An Undaunted Eckert Says Political Career Isn't Behind Him

Times Staff Writer

Six months after he was rejected by more than 75% of the voters, County Supervisor Paul Eckert says he would like to be known one day as "Mr. North County."

After founding a consulting firm and reentering politics on the state or national level, Eckert says, he plans to retire at about age 70 and return to his hometown of Vista, where he would like to be mayor.

"I've been on the Chamber of Commerce, the Boys' Club, I've been president of the Exchange Club, exalted ruler of the Elks Lodge in Vista, president of the 20-30 Club, president of the Junior Chamber," Eckert said in a recent interview with The Times. "I've just been involved in that community all my life, and I'd just like to be on the City Council and be mayor.

"I'm going to walk down to the city hall, and I'm going to espouse my words of wisdom every day and solve the world's problems, and then go home in the evening and play the piano, or write a book. I want to be the eccentric Mr. North County."

Eckert, whose loss in the June 3 primary election cut short his bid for a third term representing the county's 5th Supervisorial District, spoke of his career--and its end--in a wide-ranging discussion after his final days as an active member of the county Board of Supervisors.

Eckert, 54, said his eight years in county government taught him to appreciate the bureaucracy despite its foibles, to be flexible--and to be wary of the press. His defeat at the polls in June, when he received 24.4% of the vote against six opponents, taught him to tell the voters what they want to hear, he said.

In a day when scandal or allegations of wrongdoing have touched many of his colleagues in public life, Eckert said, he is proud that the press, which he says pursued him doggedly, was able to find nothing that discredited him. He said attempts to tie him into a county telephone contracting scandal and, separately, a prostitution ring--because he was seen bar-hopping with a woman who was accused of running a call girl operation--failed.

"(The Times) took a great deal of time and trouble to try to tie me into the Telink case, to no avail," Eckert said. "It was impossible for you to find even the slightest tie-in. In the deal with the two gals, everybody thought, man, they had a story! They searched and researched and dug and redug and could find nothing--absolutely, unequivocally nothing. They dug into my personal life. I just feel at some time maybe they're going to say: 'We've uncovered all the stones, and there ain't nothing there.'

"I probably have been the most scrutinized elected official in the county, including (Roger) Hedgecock or any of the others. And the only reason I'm not as popular as Bill Kolender (to write about) is they couldn't find nothing. There wasn't nothing there to write about. Paul Eckert did nothing wrong. He did nothing illegal. He did nothing questionable."

Identified throughout his career as a board member sympathetic to developers, Eckert said he was unfairly branded a "pro-growther" in the spring campaign, when the pace of growth in North County was the issue most often debated. Eckert said he naively concluded that voters would place little credence in his reputation on growth issues because the county supervisor, compared to councilmen in the various cities, is responsible for little of the growth that upset the voters.

"People vote on perception," Eckert said. "People don't vote on basis of fact, basis of knowledge, basis of experience. I didn't realize that. I thought they voted on all those good things. But they vote on perception."

If he had realized that the growth issue would play a such a major role in deciding his fate, Eckert said, he would have put together a campaign to play to the voters' desires, even if it meant leading them to believe he would stop cities from approving projects, something that was not within his power to do.

"I could have developed a whole campaign of attack on those people who really are the root of the problems as far as growth in North County is concerned--the city councilmen. I could have started that two years before the campaign. I would have said I would 'develop policies to discourage the cities.' You've got to word it right so after the election you can say, 'Now I'm doing what I said I was going to do . . . '

"If you're going to get elected you have to find out what it is the public perceives necessary and you have to give it to them (in the campaign). Somebody says, well, that's wrong. It might be wrong, but that's what gets you elected. The public says: 'We don't want people to do that.' Then why don't they vote for different reasons? They're the ones who are going to change it."

Eckert said political advertising, like commercial advertising, should be aimed at "the 12-year-old mind," because that is the only part of the brain that is paying any attention.

"When you're running for office, the objective is to get people to vote for you," he said. "If you don't talk to that (child's mind) and to the things they want to listen to, their minds are not going to open, they're not going to hear you and they're not going to vote.

"Once you're elected, you can talk to the intellect. But you can't even begin to approach the intellect until you get elected. That's the Number 1 thing you've got to remember."

Of his accomplishments in office, Eckert said he is most proud of encouraging economic development in North County and bringing increased county services to the region. Eckert said he was also pleased with his contribution to welfare reform and job training programs, two issues of which he knew or cared little when he was elected in 1978 but which he spent more time on than any other single matter.

"I have said that a community will only succeed in relation to the well being of its financial base," said Eckert, who founded a successful moving and storage business before entering politics. "I look at all the growth we've had in commercial and industrial in North County, and I go through all the meetings we had, people coming in and talking with us, unselling and promoting the idea of the North County market. It was an idea whose time had come. Either my timing was very good or I really had something to sell."

Eckert said he learned as a county supervisor that there's nothing wrong with changing a policy without thorough study, as long as you're prepared to change it again if it doesn't work.

"Legislation is passed, approved on a philosophy, an idea," he said. "Many times, legislators will say, 'If it don't work, we'll do something else next year.' If somebody had told me that before I took office, I would say, 'That guy is an idiot.'

"But what I've learned is he's no idiot. What he is is part of this whole society, and that's what makes it tick. That's what makes a democracy work. If it don't work, we'll change in next year.

"What I've learned is that if an elected official is really going to be responsive to the citizens, he's going to be quick to make a change in something once he knows it's not accomplishing what he (intended) to accomplish. If he procrastinates he's being unresponsive."

Eckert said he was often frustrated by the lack of resources available to the county to provide all the health and social services that constituents say are needed in the community. In many ways, he said, he is happy to be relieved of that burden.

"People say this is important, we need this, we need that . . . we need all these things. Need, need, need, need, need. At a time when there proably isn't going to be enough money left to keep the level of service we're providing now . . .

"John MacDonald is going to be shocked at the problems we have. He is just going to be dumbfounded and could very well wonder, 'Why did I get involved in this?' I really feel it's one of the things that I had probably felt the most pressure from. Now that weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and the voters did it for me. It wasn't that I tried to get out of it. I wasn't saying, 'Hey, I'm gettin' the hell out of here while the gettin's good.' "

Now that he is out, though, Eckert said he intends to begin what he says will be a communications consulting firm. He said the company will give advice on a variety of issues involving private industry's attempts to solve problems, whether within their companies or with government.

"I see myself being able someday to have people contact me and say 'We're attempting to do this or do that and we need to know what's necessary to accomplish that,' " he said.

At the same time, Eckert said, he plans to reenter politics, running either for the state Legislature or Congress. His comeback could come as soon as two years or as late as 10 years from now. The only certainty, Eckert said, is that his days with the county government are over forever.

"I'm not going back to the county," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World