The setting--Nino’s restaurant--was familiar to Mayor Ernie Kell. It was where he held his campaign victory party last June. But even though this was Les Robbins’ election night, Kell had plenty to celebrate.
“I’m pleased,” the smiling mayor said after the candidate he backed to succeed him on the City Council handily defeated three opponents by gaining 41% of the vote.
Robbins’ 5th District election is expected to strengthen Kell’s political image, but whether it helps the mayor gain control of the council remains doubtful, observers say.
With his election as full-time mayor in June, Kell had to give up his council vote, and with it the loose-knit coalition that usually came together when he needed a majority.
Now, observers say, Kell will at least have Robbins in his corner.
“Let’s face it,” Councilman Clarence Smith said earlier this week, “if Les wins the seat, he will be quite beholden to Ernie.”
Councilman Tom Clark said: “I don’t think that Les Robbins would have a chance in that district without the support of Ernie Kell.”
Robbins Tuesday acknowledged the importance of Kell’s support but insisted he will be his “own person” and owes allegiance to no one.
Councilman Evan Anderson Braude said: “There could be the loyalty factor in the beginning” but it probably will be short-lived as Robbins gains experience as a councilman. “Politicians moderate themselves once they get on the council,” he said.
Candidate Tom Stewart, who came in second with 25% of the vote, said that his campaign was indeed hampered by Kell’s support of Robbins. Candidates E. Gerrie Schipske and Craig Alan Spongberg agreed. Schipske, a health care executive, got 15% of the vote and Spongberg, an insurance agent, received 13%. (Rolland Samuelson, who died last month, received nearly 5% of the vote, despite notices on poll booths reminding voters that he was no longer a candidate.)
Stewart, owner of an insurance business and a former city firefighter, also blamed his defeat on the publicity that resulted when one of his flyers erroneously listed him as holding a college degree. Stewart’s campaign manager had taken responsibility for the mistake and said the flyers were distributed before the error was noticed. In the last days before the election, Robbins sent out several flyers reminding voters about the error and challenging Stewart’s integrity.
“Two words would have made the difference (in the election)-- attended and yes,” Stewart said once defeat was clear.
Stewart said the word attended on the flyer would have made it clear that he went to college but did not graduate. And “yes” is what Stewart believes he should have said earlier this summer when two Kell supporters asked whether he planned to consistently side with the mayor. Instead, Stewart says he replied, “It depends on the issue.”
After that fateful breakfast meeting with Kell supporters Elaine Hutchison and Roy Hearrean, both endorsed Robbins and between them contributed $6,675 in loans and donations. Hutchison and Hearrean later said they chose not to endorse Stewart because he did not seem knowledgeable about the district.
“If I had said ‘yes’, I would have had Ernie’s endorsement,” Stewart said.
Stewart, a member of the city’s Redevelopment Agency as well as numerous other community groups, was endorsed by Vice Mayor Wallace Edgerton and council members Clark, Jan Hall and Ray Grabinski. Clark and Hall have long been political foes of Kell.
At Robbins’ victory party Tuesday, Kell bristled at the suggestion that his endorsement won him an ally on the council. “I don’t buy anything (by backing candidates),” the mayor insisted.
Kell said he chose to endorse Robbins because “he has the integrity and the intelligence and the work ethics” to be a good councilman.
Adding that he decided to endorse a candidate because he lives in the 5th District, Kell said: “Tom Clark and Jan Hall don’t live there. I do. If you are talking about machine politics, talk to council members Tom Clark and Jan Hall.”
Councilman Warren Harwood, an ally of Kell, said the mayor became involved in the 5th District race partly because Clark and Hall endorsed Stewart. Kell endorsed Robbins after Stewart announced that he would donate 25% of the money raised during one of his fund-raisers to Hall, who has a deficit from when she ran against Kell for mayor in June.
Edgerton said that Kell is “struggling to stay in control so he can do what is best for the city of Long Beach. That’s why he got involved (in the 5th District race.)”
Clark said that Robbins’ election also was important to bolster Kell’s “image of power.” Kell is “in a difficult situation because he’s lost the control of the council. And unless you have power, you can’t raise money for elections,” Clark said. The mayor faces reelection in 1990.
Robbins, 39, said Kell’s support was important because “his reputation in the district is phenomenal. I have a difficult act to follow.” But he repeatedly noted that he walked every precinct and “knocked on more than 14,000 doors” to win--the same campaign strategy that consistently worked for Kell, who represented the district for 13 years.
In addition to sharing the mayor’s door-to-door strategy and victory celebration site, Robbins also borrowed another campaign tool.
Only days before the June mayoral election, Kell--a Democrat--had appeared on a slate mailer endorsing Republicans. Kell’s picture was prominently placed next to one of Vice President George Bush, and the mailer proclaimed “Vote for the Long Beach Republican Team!”
Robbins, a Democrat who received endorsements from several unions, made a similar appeal to Republican voters last week when his name appeared on a mailer that said “Vote for Our Community Republican Team.”
Robbins, who is president of a 5,500-member union representing law enforcement employees in Los Angeles County, said: “When you are running a nonpartisan race, you want to cover all the bases that you can.”
Times Staff Writer David Haldane contributed to this story.