the politics of Hermosillo, Mexico, Norwalk's sister city. But Napolitano contends that her ouster came because she was planning to run for the council.

"It is such a beautiful high," Napolitano said Tuesday night during her victory celebration at a hotel. "We proved that it can be done."

The race in Norwalk was unusual because for the first time in the city's history, two candidates, Napolitano and Green, hired political consultants to run their campaigns. Napolitano was the first to hire a campaign manager, Randy Economy, who formerly was the city's public information officer. Economy resigned in 1984 after his job was reclassified by the current council.

"I'm absolutely elated," Economy said in an interview. "We put a lot of shoe leather into (the campaign)."

In an interview, Napolitano said she would push to limit the council's travel spending to $25,000 a year and eliminate the policy that permits spouses to accompany officials on trips at city expense.

Banas, who was first elected to the council in 1982 and was to be appointed mayor next week, said he was disappointed by the loss.

"It's somewhat ironic that I should lose to a candidate who made an issue out of something that I'm the least offender on," he said, referring to the travel expense issue. Figures released by city officials last year showed that of the three council members seeking reelection, Rodriguez and Green had spent more than double the travel expenses turned in by Banas.

Banas, however, was gracious in defeat, saying Napolitano had run a strong campaign with a lot of mailers.

Cerritos

Voters in Cerritos reelected council members Diana S. Needham and Barry A. Rabbitt, but turned out two-term Councilman Alex J. Beanum in one of the heaviest turnouts in city's 30-year history.

Challenger Ann B. Joynt, a former planning commissioner and one-time campaign manager for Needham, prevented a sweep by the incumbents, winning a seat on the council in her first try as 25% of the voters went to the polls.

Needham was the top vote-getter in the crowded field of 15 candidates, followed by Joynt and Rabbitt, who edged Beanum by just 167 votes to win an unprecedented fifth term. Needham, an urban planner, was elected to a third term.

Beanum blamed his defeat, in part, on his inability to counter what he called "false accusations" made about him by other candidates in the campaign's final days. A paraplegic as a result of a 1980 traffic accident, Beanum was involved in a second accident two years ago that led to a suit against him and the city. The two suits, which are still pending, allege that Beanum was driving under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident in January, 1984, in La Palma.

Although no drunk driving charges were ever filed, Beanum said late Tuesday night that some candidates talked up the accident as they went door to door, "trying to undermine my character" and paint him as "reckless and irresponsible." Because he is confined to a wheelchair, Beanum said, he was unable to personally reach large number of voters in the city of 55,000 so he raised a record $24,100 to produce and mail glossy flyers listing his accomplishments.

"We chose not to wage a rebuttal campaign. . . ." said Beanum, a civil engineer. "My accident was a personal thing, it had nothing to do with my council performance."

Despite his finish, Beanum was given a standing ovation in the crowded council chambers when final results were announced there Tuesday night.

To no one's surprise, Needham, the mayor, swamped her opposition. With an election team of nearly 200 volunteers and the second biggest campaign bankroll, she led the returns all the way. "We put on a terrific campaign," Needham said. "I'm awfully lucky."

Her former political ally, Joynt, also ran a skillful campaign, tapping her teaching roots to build a wide base of support. Now an administrator in the Orange County office of education, Joynt taught for nine years in the ABC Unified School District, where her husband, Don, is still an instructor at Cerritos High School.

"Between the two of us, we have taught more than 3,000 students in this city, and many of their parents were behind me," said Joynt, who promised throughout the campaign to improve city services, streets and ties with residents, all of which she said have suffered at the expense of the Cerritos' rapid development in the past decade.

Some had questioned Rabbitt's wisdom in trying for fifth term, and in fact his decision to run again has prompted a movement to limit the number of consecutive terms a council member can serve. But the dean of the council said his reelection is "proof positive" that experience and enthusiasm are always rewarded at the ballot box.

"I'm just as excited as the day I was first elected 16 years ago," said Rabbitt, first elected to the council in 1970. ". . . I genuinely love this job."

Challenger Ravinder Mehta, a deputy district attorney in Orange County, said he was not disappointed by his sixth-place finish, despite raising nearly $15,000, by far the most among the 12 challengers. He said there is a "strong possibility" that he will run for council again, adding, "This was my first try at office, and considering I was not well known I'm very happy at the results."

Bellflower

Mayor James Earle Christo and Councilman Ray O'Neal were both defeated while Councilman John Ansdell was returned to office in Bellflower. All three had been elected in 1982 on an anti-redevelopment slate.

This time around, Christo and Ansdell dumped O'Neal in favor of a third candidate, LaVerne Smith. Smith finished seventh in a field of nine candidates.

Christo said they supported a third candidate because O'Neal, at the same time he was a council candidate, had announced he was running for the state Assembly seat vacated by Speaker Pro Tem Frank Vicencia (D-Bellflower). The primary for the legislative seat will be June 3, with the general election in November.

The two defeated councilmen were replaced by William Pendleton and Ken Cleveland. Pendleton, president of the Bellflower High School Boosters Club, was the top vote-getter. Cleveland, a former councilman who served for eight years before being defeated in 1978, finished second.

Commerce

In Commerce, incumbent Lawrence Maese was soundly defeated, as former City Clerk Ruth R. Aldaco was elected, finishing second only to her political adversary, Mayor James B. Dimas Sr.

