Kell Fits Well in Mold of Mayor : L.B. Leader a Unifying Force on Fractious Council

Times Staff Writer

The message crackled from the telephone answering machine at Ernie Kell's home Monday evening. "Tom Clark tells me he has five votes. Where did you go wrong?"

Kell, though cautious and pragmatic, allowed himself a little smile.

That an old friend, Ken Sobieski, would say such a thing, even in jest, reaffirmed what Kell already knew: He had the five City Council votes necessary for a second two-year term as the titular head of the nation's 37th largest city.

And, on Tuesday, Kell was reappointed on a 7-1 vote, gaining the support of a reconstituted council that might have favored 20-year Councilman Thomas Clark, a three-time mayor who wanted a fourth term.

There was no drama this time, not like 1984, when the council split 4-4 between incumbent Clark and challenger Kell, while former Councilman Marc Wilder waited until the last minute to back Kell.

Kell retained the support this week of Councilmen Wallace Edgerton, Warren Harwood and Edd Tuttle, the core of his 1984 coalition. And, with Wilder retired, he got his swing vote from Ray Grabinski, who on June 3 upset veteran Councilwoman Eunice Sato, a Clark supporter two years ago.

Clark also voted for Kell. So did Wilder's successor, Evan Anderson Braude, although Kell said he had not thought it necessary to solicit Braude's vote. Only Councilwoman Jan Hall, whom Kell opposed in her recent bitter race with dentist Jim Serles, voted against the mayor.

Reserved and Likeable

Kell, 58, a reserved and likeable man, a self-made millionaire of modest beginnings, said he was honored by the reappointment. "It's the highest position I have ever held," he said.

He praised his supporters, especially Edgerton, who Kell said "would be Mayor Edgerton today had he chose to run for the office." As part of a gentleman's agreement struck in 1984, Kell vowed to support Edgerton this year, but Edgerton begged off months ago, saying he did not have enough time to earn a living and also be mayor.

Kell also lauded Tuttle, who, staging a comeback from alcoholism and an ugly public confrontation with black youths that led to his 1985 council censure, was chosen vice mayor on a 5-3 vote, with Clark, Hall and Braude dissenting.

Kell's reappointment climaxed what supporters said was a strikingly successful first term. They said that by working full time in a part-time position, by orchestrating the Year 2000 long-range planning process, and by holding together a council coalition that frequently pulls in different directions, he proved he could be a leader on citywide issues.

It was that leadership quality that some of the city's most well-known citizens--now Kell backers--had doubted in 1984, even though Kell had served as councilman from the suburban 5th District for nine years.

The vote was also a personal victory for Kell, who as a young man struggled to overcome a severe stutter and who remains today uncomfortable when making a speech. A shy country boy as a child in North Dakota, a merchant seaman in Saudi Arabia at 17 and still a hired hand at 27, he parlayed a night-school engineering education into successful drafting and real estate development companies. By age 43, he could retire.

Now, as mayor, Kell said he probably will be the favorite if the city decides to elect a full-time mayor in 1988. The mayor now makes $13,800. A proposal that calls for a full-time, $68,500-a-year mayor, elected citywide, is before the council, which must approve it by Aug. 8 if it is to make the November ballot.

For that inside track, Kell must thank Grabinski, whom the mayor did not openly support in the June 3 election. Aware of Sato's popularity with 7th District voters (she had not been seriously challenged since 1975), Kell had contributed $175 to her campaign in 1985. He said, however, that he was privately rooting for Grabinski, and on election night he was at the victory celebration. Grabinski almost immediately voiced his support for Kell.

"I think something that a lot of people overlooked is that Ernie and I, without really trying, have had the same views on issues for a long time and that has brought us together," Grabinski said this week.

Grabinski and Kell also have similar political backgrounds as community activists who have challenged the conservative Long Beach establishment.

Kell, an early member of the liberal Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, first won his council seat in 1975 while advocating a change in the City Charter to elect council members by district instead of citywide. He spent about $18,000 of his own money in successfully promoting that change in 1976 and another $15,000 in 1980, when the change was again challenged by the Chamber of Commerce and others.

Likewise, Grabinski emerged as a spokesman for a California Heights community group beginning in 1980. He was supported by LBACI and 19 other community, labor and special-interest groups in defeating Sato.

Doesn't Fault Kell

Grabinski said he does not fault Kell for staying out of his race. "I understand that if you pick the wrong person, you still have to work with that person for the next four years," Grabinski said.

In that sense, Kell chose the wrong person in opposing Hall, who for the second time narrowly defeated Serles. Hall predicted at the meeting Tuesday that council members would put the elections behind them and "move forward and work together." Her first vote of her new term, however, was to deny Kell the mayoralty.

"The presiding officer of the City Council takes on a role (as representative of the) council, and it was very inappropriate for him to take a role in my campaign or any other campaign outside of his district," she said later.

