Sitting in his campaign headquarters in Encino recently, Baxter Ward seemed startled when he was asked if he was a politician.
"No. No," Ward replied, looking as if he'd been asked if he enjoyed drinking sewage sludge. "Politician? Heavens!"
No doubt a strange reaction coming from someone who served eight years on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and is back in the arena again, trying to wrest his old post from Mike Antonovich.
Except that no one has ever suggested that Ward is a typical politician.
The Sherman Oaks Democratic Club found that out this spring when they grilled Ward during a political endorsement session. When asked if he was a Democrat, Ward replied that he thought he was registered as a declined-to-state voter. But someone who had done homework informed Ward that he had been a registered Democrat since 1973.
"How that occurred I don't know, but I don't object to it," Ward recalled.
Not exactly the kind of enthusiastic statement that would inspire partisan Democrats. But Ward, who was catapulted into office during the Watergate era, has never been attached to a particular political allegiance, or a particular persona. The former television anchorman can come across as an old-school gentleman or an unmuzzled pit bull.
Ward's bid to become a supervisor again follows a relatively quiet eight-year hiatus from government life.
Returned to TV
Once out of office, he returned to his television career as a news commentator for three years. Then he disappeared from public view, and when he emerged to enter politics again he explained that he had been writing a "murder mystery novel" about Proposition 13, the tax-cutting measure. He is on the fifth revision of the book after several rejections from publishers. He is a homeowner in Tarzana, where he lives with his wife, Karen, who serves as his campaign manager.
Ward, 68, says he was drawn back into elective politics by his disgust with Antonovich's pro-development record, his rival's large campaign contributions from special-interest groups and the district's worsening traffic snarls.
In the June primary, Ward, with the indirect help of a group of growth-control advocates in the district, nudged Republican Antonovich into the coming runoff by finishing first among nine challengers. The eight other candidates have endorsed Ward.
In this campaign, Antonovich and Ward have renewed the vociferous attacks that marked their encounter in 1980 over the same prize: the far-flung 5th Supervisorial District. Bigger than some eastern states, the largely Republican district reaches into the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys as well as Pasadena, San Marino and Glendale.
Once again, Ward's record as a supervisor from 1972 to 1980 has been reopened for dissection. Ward watchers remain hopelessly polarized on the question of whether he served his district well.
Ward's admirers say he blew the door off the county's old-boy club. He tried to keep ambulance-chasing solicitors out of the county hospital, prompted a grand jury to investigate the practices of the county assessor and exposed nursing home operators who were tying patients to trees or worse.
But Ward's detractors insist he was a loose cannon who was so busy chasing down tips from whistle-blowers and antagonizing his peers that he wasn't representing the 5th District. Antonovich has accused Ward of having employed "Gestapo tactics" and snooping where he didn't belong.
Former Supervisor Ernest E. Debs once complained that the volatile board encounters with Ward left him feeling like a "wet dishrag." Debs and two other county officials eventually filed disability claims alleging that their heart conditions were in part caused by Ward.
And the bitterness remains.
"I think Baxter Ward was one of the most destructive men we've had in county government," said retired Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, one of Ward's major political enemies and the target of several of his investigations. "He did everything to destroy the public confidence and faith and belief in county government."
Ward tangled with some of the county's most powerful officials after his staff began demanding records. He outraged the late Assessor Philip E. Watson, who filed a $6.5-million defamation suit against Ward after the board hired a top Watergate investigator to search his filing cabinets.
The grand jury looked into the assessor office's practices but stopped when Watson resigned. Then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp, now state attorney general, defended Ward's probe and said indictments might have been returned if Watson had not quit.
Health officials said that Ward's highly publicized inquiry into nursing homes led to dozens of prosecutions of poor operators.
Saying they saved the county millions of dollars, Ward makes no apologies for his gumshoe activities and promised that he would launch inquiries again if necessary.
"If the evidence were brought of fraud, theft, misuse, if there were scoundrels abounding, by all means those matters should be inquired into," Ward said. "I think the public's interests are to be protected as best the county can."
Also high on Ward's agenda is his desire to promote a heavy-rail transit system. When he pursued this dream 12 years ago, voters handed him a major political defeat, rejecting his proposal to increase the sales tax to pay for a 232-mile commuter train network connecting 44 cities and costing $5.6 billion.
However, Ward did persuade the Board of Supervisors to become the first county government in the nation to buy a passenger train. The commuter train, linking San Diego and Los Angeles, ran for several months but was scuttled when Proposition 13 ravaged county revenues. Critics sarcastically called the train "Baxter's choo choo," but Ward noted that the train pioneered a route on which Amtrak now runs commuter trains.
At countless campaign appearances this year, Ward has shared his vision of quiet high-speed electric trains traveling on freeway and flood-control rights-of-way to all parts of the county. As for the alternatives, Ward claims that the Metro Rail subway will be too costly to expand much beyond downtown and that light-rail systems will run at tortoise speed.