A Maverick Goes His Own Way Once Again


Pete Schabarum is leaving county government much the same way he came in--on his own terms, giving not an inch to his foes nor much solace to his allies, a prickly maverick in a business inhabited by gregarious backslappers.

Schabarum, the one-time gridiron terror who pounded across the turf of county politics for 24 years, began his withdrawal from local prominence Monday by formally explaining his decision not to seek reelection to his seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

In remarks read from two typed pages that he clutched in a slightly wavering hand, the 61-year-old Schabarum said he would leave when his term expires in December because his "priorities have changed." His voice broke, ever so slightly, when he mentioned his wife and family.

Such sentiment was uncharacteristic for the blunt Schabarum, but the rest of his comments, made in a conference room next door to his Hall of Administration office, were true to form. He criticized his colleagues, pounded the drum for fiscal conservatism and displayed his sour wit and imperious outlook.

Asked why he would not name the candidate he will support as his replacement, he responded tartly: "Because I don't want to."

In another exchange, Schabarum--who last month drew fire from local Latinos for saying his part-Mexican ancestry made him one of them--crinkled his nose devilishly when asked if his new grandchild, born Sunday, favored the Schabarum side of the family.

"He's Hispanic, yeah," he said, after an actor's pause.

Schabarum's politics were resolute from beginning to end, unswayed by electoral winds. His views were steeped in classic, up-by-the-bootstraps Republican theology, which held that if the son of a middle-class Covina stockbroker could make himself a multimillionaire, then so could anyone else, if only they worked hard enough.

Battling an ideologically divided board for his first eight years, he reveled in 1980 when he helped boost two more Republicans into office, giving his party the majority of the five-member body. But within a few years, that had soured and Schabarum began criticizing his fellow Republicans for occasionally voting with the Democrats.

Ironically, Schabarum on Monday said the early years, the years before his longed-for majority, were the most rewarding.

"It's not as much fun as other things, these days," he said of his job. Asked why, he shrugged and, smiling wanly, replied. "Well, I'm older."

Schabarum was prominent locally well before he sought political office. At Covina High School, he was a standout football player and the student body president. He attended UC Berkeley, playing in three Rose Bowls and winning the school's Most Valuable Player award his senior year. For the next several years, he mixed service as an airman in the Air Force and as a halfback on the San Francisco 49ers.

But, as he commented in a 1981 Times profile, "You gotta be nuts to want to get your brains smashed out every Sunday." So he saved some money, worked hard and turned himself into a real estate developer with shopping centers, storage houses and other properties to his name.

His first exposure to public service came with a 1965 stint as chairman of the county Grand Jury--a post from which he criticized the board he would later lead--and by 1966, Schabarum was running for the state Assembly.

Even then, as the spending programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" dominated the political landscape, Schabarum was running for office vowing to cut "the ever-rising cost of government." He served three terms in the Assembly, most notably fighting unsuccessfully for air pollution controls, until he quit in frustration over state spending. Serving in the Assembly, he said, was "like beating my head against a stone wall."

His political career was revived in March, 1972, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed Schabarum to fill the supervisorial seat of Frank G. Bonelli, who died in office.

He was immediately challenged for election by then-Assemblyman William Campbell, one of his former roommates in Sacramento. Even now, associates refer to that race as indicative of Schabarum's intensely competitive nature. So angered was Schabarum at Campbell's challenge, associates say, that he broke off their friendship.

Alone at first, and after 1980 with the assistance of fellow Republicans Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich, Schabarum attempted to harness the sprawling county government. His instincts were simple: Less government, more local control, fewer constraints on business.

"I think every man is entitled to the reasonable use of his property, and as long as I'm supervisor, no reasonable zoning request is going to be denied," he said when asked his position on land use.

The board's Republican majority gave him new momentum, particularly in the early years when Dana, then a rookie politician, seconded virtually every Schabarum motion. Outside the board, Schabarum expanded his reach as well, raising money for dozens of conservative candidates inside and outside the county and becoming a dominant fund-raising force.

In the last decade, Schabarum built his political legacy. More county business was contracted to private firms and the San Gabriel Valley accelerated its prominence in county money fights. He led an ongoing battle with the city of Los Angeles, denying room for city garbage in the county's landfills. And, as he had vowed for years, Schabarum helped to curb what he perceived as excesses in spending.

Asked to assess his own legacy Monday, Schabarum noted private contracting and his "persistent interest in trying to operate this county budget like your own household budget--mainly that you don't spend more than you collect."

"Which," he added, "is not necessarily the view of the other members of the board, or for that matter much of the bureaucracy."

There were recurrent controversies. In 1980, then-Sheriff Peter Pitchess called for Schabarum's resignation after it was disclosed that the supervisor's former chief deputy had given Kenneth Bianchi, the confessed Hillside Strangler, a county decal for his car. In 1985, he branded a "safe sex" brochure as "pornographic," earning the ire of AIDS activists.

Schabarum occasionally toyed with the prospect of higher office. In 1970, while still in the Assembly, he opted against a bid for Congress when substantial opposition arose. In 1988, he was considered by Gov. George Deukmejian as a possible replacement for Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, who died in office. But the job went to Thomas Hayes. Schabarum also made recurrent efforts to be named U.S. transportation secretary, but neither President Reagan nor President Bush complied.

According to experts in Los Angeles county politics, much of Schabarum's effectiveness was lost because he made little effort to curry popularity with his other board members. His antagonism toward the other members made him expendable to both sides and led to a proposed redistricting plan that would have turned his district into a predominantly Latino district.

Schabarum beat back that plan by persuading other Republicans to pressure Deane Dana, who voted for the restructuring, to change his mind. Dana did, and Schabarum's district remained largely Anglo.

Nonetheless, Schabarum's future remained hostage to a redistricting lawsuit against the county, and Latino politicians were gunning for Schabarum's seat until he left. The way in which he chose not to run earned him enmity even from ideological allies--Republicans and Democrats alike charged that the last-minute decision had robbed them of the opportunity to enter strong candidates.

"To be in politics you have to like people," Antonovich said last weekend, after it became evident Schabarum was not going to seek reelection. "In politics, if you only serve your own ego, you get tired and quit. In the end, he wasn't a fighter and he just quit."

Schabarum clearly did not see it that way. He said Monday that he would spend his future months lobbying for two state initiatives:the so-called crime victims proposition and another that would limit the terms of elected politicians. He said he plans to pour much of his campaign fund into those efforts.

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