He drives through the neat and cozy neighborhoods he represents in east Long Beach and calls them "Middle America." To Ernie Kell, that means a place where people are nice and productive and hard-working--attributes that admirers use to describe Kell himself.
From humble beginnings and a childhood spent on a North Dakota farm, a background he likes to emphasize on the campaign trail, Kell has attained considerable success in the business and political worlds.
At 59, he is a millionaire and a 13-year public servant who by most accounts is responsive, accessible, industrious and rarely hampered by his acknowledged lack of political charisma. It is easy to see why his political hero is Harry S. Truman.
The city's appointed mayor reads three newspapers a day, but avoids fiction or things he considers to have only entertainment value. And he doesn't listen to music--he doesn't have a radio or record player at home. Instead, Kell likes to make tape recordings of his speeches and listen to them while driving in his car.
He spends at least two hours each day walking the neighborhoods he represents, despite polls showing that he has a healthy lead over Tuesday's mayoral opponent, City Councilwoman Jan Hall. Kell says he doesn't want to take anything for granted. "It's not my style," he said recently. Even during non-election years, he knocks on a few doors in District 5 every week, as he has since first being elected in 1975.
On the Long Beach council, Kell is viewed by most of his nine colleagues as the man who quietly gets things done. Working behind the scenes, the part-time mayor--now vying for the new full-time, elected post--has built a coalition that almost always assures him of a majority on any issue.
Some say Kell's command comes not because he is an especially innovative thinker but because he has a deft ability to implement other people's programs.
Councilman Wallace Edgerton, a Kell supporter, conceded that "Ernie is more of a pragmatist than a visionary." But if it wasn't for Kell, he said, a lot of jobs wouldn't get done.
"If I have a vision, I'll sell it to the mayor and he'll sell it to the council," Edgerton said. The mayor "operates more like a congressional party man. He tries to build a team."
Kell says he has lots of ideas of his own. But recognizing a good plan, no matter whose it is, can often be a "vision in itself," he said. Even if Kell has not come up with most of the city programs being touted by his campaign, he says he was the official who made sure they were properly analyzed by committees and then effectively enacted.
"It's the people who you assign to these things that is the key," Kell said.
Harbor Commissioner Robert Langslet, who called Kell a tireless and dependable worker, said: "Most of us in the business community that have worked with Ernie trust him. He's very honest. When he says something, he follows through on it."
While Kell and his backers say he gets things accomplished by being supportive and loyal to his colleagues, Tom Clark, a longtime councilman and a political foe of Kell's, has a different opinion: "He basically has put the coalition together by helping them out in their campaigns."
Kell has helped his friends on the council by giving them small personal loans or contributions or by introducing them to potential campaign donors, Clark and others say.
Edgerton acknowledges that Kell gave him a small personal loan years ago, and Vice Mayor Warren Harwood says Kell gave him two loans, both under $1,500, during his campaigns. All were repaid, the officials say.
Kell, who can afford to be financially generous, said the loans involved "insignificant amounts of money" and played no part in council affairs.
Edgerton put it this way: Unlike those "with money and power who will buy other people . . . Kell is a very generous person who will help others with money, it's true. But he is a giver on an emotional basis. It has nothing to do with politics."
Kell acknowledges that he is personally close to several of his public colleagues. He has become good friends with Edgerton. He is godfather to Harwood's two children. And when Councilman Edd Tuttle remarried a couple of years ago, Kell performed the ceremony.
Even when Tuttle had to stage a comeback from alcoholism and an embarrassing public confrontation with black youths caused the council to censure him in 1985, Kell did not back away from him. Instead, he supported Tuttle for vice mayor.
"Edd Tuttle at that time did not need somebody to ridicule him. He needed a friend," Kell said.
Edgerton said: "That's his No. 1 card: loyalty."
Banker James Gray, a former harbor commissioner who backs Hall for mayor, criticizes Kell's scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours style of leadership. A strong coalition, Gray said, would be better built through mutual respect and "testing each other" on different ideas and issues.
Gray said whoever is elected mayor should represent the entire community, especially under the new full-time system, which will pay the office holder $67,500 annually. (Kell and other council members now receive $13,891 a year.)
The new mayor will have neither a council vote nor a strong veto power--in most cases, only a simple majority will be necessary to override a veto. So the job will change from that of a ceremonial ribbon-cutter to "more of a visionary," said Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who is neutral on the mayor's race.
But the same argument is used by Kell supporters to his advantage: Because there is no real power to the job, the new mayor will have to get along with others and build coalitions.
'Holding Us Together'
"You have splits on the council, but Ernie has held it together," Harwood said. "He's holding us together to get the job done."
Quoting from a motivational book called "Men at the Top," Kell said that in both business and government, successful people "build upon ideas and other people's efforts."
Many successful people are not good public speakers, noted Kell, who long ago overcame a stuttering problem that has left him generally uncomfortable in front of crowds. But what they have, he said, is a "belief in themselves and the ability to work."
And work is what Kell has done since enlisting as a merchant seaman at age 17 and sailing to Saudi Arabia. At 21, in 1950, he was drafted by the Army and stationed in Korea. Two years later he was discharged as a sergeant. He says he arrived home with $50 in his pocket. Soon after, he decided to take a job as a draftsman.
Took Night Classes
For about seven years, Kell says, he took night classes--from architecture to Greek history--while working at two jobs during the day. Eventually, he opened his own structural steel company and began investing in small real estate projects.
Today, Kell owns a shopping center in Fountain Valley and three industrial buildings in Riverside County. His wealth has come in handy during his race for mayor, the most expensive in city history. Kell recently loaned himself $150,000, according to campaign finance statements. Thus far, he has spent more than $500,000 in his bid for the new mayoral post.
Kell, who has two grown children and one grandchild, views politics as "an honorable profession" where he can "work with people to accomplish things they cannot individually do by themselves." His first bid for public office--an Assembly seat in 1974--was unsuccessful. But the next year, Kell ran for the City Council, and he has kept his seat ever since, easily beating challengers.
Although he may come across as a reserved man, Kell has a taste for fast hobbies. He flies airplanes and hopes to buy one soon. For years, his favorite pastime was to race cars in competition. Car racing, he said, is "kind of like living on the cutting edge."
Kell's wife of 15 years describes him as a gregarious man who "can absolutely be the life of the party."
"Over and over again," said Jackie Kell, "people will say: 'I know the mayor is here. I can hear him laughing.' "
Kell and his wife live with his mother, Katherine, 83, in a single-story tract home in El Dorado Park Estates, a middle-class neighborhood that he says exemplifies what hard work can accomplish.
Again quoting from "Men at the Top," Kell said people who are successful are not "smarter than anybody else, but they flat outworked them."