New Mayor Pushes Pomona Toward the Fast Lane

Times Staff Writer

Even at the end of a typically manic 18-hour day as the city's first woman mayor, Donna Smith shuns peace and quiet.

Instead of winding down with some soothing music in her southeast Pomona home, Smith turns on a police scanner and lulls herself asleep to the hiss and crackle of late-night emergency dispatches.

"I think that's why I wake up in the morning sometimes with a headache," said the former councilwoman. "But it makes me aware of what's happening. I don't have to wait to read about it in the paper the next day."

It is that kind of zeal that both supporters and critics have credited with helping to propel the 32-year-old Little League mother into the mayor's office in April, defeating both incumbent G. Stanton Selby and former Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant.

Civic Leaders Rattled

It is also that kind of compulsive drive that has occasionally rattled the city's civic and business leaders, some of whom branded her "opportunistic" and "politically naive" for jumping into the mayor's race before they believed her time had come.

Having entered the race midway through her first four-year council term, Smith was urged by several of those leaders to withdraw. Complete her term, they said, gain extra seasoning, and she would likely be favored for the mayor's post in 1989.

But not only did she emerge this year as the first woman to hold that office in Pomona's 99-year history, the young and gregarious challenger disrupted the status quo and rocked a boat that since 1981 had been captained by the older and more reserved Selby.

"There were feelings that she didn't have enough seasoning . . . that she's really pushing it and upsetting the apple cart," said Michael R. Lowe, a Pomona Chamber of Commerce board member who was defeated in his own bid for the City Council this year. "I don't particularly like the timing, but we're still keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that things work out."

For Smith--a businesswoman, wife and mother whose community involvement ranges from the PTA to the Hispanic Youth Task Force to the Pomona Women of the Moose--the suggestion to withdraw only increased her determination to win.

"I probably wouldn't have been so aggressive if I wasn't constantly asked to back out," she said. "I know I shook people up. But I didn't get involved for a game. I got involved for a purpose.

"I want to see Pomona grow, progress, improve, provide the services, provide the shopping, become a safer city," Smith added. "And I want to see Pomona involve the people. It's not so much that I have my own agenda. But I think I see opportunities and I think at times our council was only reacting instead of being out there initiating."

Born in Pennsylvania, she was the second of 10 children in a poor, suburban Philadelphia family. In search of a better life, her truck-driver father loaded up their possessions in a small trailer in 1960 and brought the family to California.

Almost immediately after arriving in Walnut, he deserted them, leaving her to grow up watching her mother go door-to-door in search of laundry and house-cleaning jobs.

By the time she was 13, the family had moved to Pomona and Donna had found a part-time job after school serving hot dogs at a Der Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurant. Although she made only $1.35 an hour, she said her mother forced her to give up $40 a month from her salary to live at home.

"I think it instilled a lot of values and morals in me," she said. "My mother didn't let us run the streets. We couldn't; we were too busy taking care of each other. . . . I learned that my mother depended on me, that my brothers and sisters depended on me, and I feel now that the public is depending on me."

After graduating from Garey High School, Donna married her teen-age sweetheart, Robert Smith, with whom she has had three boys, now 11, 14 and 15.

In 1976, Robert Smith bought the automotive electrical shop where he had worked since high school, and the young couple set out to make a living repairing generators, alternators and starters.

No 'Dumb Broad'

Although her duties have been limited primarily to bookkeeping, Smith said she did not hesitate to get her hands dirty in an effort to learn the trade. "If anything ever happened to my husband," she explained, "I wouldn't want someone to come in and say, 'Oh, that dumb broad, she couldn't know what's going on.' "

With her sons getting to be of baseball age, Smith volunteered for the Pomona American Little League in 1979, eventually serving as president of the association. Based on that exposure, then-Councilman Bryant appointed her in 1984 to serve on the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, thus launching her career in government.

"Donna Smith started telling me how good she was, and I, like an ass, believed her," said Bryant, who Smith defeated in a bitterly fought runoff election in April after the two emerged as top vote-getters in a March primary race with Selby.

