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Antonovich Fights Off Ward to Win 3rd Term as County Supervisor

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, fighting off a challenge from a coalition of slow-growthers and environmentalists, defeated Baxter Ward in Tuesday’s voting for a third term to represent Los Angeles County’s sprawling 5th Supervisorial District.

As returns mounted--first from his hometown of Glendale and then from other parts of the district--Antonovich remained in front of Ward, a former 5th District supervisor whom Antonovich had ousted in 1980.

Development Policies Endorsed

Antonovich, interviewed at the Century Plaza Hotel where he was celebrating Vice President George Bush’s presidential victory, declared that voters had endorsed the development-oriented policies that had brought him under attack in the district.

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Asked if he looked at the Ward challenge as a message for him to ease up his stand on development, Antonovich said: “No, I see it as rejecting muckraking of a person the voters rejected eight years ago. . . . The people were sick of dirty campaigning.”

Dismissing his foes as “a small element of people, not those in the mainstream,” Antonovich said: “We need to have homes for our people, we need jobs, and we need to protect the environment.”

Growth was a dominant issue in the Antonovich-Ward rematch in a district that contains the bulk of Los Angeles County’s undeveloped land. The district, larger than Delaware, reaches from the Santa Monica Mountains through the San Fernando Valley to Pasadena. Within that huge area lies still largely vacant land, notably in the Las Virgenes and Calabasas areas of the Santa Monica Mountains; in the hills and canyons of the Santa Clarita Valley, and in the high desert around Palmdale and Lancaster.

Homeowner groups from those areas mounted an under-financed campaign against Antonovich and prevented him from winning in the June primary. But to the dismay of leaders of the Antonovich group, the candidate finishing second to him was Ward, rather than Don Wallace, a growth-control leader.

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Latecomer to Movement

Ward was a latecomer to the slow-growth movement, and even his supporters feared that he would be subject to heavy attack from the well-financed Antonovich for his conduct while a supervisor, including initiating controversial investigations against powerful political leaders and institutions he said were corrupt.

As it turned out, their fears were justified. Antonovich, with $1.7 million in contributions--a substantial amount from developers--pounded Ward with television commercials and mailed advertisements in the final days of the campaign, blasting the former supervisor’s record.

Toward the end of the campaign, two statewide environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, joined the Ward campaign, sending get-out-the-vote precinct walkers into the crucial San Fernando Valley. They were joined by county employee union members and homeowner groups, but it was not enough.

As he has been during much of the campaign, Ward had a relaxed, unconcerned, attitude toward his effort.

“I’ve been spending my time cleaning my room and doing my laundry,” he said as he arrived at his headquarters, professing ignorance of early returns.

Union supporters, his wife, Karen, who is his campaign manager, and former supervisorial deputies hoping their old boss was coming back packed the Ward storefront headquarters in Encino.

Wild Card

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Ward’s emergence from the primary as the 49-year-old Antonovich’s challenger put a wild card into the election.

Ward, 69, portrayed himself as an anti-politician. But he understood the dynamics of television politics. He made his points in 20-second sound bites and simplified--and oversimplified--complicated matters in a way calculated to appeal to discontented voters. And, as he had demonstrated in his eight years on the board, he had little patience or respect for the often ponderous processes of government.

From the outset of the fall campaign, it was clear that one of the most important matters at stake in this election was the dynamics of county government, itself.

With the conservatives in control the last eight years, the Board of Supervisors and the and the vast bureaucracy under it had settled into a comfortable routine.

Eased Up on Rhetoric

After winning some early victories, especially in the area of turning government work over to private enterprises, conservatives Antonovich, Deane Dana and Pete Schabarum eased up on their rhetoric. Antonovich, while making theoretical speeches against big government, was actually comfortable working with the civil servants who run the county apparatus. The tendency toward accommodation increased even more when Kenneth Hahn suffered a serious stroke and the burden of opposing conservative programs was thrust on the shoulders of the mild-mannered Ed Edelman, who prefers negotiation to a public brawl.

The candidacy of Ward, with his history of investigating such powerful county institutions as the sheriff and the assessor, threatened to change that by questioning old procedures and initiating probes of practices he did not like. And he chilled county officials with his promise to revive a network of whistle-blowers to provide him with tips when he was on the board.

The campaign, and a study of their records, produced other areas where there was a prospect of change.

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Ward is a Democrat. While he was never a liberal, he is more sympathetic to health and welfare programs than Antonovich, a Reagan conservative. And the support of Ward by the county employees’ biggest union, Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, was evidence that many county workers believed that he would be more agreeable in labor negotiations than Antonovich.

Land-use was the clearest example of how the two differed.

Expressed Confidence

Even Ward’s most fervent backers conceded that he had never been a deeply committed advocate of growth control. But he pledged to examine the land-use plans for his district as soon as he took office, and to turn down subdivision proposals that exceeded the limits of the county General Plan.

Antonovich, on the other hand, expressed confidence in county planning procedures and strongly defended the residential subdivisions he had approved that were considerably larger than envisioned by the General Plan.

Another area of difference was how to deal with the troubling social and health problems of the state’s biggest and most urban county, where immigration and birth is swelling the population of the inner-city poor while fast-growing subdivisions in the suburbs are increasing the number of middle- and upper-middle-class families.

Strongly Opposed

Ward advocated the distribution of needles, condoms and bleach kits to drug addicts to prevent the spread of AIDS among addicts who inject themselves with drugs. Antonovich strongly opposed that. And, in a television commercial that aired in the final days, he sought to use the proposal against Ward. Without saying the proposal was related to AIDS, the commercial showed an addict injecting drugs, a tray full of needles and said: “Mike Antonovich says we should arrest dope dealers and teach our kids to say no to drugs. Baxter Ward wants taxpayers to pay for free needles for drug addicts. Another one of Baxter Ward’s absurd proposals.”

Another area of potential change was in the treatment of the mentally ill. It was not clear what Ward would do; the issue never emerged in the campaign. But Antonovich, over the last eight years, had assumed a dominant role in the running of the county Mental Health Department, with his staff members having considerable influence in day-to-day and long-range affairs.

Antonovich and his staff had a long-range agenda, an increase in mandatory commitment for the worst of the homeless mentally ill. For that goal to be attained, another four years of Antonovich was needed.

The runoff election followed more than two years of intense homeowner criticism of Antonovich from groups in the Santa Monica Mountains and the northern reaches of the county. That rise in criticism coincided with the growth of the anti-development movement throughout the state.

Antonovich had been reelected easily four years ago. But this time, Ward and eight other challengers cut down his vote so that he dropped below 50% in the June primary. That threw him into the runoff.


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