When Los Angeles City Councilwoman Pat Russell strode into her suite at the Amfac hotel in Westchester on election night, the mood was noticeably somber. "It looks like a funeral in here," Russell told her circle of closest supporters.
The funereal mood came with the realization that Russell would not be walking away as a winner Tuesday. The veteran 6th District councilwoman had been forced into a June 2 runoff with Ruth Galanter, one of five opponents who had criticized Russell for supporting major commercial development.
Russell had tried to defuse the development issue by portraying herself as an advocate of strict controls on growth. In the aftermath of balloting that gave her only 42% of the vote, far less than the 50% plus one vote that she needed to avoid a runoff, Russell expressed no regrets. But she said that she expects to campaign much more aggressively in the weeks ahead.
"We really have an opportunity now--one-on-one--to tell it like it is," Russell said. "Being one-on-one will allow us to carry the battle."
The grim mood at Russell headquarters was in sharp contrast to the high spirits at Galanter's Westchester campaign office. The 70 supporters who crowded into the room that had served as Galanter's base cheered when she started gaining on Russell.
The final unofficial election tally gave Galanter 29% to Russell's 42%. The remainder of the vote in the district that includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista and Crenshaw was divided among Patrick McCartney (17%), Rimmon C. Fay (5%), Virginia Taylor Hughes (5%) and Salvatore Grammatico (2%).
Galanter's showing was surprisingly strong for a candidate who campaigned with virtually no staff and a very low budget. Galanter told supporters Tuesday that voters had responded to her anti-growth message.
"There's a lot of concern that Russell was spending a lot of time with developers and putting development in the wrong places," said Galanter, 45, an urban planning consultant from Venice. "The people have spoken."
In fact, very few of the people spoke. Voter turnout in the 6th District was less than 23%, according to the city clerk's office. Marcela Howell, Galanter's campaign manager, said a small voter turnout usually helps a challenger.
Galanter may receive further help in the weeks ahead from the four candidates who were eliminated Tuesday. McCartney, a Venice activist who placed third, pledged to campaign for Galanter. "I think it's essential for everyone in the district who wants to see reform and a more responsive council to support Ruth Galanter," he said. "I will try to influence as many people as I can to support her."
The other challengers could not be reached Wednesday. But each of them had sounded a similar theme during the race, branding Russell as pro-development and anti-neighborhood in a series of political forums leading up to the election.
Opposed Proposition U
They said her opposition to Proposition U, a slow-growth initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters, proved that she was out of touch. The challengers also criticized Russell for supporting four major commercial developments around Westchester--the Howard Hughes Center, Playa Vista, Continental City and the north side expansion of Los Angeles International Airport.
Russell argued that she had actually limited the size and scope of proposed building projects by forcing developers to adhere to strict guidelines. But she conceded that her five opponents had "battered" her with the issue and said she would not allow Galanter to set the same "negative" tone for the runoff.
"I'm still proud of my record," Russell told her supporters at the Amfac. "But the record really was bashed, and on false premises. We have not had development march into the 6th District. We have gotten it under control. And that is the story that has not gotten across to the people of our community."
Russell, 63, later answered reporters' questions as she stood outside the ballroom clutching a bouquet of pink roses. The councilwoman, who has represented the 6th District since 1969 and twice has been elected council president, sounded confident about her political future. She did not disclose her exact plans but pledged to "aggressively" campaign against Galanter. Russell likened her reelection bid to a "great battle."
In the beginning, the 6th District race looked more like a minor skirmish. Galanter and the other four challengers were widely regarded as political lightweights because of their lack of experience and financial support. Russell, by comparison, was seen as a powerful incumbent with a sizable amount of campaign contributions and the strong backing of Mayor Tom Bradley.
The challengers, however, struck a nerve with voters and put Russell on the defensive by hammering away at the councilwoman's record on growth, calling her a friend of developers rather than constituents. Galanter, a former chairwoman of the California Regional Coastal Commission, said the district would be choked by traffic and congestion if Russell remained in office.
Russell battled back with a vigorous campaign that had her walking precincts, attending small community gatherings, sending out targeted mailings and facing off against her opponents at a series of heated political forums. But several people who followed the race said that Russell never succeeded in counteracting the harsh criticisms that were leveled against her. She has pledged to do better in the runoff.
Galanter, meanwhile, will try to consolidate the anti-Russell vote and convince potential contributors that she has a good chance of defeating Russell.