Aldaco had sharply criticized Dimas and other councilmen for voting to keep a retired city official on the payroll for the next two years as a $35,000 part-time employee. In turn, Dimas accused her of mudslinging.

"I can hold my head high and say I ran a straight campaign," Dimas said. "I have never said anything about anyone else and I got elected on my own merits."

The question now is whether the conflicts between Aldaco and Dimas will merely shift from the campaign trail to the council chambers.

"I just spoke with her," Dimas said, minutes after the winners were declared by city election officials Tuesday night. "I said, 'Ruth, you're the new councilwoman . . . If you're going to come in here and work for the benefit of the community we can work together. But if you're going to try and feather your own nest, we're going to have problems."'

Aldaco sounded a conciliatory note, saying that the council now "has to work together and leave personalities out."

Paramount

Mayor Charles R. Weldon, despite being strongly opposed for supporting a tax on the swap meet in Paramount, won his third four-year term on the council. Weldon called his win "a great victory for the people."

Modern Development Co., which owns and operates the swap meet, waged a bitter fight to unseat the mayor for his vote last June to tax the venture and its vendors. The council required that vendors pay $1 per day and that Modern Development pay a business license fee of $1 per day for each vendor.

Modern Development supported several of the losing candidates. A $10,425 loan was made to challenger Rich DeBie through Citizens for a Better Paramount.

"With all of their (Modern Development's) smears and money, they got what they deserved, which was nothing," said Weldon, an attorney.

"We worked very hard. Last night was not a very pleasant evening for us. But the voters made their choice," said Vaughan Herrick, general manager of Modern Development Co.

At the same time, two political newcomers won council seats. Both Manuel Guillen and Henry Harkema supported the tax.

Defeated Councilman John A. Mies, who was seeking his fifth term, opposed the tax. Councilman Case W. Boogaard decided not to run after eight years in office.

Cudahy

A slate of three anti-gambling candidates churned to victory in Cudahy, ousting two council incumbents there.

Tom Thurman and Bill Colon, two first-time candidates, joined forces with one-term Councilman Joseph Graffio to defeat incumbents Lynwood Evans and Joseph Graffio. The three had campaigned together on a platform of strictly opposing gambling in Cudahy, where a casino recently set up shop.

Bell

Three Bell candidates who lobbied against a proposed hazardous-waste incineration plant in the adjacent city of Vernon were swept into office despite charges that they were using scare tactics.

Candidate Rolf Janssen received the most votes in his first bid for the city council. Janssen, George G. Mirabal and incumbent Jay B. Price ran on a ticket called Citizens for a Better Bell.

The three-candidate slate raised the issue over the incineration plant in the last two weeks before the balloting. They launched a petition drive to pressure the South Coast Air Quality Management District to hold public hearings and to require an environmental impact report for the plant, which would burn certain types of solvents, as well as refinery and oil products. The plant was proposed last fall.

Longtime Councilmen George Simmons and Clarence Knechtel chose not to run for reelection this year.

Hawaiian Gardens

In Hawaiian Gardens, longtime incumbents Lupe Cabrera and Jack Myers were defeated by two challengers in another bitterly fought campaign. Donald Schultze and Kathy Navejas said their pledge to provide more police protection was the key to their victory.

For Schultze and Navejas, the outcome was sweet revenge. In 1984, they were defeated by two candidates supported by Myers and Cabrera. This time, Schultze and Navejas won by walking the city to meet voters and using a last-minute mailer detailing a lengthy district attorney probe of a multimillion-dollar bingo operation supported by their opponents.

La Mirada

While incumbent councilmen Wayne Rew and Lou Piltz were easily reelected in La Mirada, challenger Art Leslie edged one-term council member Ken Jones for the third seat. Leslie, a city planning commissioner who waged a low-key, relatively inexpensive campaign, bested Jones for the third slot by 213 votes.

Signal Hill

In this tiny city, newcomer Sara Dodds was the top vote-getter, joining incumbent Councilman Gerard Geodhart on the City Council. Dodds displaced incumbent Louis Dare, who had served one term.

Pico Rivera

All three incumbents won by narrow margins in Pico Rivera, but not without a fight from challenger Richard Mercado. With all 23 precincts reporting, Mercado appeared to have edged incumbent Gil De La Rosa by a mere 27 votes. But after the addition of the absentee ballots, De La Rosa was declared the winner by the same margin. The 54-vote shift gave De La Rosa 22.2% of the vote, and Mercado 21.9%. Returning to the council are John Chavez, who captured 29.4% of the vote, and Al Natividad, who managed a 26.4% share of the vote.

Santa Fe Springs

A close contest in Santa Fe Springs sparked a call for a recount. Two-time candidate Ruben Elizalde said he hopes a recount will reverse his two-vote loss to candidate Al Fuentes.

Elizalde, a math teacher who lost election bids in 1982 and 1984, said he is fairly confident that he will "probably win" the election after a recount. Fuentes, a city planning commissioner, also ran for a city council seat in the 1982.

Times staff writers Eric Bailey, Steven R. Churm, Ralph Cipriano, Lee Harris, Paul McLeod and Carmen Valencia, and desk assistant Kitty O'Steen contributed to this story.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday April 17, 1986 Home Edition Long Beach Part 9 Page 4 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction LaVerne Smith, a City Council candidate in Bellflower, finished fifth in the April 8 election. A story in the April 10 Southeast / Long Beach sections incorrectly reported her finish in the race. A chart in the same editions correctly listed her position. Only the top three vote-getters won election, however.
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