In the process of winning an unprecedented fifth term, Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi’s campaign generated its share of controversial--some would even say nasty--campaign literature.
But few of Takasugi’s critics directly blamed him for the rough campaign. Instead, they pointed accusing fingers at his campaign consultant, saying Takasugi is too nice a fellow to have led such a hard-hitting effort.
That Takasugi emerged from his latest political foray with his nice-guy image largely intact speaks volumes about the retired grocer and former internee (whom one detractor has dubbed the “Teflon mayor”), according to critics and friends.
Although Takasugi’s success is based on his image as the polite, silver-haired diplomat, the election showed that he is also a shrewd politician who doesn’t mind ruffling feathers, they said.
“I was surprised about what came out of his campaign because he is a very diplomatic person,” said County Supervisor John Flynn, who has publicly clashed with Takasugi on several occasions.
As a measure of his popularity, Takasugi won every precinct in the November election, receiving about 45% of the vote. The election demonstrated that his good-guy image can even rise above concerns about the city’s financial problems.
With seven consecutive elections as a councilman and then mayor under his belt, the 68-year-old Republican has his eye on a new area congressional seat expected to be added after the census is analyzed in 1992. “I don’t know what will happen in ’92, but I’ve learned never to say never.”
Takasugi was born over his father’s Oxnard grocery store, which he eventually took over and ran with his wife, Judy, for 35 years at the corner of Oxnard Boulevard and 7th Street. Residents consider him a native son, he said.
Caroll Lorbeer, who has attended almost every City Council meeting since 1950 and is considered an unofficial city historian, agreed. “People like to vote for people they know, and they certainly know him,” he said.
Most of Takasugi’s life has revolved around the Asahi Market, which his father founded in 1909 near La Colonia, a largely working-class Latino neighborhood. In fact, Takasugi’s interest in city politics was sparked by a dispute that he had with city officials over a sign that he wanted to add to the store, which he has leased to another proprietor since 1981.
Takasugi was valedictorian of Oxnard High School in 1939. He attended UCLA, but before he could graduate, World War II broke out and he and his family were ordered to an internment camp in Arizona, where his family remained for 4 1/2 years.
With the help of a Quaker organization in Pennsylvania, Takasugi himself left the camp after eight months and completed his undergraduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. He received a scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a master’s in business administration.
Takasugi said the time that he and his family spent in the internment camp hardened but did not embitter him.
“In those formative years, my life was tempered by those experiences,” he said. “I was a college student. . . . I had very idealistic dreams and ambitions. And to have those shattered overnight, to me, was a very crushing blow.”
When the war ended, he returned to Oxnard to help his parents reopen their grocery store. He never left his hometown.
“Sometimes I’d be behind the counter chopping some pork chops or something and some guys would kid me saying, ‘Gee, you’ve got your MBA, and what are you doing there?’ ” Takasugi said.
Takasugi got a firsthand look at government in 1972, when he was forced to fight through a maze of bureaucratic red tape for a sign permit to advertise the sale of liquor at his store.
“Here I am a native, a longtime businessman, a college graduate, and I had such a hard time going through the city’s bureaucracy. I said this isn’t right.”
A year later, then-mayor Tsujio Kato nominated Takasugi to the Planning Commission. In 1976, Takasugi won his first four-year term on the City Council. He won a second term in 1980. When Kato ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly in 1982, Takasugi launched his first bid for mayor.
“In what other country can someone come out of an internment camp, come back and be elected to the highest post in the city,” he said.
In literature from his most recent campaign, Takasugi took credit for starting the city’s first recycling program, the city’s Neighborhood Watch Program and for “bringing thousands of new jobs to Oxnard.”
Many of his critics don’t dispute those accomplishments, but say his administration has made it easy for developers to avoid paying their fair share of city fees, bringing Oxnard to the brink of financial ruin. He defends his policies, saying the city’s financial problems have resulted from spending cuts by state and county governments.
“I’m very pro-business in . . . that, without businesses, the city can’t progress,” he said.
Because of his ties to developers, Councilwoman Dorothy Maron said, Takasugi has been able to solicit huge campaign contributions--which she believes have not come without strings attached. Two years ago, he spent a record $160,000 on his reelection campaign.
Councilman Manuel Lopez, who ran against Takasugi in 1988, said he believes that the mayor’s popularity and skills as a politician are not exceptional. He said Takasugi wins elections because he is the incumbent, and “once you get in it’s pretty hard to be dislodged.”
Takasugi, the father of five, said he campaigned hard for all his political victories.
Despite strong challenges by two Mexican-American candidates, Takasugi won a majority of the votes in Rose Park and La Colonia, the city’s two mostly Latino neighborhoods.
“During my business days, 75% of my clientele were Mexican-American,” he said. “So, I’m known among the Spanish-speaking people.”
Others attribute his success to his polite demeanor.
“Even if he may disagree with you he never gets mad at you,” said Flynn, whose district covers most of Oxnard.
Said Kato: “Most people don’t really consider him a politician per se.”
But there is the side that critics and supporters say is not always seen.
“He must be shrewd because of his success,” said Marc L. Charney, an Oxnard attorney who campaigned in June against a utility tax increase that Takasugi strongly supported.
During the November campaign, Takasugi distributed letters to voters, accusing Maron of violating state law by holding secret meetings. The district attorney’s office investigated and concluded two weeks before the election that there was insufficient evidence to support the claims.
However, Takasugi’s campaign continued to distribute the literature.
“He’ll do anything to win, and this last campaign shows that,” said Maron, who harbors some resentment over her loss to Takasugi in the November election. But even Maron shifts the blame to John Davies, the mayor’s Santa Barbara campaign consultant.
“I don’t agree with the type of approach that was taken in the campaign,” Kato said. “But I think that it may be attributed to his professional consultant.”
In another mailer, Takasugi attacked challenger Scott Bollinger. “At the age of 39 years old, Scott Bollinger does not have a job,” the literature said. “As far as I can tell, he has never had a job.”
Bollinger, who describes himself as a self-employed investor, demanded a public apology, which he never got.
Indeed, Takasugi refuses to apologize for any of his campaign tactics.
“I’ve had many years of experience in politics and campaigning,” he said. “And all I was trying to do here was to bring out the truth about my opponents.”