A year after serving as parks commissioner, Smith launched a campaign for the City Council, emerging as the top vote-getter of four candidates in the primary election and then earning nearly 58% of the vote against urban planner and minority advocate Tomas Ursua in an April, 1985, runoff.

Once on the council, Smith tackled the role aggressively, raising questions, often dissenting from the majority and grappling with problems that other council members believed were best left for staff members to address.

That approach became most visible and controversial during budget sessions last year when Smith repeatedly clashed with City Administrator Ora E. Lampman, charging that he had failed to provide the council with all the information necessary to resolve a projected $3.9-million shortfall in the 1986-87 budget.

Their dispute came to a head at a June, 1986, meeting when Smith blamed Lampman for an apparent typographical error that led her to believe that a second vote would be taken on an increase in the local utility tax rate.

Smith had originally voted to raise the tax from 7% to 11%, she said, unaware that it was an emergency ordinance that did not require a second reading. Thinking she might want to change her mind on the second vote, Smith said, she was "left feeling like a fool" and had her vote stricken from the record when she learned that the issue had already been decided on the first vote.

Lone Dissenter

When the council met the following week to authorize Lampman to sign the city's application for an American Express corporate credit card, Smith cast the lone dissenting vote because she said the administrator could not be trusted with the responsibility.

"I think when Donna first came on the council, Ora for some reason didn't take her too seriously," Selby said. "Donna took exception to that. In the two years she's served, she's calmed down considerably. But I still think that might be an area that could get her in serious trouble."

Although Smith's political views are not that far from Selby's, their personal styles and demeanors are worlds apart.

Smith is known for her unflagging enthusiasm. Both critics and supporters stand in awe of her non-stop pace. Many describe her as chatty, outgoing, sociable, personable and flamboyant. On election nights in March and April, Smith and a vocal following descended on the City Hall chambers with victory signs and a thundering cheer of "Go, Donna."

In contrast, the 66-year-old Selby, who served as mayor from 1981 to 1985, is described as having a slow, low-key approach, choosing his words carefully and often appearing uncomfortable in social settings. When asked why he did not come to City Hall on primary election night, Selby said: "I'd rather be home with my friends getting the results in the comfort and quiet of my own home. It's not that I don't like people, but it's just not my style."

According to Smith, the appearance of being open and approachable has been the key to her political support. She receives 100 to 200 phone calls a week from constituents who, she said, occasionally tell her: 'We're told that you're the one to call. We're told that you will listen.' "

"We'll come back to the office and she'll have 300 phone calls and I'll have 30," said Councilman Mark A. T. Nymeyer. "She's perceived as having the time or willingness to personally solve a problem."

That perception is heightened by Smith's willingness to serve on a wide range of committees, from the Pomona Historical Society to a local water district to the Friends of Ganesha Pool to local transportation boards to her membership in the Pomona Valley Republican Women Federated.

On a typical day last month, she met with owners of three apartment complexes to discuss code violations, tried to interest a magazine in doing a story on Pomona, attended a Chamber of Commerce mixer, threw out the first ball at an American Legion baseball game and assisted a resident who wanted to be an informant on a homicide investigation.

'Hyper Person'

"I can't just relax," Smith said. "There's some times at night when I don't fall asleep right away. I'll lie in bed and think about different things. I've always been a very energetic, a very . . . hyper person."

Some politicians and community leaders, who perceive that unbridled energy as more a liability than an asset, tend to look at Smith as if she were a wild pony still in need of taming.

"Let her run as fast as she can and wherever she wants to go," said Councilman E. J. (Jay) Gaulding. "She can have all the rope she wants."

But Smith, gesturing at a pair of four-ounce boxing gloves mounted on the wall of her new mayoral office, remains undaunted.

The gloves "make a nice visual aid," she said. "But if things get real rough and I need to throw them over my shoulder and go to a meeting, I think I'll do that."

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