Those supporting Kell say they see him as a trustworthy arbiter who works well with them, although they often disagree.

"You can turn your back on Ernie Kell and he won't change his position, and that's vital in a shark tank like (this)," Edgerton said.

And Tuttle said: "I think Ernie, more than anyone else on the council, has worked to develop a team element down here. He works behind the scenes to ameliorate problems."

But Hall said she has never seen Kell "as an initiator of coalitions built on issues." And Clark said there has been much council infighting since 1984.

Year 2000 Planning

Clark faulted Kell, too, for allegedly taking too much credit for the Year 2000 strategic planning, which Clark, in fact, started in 1984 during his last term as mayor.

"I have no reason not to want to work with Ernie Kell. I've always been a team player," Clark said. "But I'm going to have my own opinions and I want him to respect that. And when there is credit due, I think it should be shared with other members of the council."

Clark and Kell have engaged in sharp exchanges several times in recent months, including one memorable meeting when Clark called Kell a "horse's ass" in a whispered aside, and Kell returned the compliment into his open microphone.

Clark also accused Kell of supporting Serles only to strengthen his own power base, not because he differs philosophically with Hall. Clark said he supported district elections initially because they would reduce costs and make it easier for more candidates to run, but has had second thoughts recently since district elections have allowed a Kell "machine" to develop at City Hall.

Kell insists that Clark's comments are "sour grapes" from a councilman who for two elections has had trouble getting reelected. As for Hall, Kell said: "I thought Jim Serles was the more qualified candidate. I felt he would bring more harmony to the council." Hall, in turn, said she has never had trouble working with her colleagues.

'Old Wounds'

Kell also noted that Clark opposed a council colleague, Bert Bond, in 1975, "so it's interesting when he finds it negative that I do the same thing." But Kell said he wasn't interested in discussing "old wounds."

"I think you'll find great things happening with this new council," he said.

It is that kind of attitude, and a penchant for hard work, that some supporters say they have noticed most at City Hall since Kell became mayor.

Former Harbor Commissioner Richard Wilson, a longtime Republican fund-raiser locally, said that two years ago he doubted whether Kell "would really work at being mayor. I questioned whether he really wanted to be the leader of the council." Wilson said that Kell has led so well that he has begun to think that district council elections might not be so bad after all. "It's working," he said. "We have a mayor and City Council that's moving forward now."

Attorney James Zarifes, a school board member since 1971, said he sees the same thing in Kell. "He's a person who brings diverse interests together for the good of the community. I have seen him deal with people who he disagrees with, but he has always been gracious and positive--a fence-mender."

Cessation of Name-Calling

When the school district sued the city last year to try to force developers to pay fees for new schools, Kell's leadership led to cessation of name-calling and a withdrawal of the suit, Zarifes said. "It couldn't have been done without him," Zarifes said.

Several others said Kell had most clearly shown his ability to lead in the way he involved more than 150 people, a cross section of the community, in the city's long-range planning process.

Planning Commission Chairman Richard Gaylord, a friend of Kell's, said members of seven Year 2000 task forces have been kept informed by Kell as the council has implemented the first of their recommendations into its 1986-87 budget. "His follow-through on this has been really impressive," Gaylord said.

Kell also seems to have grown as mayor in another way, said banker James Gray, a harbor commissioner.

"When he first got on the council and started going out in public, he was terribly uncomfortable. And while it's still not his favorite thing to do," Gray said, "he's now exuding some of his personal warmth."

For his part, Kell said he is sometimes surprised by his success as a public official. He took about 60% of the vote in his first council race, more than 70% in the next, nearly 80% in winning a third term in 1982, and this year became the first council member since the city adopted its current form of government in 1921 to be returned to office without opposition.

It is a success at least partly attributable, Kell said, to the support of his wife, Jackie, a part-time public schoolteacher who also has a law degree.

Wife Helps Write Speeches

His wife helps write the speeches that Kell practices in front of their bathroom mirror, he said. "She's my biggest confidant" and political adviser, he said.

"It's pretty much a down-home operation," Jackie Kell said. She smiled as she recalled how, when Kell first ran for council in 1975, downtown power brokers found it hard to take him seriously.

"He had an old Thunderbird and his wife was teaching school and the elitists in town couldn't see how he could get it together," she said.

Despite Kell's assets--he owns a small shopping center in Fountain Valley and three industrial buildings in Orange County--his life style is hardly ostentatious. He and his wife and his 82-year-old mother, Katherine, live in a single-story tract home in El Dorado Park Estates, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in easternmost Long Beach.

Only Kell's frequent piloting of small planes and his past participation in off-road races like the Baja 500 indicate the leisure time and money he has had for years.

"I like to keep a little money back in case I get a cold," he said.

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