Norwalk Politics Dealt a Swift Kick : Upset Win by Napolitano Augurs Change, Confrontation

Times Staff Writer

Grace Musquiz Napolitano's upset victory has sent a shock wave through the city's political establishment.

Because of Napolitano's election to the City Council, Norwalk will have a new mayor Tuesday, and in the coming months the city also may have a new city administrator.

Napolitano's victory also ensures a confrontation with other council members in the next few weeks over what she has characterized as lavish city spending at out-of-town seminars and conferences.

But it is in the long run where the Napolitano campaign may have the most profound effect.

As the first challenger in 28 years to unseat an elected incumbent, Napolitano may have transformed city elections by introducing professional political campaigns, council members said.

The Napolitano campaign "changes the pattern of Norwalk elections," Councilman Lou Banas said Wednesday. Banas, who lost to Napolitano by 28 votes, said her campaign proved that "challengers who are willing to spend the money and find a council's Achilles' heel can pound away on it and possibly succeed."

'A New Trend'

"I think that will be a new trend," agreed Peg Nelson, a council member since 1976. "Now that it can be shown that an incumbent can be unseated, lots of hopefuls will come forward" and conduct professional and expensive campaigns such as Napolitano's.

Council challengers in past elections usually gave polite speeches about such non-controversial topics in Norwalk as redevelopment and opposition to pornography. They usually spent a few thousand dollars on their volunteer-run campaigns and then the incumbents hosted victory parties.

Napolitano changed all that 10 months before the election by paying a professional, Randy Economy, $11,000 to run her campaign, and by investing $15,420 of her own money.

The campaign propelled candidates' campaign contributions to record heights. While no city politician had ever raised more than $9,000, Napolitano raised $22,591, Councilman Cecil N. Green, $38,023 and Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez, $30,632, according to the latest campaign finance reports, which were filed last month. Green and Rodriguez were reelected.

The Napolitano campaign hammered away at a negative issue--council travel expenses. In the 1984-85 fiscal year, the council spent $87,109 on travel and meeting expenses, an amount Napolitano repeatedly said was extravagant and wasteful.

The last mailer of the Napolitano campaign featured photos of the three incumbents smiling below the caption, "Why are these men so HAPPY?" The inside of the mailer says, "Because they traveled around the world with our tax dollars."

'One-Shot Deal'

The city's top vote-getter, Rodriguez, however, predicted that the Napolitano campaign would be a "one-shot deal."

"Norwalk does not have issues to speak of," Rodriguez said, adding that the large number of votes he and fellow incumbent Green garnered in last week's election was a "vote of confidence from the people that showed that they believed their officials are doing a good job." Rodriguez had 3,000 and Green had 2,980.

Rodriguez and Napolitano appear to be on a collision course over the travel issue, with council members now planning a trip to Palm Springs next month for an annual conference held by the California Contract Cities Assn. Last year, council members and city officials took their spouses to the conference and ran up a bill totaling $32,596.

During the campaign, Napolitano repeatedly referred to the Palm Springs trip as an example of wasteful spending, and said that the city should not have paid for expenses run up by officials' spouses. Rodriguez, however, said his reelection proved that residents are not upset by the travel issue, and that the city should continue to pay for spouses' expenses.

Banas also discounted the travel issue in his upset loss. Instead, Banas said that hundreds of residents who usually vote in favor of the incumbents did not vote for him this time because of resentment over Banas' role in pushing for the resignation of popular city administrator William H. Kraus in 1983.

Loan Defaults

Banas sought the investigation of allegations against Kraus that were raised by activist Ed White. Kraus resigned in 1983 after a report done for the city raised questions about his personal business dealings, including a number of loans Kraus had defaulted on and his business dealings with convicted criminals. No charges, however, were ever brought against Kraus.

"My conscience is totally clear that I've done the right thing," Banas said of the investigation of Kraus. Reflecting on his defeat, Banas said: "There's a reason for everything. Maybe the reason I was put on the council was to put an end to the Kraus era."

Kraus also was a candidate for council in last week's election, finishing fifth. Throughout the campaign he had targeted Banas, saying he was running to provide an alternative to Banas' alleged "arrogance." In an interview, Kraus agreed that he may have been the reason why Banas lost, and said he was pleased with the election results.

"I'm glad I had the opportunity to retire Mr. Banas from the City Council," Kraus said.

(Kraus is under federal indictment in San Diego for 23 counts of mail fraud as part of what a federal prosecutor said was a sophisticated, eight-member fraud ring that allegedly conspired to bilk a dozen investors out of more than $1.4 million. Kraus maintains that he is innocent. The case is set for trial in August.)

Retirement Discussed

As the city's mayor pro tem, Banas was scheduled to be appointed mayor Tuesday at the council's upcoming annual reorganization meeting. But after he finished fourth last week by 28 votes with 2,356, Banas Wednesday was talking about retiring from political life.

With Banas out of the picture, one veteran council member, Nelson, said Thursday that she expected that Councilman Bob White would probably be chosen as mayor. The choice of White as mayor for a record fifth time would heighten the council veteran's visibility in a year when he is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 63rd Assembly District against incumbent Wayne Grisham, a Norwalk Republican.

Napolitano said White already has lobbied her campaign chairman, Chuck Fuentes, for Napolitano's support for mayor. She said that while she expects that White will be chosen mayor, she has not made up her mind yet on whether to support him.

Rodriguez said he did not know who would be chosen mayor. Green could not be reached for comment.

Split Over Administrator

The election of Napolitano also will overturn an existing 3-2 council split that favored retaining City Administrator Raymond L. Gibbs. Banas had resisted a past attempt to replace Gibbs, but newcomer Napolitano said in an interview Wednesday that she would vote against Gibbs, whom she labeled a "weak administrator."

Gibbs declined comment.

Last month, Green, supported by White, attempted to oust Gibbs two days after Green and Gibbs had engaged in a heated argument at city hall. During the argument, Gibbs and Green stood toe-to-toe and shouted obscenities at each other that were heard outside Gibbs' city hall office, City Hall sources said. The other council members, Rodriguez, Banas and Nelson, refused to fire Gibbs, and the council eventually agreed to evaluate Gibbs' status after the election.

If the council votes to fire Gibbs during the next three months, however, a unanimous vote would be required, according to a city ordinance. Gibbs, who is paid $63,120 a year, also has a contract with the city for an undetermined period that calls for four months' severance pay, or $20,829, if Gibbs is fired.

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