New Players Enter Political Scene : Elections: Police officers and firefighters threw themselves into the local campaigns. Their efforts got mixed results.
In an unprecedented level of political activity, South Bay firefighters feverishly put out flyers and police officers enthusiastically pursued voters before Tuesday’s election. But the results of their efforts were mixed.
In Hermosa Beach, firefighters endorsed two City Council candidates for the first time in the department’s 85-year history. In El Segundo, the fire union jumped into its first campaign in years. And in Hawthorne, emergency workers said they campaigned in the city’s election with more intensity than ever before.
“It’s a very big trend for fire departments to get involved in politics,” said Michael Lines, president of the Hermosa Beach Firefighters’ Assn. “It’s sweeping across California. You will see more and more political action and involvement by firefighters.”
Behind the politicking was a fear that an unfriendly City Hall might meddle in department affairs or even abolish the department.
South Bay firefighter groups were most successful in El Segundo, where their favored council candidate, Janice Cruikshank, swept into office with a solid 44% of the vote in a four-way race.
El Segundo Fire Capt. Tom Kennedy, who serves as vice president of the El Segundo Firefighters Assn., said the group became politically involved in response to a bitter contract dispute that reduced benefits for firefighters.
Cruikshank could not say enough about the firefighters group, whose members spent scores of hours walking precincts, distributing flyers, and even transporting some voters to the polls. They also contributed $249 to her campaign--$1 under the maximum allowed by city ordinance. It was the largest single contribution she received.
“They were always there, no matter what we needed,” Cruikshank said. “Without the support from these young men, a lot of times I would have thrown up my hands and said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Although some critics said the contributions would make Cruikshank beholden to the firefighters’ demands, both she and Kennedy denied they made any deals.
“I didn’t promise them anything except that I would listen to them,” Cruikshank said.
In response to Cruikshank’s victory, Kennedy said candidates will probably court the firefighters in future races. And the firefighters, he predicted, will greatly increase their involvement in political campaigns.
“The main thing we learned is we are a very, very viable (and) powerful force within this community,” he said.
Hermosa Beach police approached the crowded race for two City Council seats with intensity this year because the current council had considered replacing police officers with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies. And, although that plan had been abandoned by Election Day, its significance was not lost on the council candidates--all 10 of whom made it clear they opposed the dismantling of the city’s police force.
During the campaigning, the Hermosa Beach Police Officers’ Assn. commissioned a cost analysis of the two departments, sponsored a candidates’ forum and donated $100 to all 10 candidates.
Sgt. Wally Moore, the police union spokesman, said officers donated money to all the candidates instead of offering selected endorsements because all of them spoke out against bringing sheriff’s deputies to town. He also said endorsements can be the “kiss of death” in campaigns if they create a perception among voters that a candidate is beholden to special-interest groups.
The fire union--hoping to preempt any thought at City Hall of disbanding the department--was also active in this year’s campaigning but used a different approach than city police officers. Forgoing dollar donations, the firefighters instead issued public endorsements of two candidates and campaigned against a third. They also offered to drive any voters who were interested to the polls, but no one took them up on the offer.
One fire union-backed candidate, Sam Edgerton, beat out all other contenders for the council, but Mike D'Amico, the other candidate backed by firefighters, was unsuccessful. Robert Benz, who won the second seat, did not receive the union’s endorsement, but firefighters said after the election that they did not object to Benz being on the council.
Merna Marshall, whom the firefighters had campaigned against, said the fire union had a “small impact” on her unsuccessful bid for council.
“I didn’t even want their endorsement because I didn’t want the public thinking these guys have me wrapped around their finger,” Marshall said.
In Hawthorne, the police and fire unions were inspired to unprecedented levels of political campaigning by a clash over whether the city should pay for a study comparing the cost of its emergency services with those available from Los Angeles County.
For years, City Councilwoman Ginny Lambert has favored getting a cost survey from the county. But she has always been overruled by her colleagues, who have argued that the survey is unnecessary because the city’s services are superior.
When Lambert announced her mayoral bid this summer, the Hawthorne Firefighters Assn. and the Hawthorne Police Officers Assn. decided to lobby against her and two other council candidates--Martha Bails and Ray Sulser--who also favored the study.
The firefighters contributed $1,000 to council candidates Jimmie L. Williams Jr. and Larry Guidi, as well as mayoral candidate Steve Andersen, whereas the police officers group favored Guidi and current Mayor Betty Ainsworth for council and Andersen for mayor. Although the police union initially said it would not contribute to any candidate’s campaign, it did give $1,000 to Guidi’s campaign, according to a late contribution report.
In addition to contributions, members of both political groups spent hundreds of off-duty hours sponsoring picnics, canvassing neighborhoods and distributing flyers.
Hawthorne police officer Greg Chidley, vice president of the police union, said members previously were reluctant to get involved in politics because a candidate they backed several years ago “turned out not to be a real supporter of the police after all.” But they decided to take their chances this election, he said, “because the issues are so great and have such a lasting impact on the future of the Police Department . . .”
The unions’ efforts, however, were only partly successful.
Guidi and Ainsworth won seats on the City Council, but Williams, who was supported by the firefighters, placed second to last among six candidates. And, despite the groups’ vigorous lobbying against Lambert, she is leading Andersen in the race for mayor by eight votes. Her victory, however, remains uncertain until county officials tally uncounted absentee ballots.
Lambert said Thursday that her margin probably would have been larger if the unions had not poured so much money into Andersen’s campaign. She charged that many of the unions’ flyers “twisted her words” and cost her votes.
Although Chidley and Kenneth Baker, president of the fire union, expressed surprise at Lambert’s showing, they nevertheless vowed to become increasingly involved in city politics in future races.
“It’s the first time we ever tried to do anything like that, to try to get into a campaign like that,” Baker said. “I think we’ll continue until we do it right.”