Two acrimonious debates Wednesday between Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and opponent Baxter Ward focused on the incumbent’s accelerated campaign attacks against the challenger.
Antonovich recently began airing more than 600 radio spots a week that portray Ward as an eccentric who used “Gestapo tactics” to investigate county government. Ward is called “Baxter Odd” in one of three commercials. And mailers questioning Ward’s integrity have been sent this week to tens of thousands of voters.
Ward struck back at Antonovich’s many allegations at a breakfast debate before the Woodland Hills Chamber of Commerce and at an evening square-off sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Pasadena. They were the fourth and fifth debates between the two men battling to represent the far-flung 5th District.
“Most everything you hear from Mr. Antonovich is sheer hokum,” contended Ward, who brought old documents to both debates in an attempt to debunk Antonovich’s charges.
Antonovich repeatedly has accused Ward--who served two terms as supervisor from 1972 to 1980--of staffing field offices with telephone answering machines, with destroying all office files before he left office and with tainting the reputations of honest county officials through highly publicized investigations.
On Wednesday, Ward, a tireless proponent of mass transit while a supervisor, seemed especially vexed at Antonovich’s contention that a train--purchased by the county in 1975 at Ward’s urging--was a failure. One of Antonovich’s radio ads contends that “Baxter’s Choo Choo” never went anywhere.
The county invested $2.1 million in the 8-car train that Ward hoped would kick off a network of commuter trains. The train sat idle for years because of protracted legal battles, but in 1978, it was used to start new Amtrak service between Los Angeles and San Diego during commuting hours.
“It was a whopping success,” Ward told the Woodland Hills audience.
Passengers Liked It
The new service was popular with passengers, recalled Arthur Lloyd, Amtrak’s West Coast spokesman. He said the county train helped meet the demand for another San Diego-Los Angeles run, which Amtrak could not provide at the time.
When Proposition 13 forced the county to stop subsidizing the train and it was put back in storage, Amtrak provided a new train and the state subsidized the line. The San Diego-Los Angeles link is now the second most popular passenger rail corridor in the country, Lloyd said.
Later, Ward attempted to start an Oxnard-to-Los Angeles commuter run with the train. But the Board of Supervisors withdrew its support after Antonovich defeated Ward in the 1980 election.
At the debates Wednesday, the allegation was repeated that Ward temporarily crippled Antonovich’s first days as supervisor.
“When I took office in December, 1980, we walked into an office where Baxter Ward had deliberately destroyed every constituent file, so we came into office with an empty office, an empty file cabinet,” Antonovich said. “We had to start in from scratch to begin helping the people who had written in with serious problems they had.”
Ward said he threw out birthday cards and other personal letters but did not touch constituent files or zoning records.
Ward also produced copies of old county telephone directories, which he said prove that he maintained several field offices throughout the district with full-time deputies.
The two candidates also clashed on the merits of the many investigations Ward and his staff of private investigators and former reporters conducted during his tenure.
Ward said questionable practices by some county officials had warranted a closer look at their operations. He said those investigations led to reforms.
His staff began questioning former Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess’ practices after the Sheriff’s Department purchased $13.5 million worth of equipment for criminal identification that did not work and was not approved by the Board of Supervisors, Ward said. Among his discoveries, Ward said, was that deputies were filling 144 clerk and typist slots. He said the deputies were sent back into the field.
Ward also said that his investigations into nursing-home abuse led to reforms.
“Investigations? You bet they are required,” Ward said defiantly.
But Antonovich accused Ward of attacking people, not problems.
“Not one indictment, not one conviction ever resulted from Mr. Ward’s investigations, and the grand jury kept sending them back--no nothing there,” he said. “Millions and millions of dollars were wasted on investigations . . .”
At the nighttime debate, the two candidates were asked whether they favor development of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire site in Agoura.
Ward repeatedly pressed Antonovich to say whether he will support a request to increase the property’s zoning density, which park proponents say would dash hopes of establishing a park on the site.
A housing development has been proposed for the 320-acre site. But the National Park Service and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy are trying to raise $14 million to obtain the property for parkland.
Antonovich said he supports the concept of a park, but he would not divulge how he will vote on the zoning change when it comes before the Board of Supervisors.
“You don’t ask a judge how he is going to sentence a person before his case is tried in court,” Antonovich said.
Ward disagreed: “I would deny this zoning request. I believe it’s vital to preserve as much parkland as we can.”