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LOCAL ELECTIONS / LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCIL : Picus Relies on Advantages of Incumbency

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tangible evidence of a 3rd District Los Angeles City Council race has started to emerge in recent days as candidates’ signs sprout on lawns and vacant lots and voters begin to receive political pitches on the phone and in the mail.

But there have been few indications of 16-year West Valley incumbent Joy Picus’ presence amid the increasing paid political activity.

Just three weeks remain before the April 20 election, yet only a smattering of Picus yard signs have appeared. There has been no phone-bank operation, no precinct walking and no political mail peddling her bid for a fifth term.

In contrast, Laura Chick--one of five challengers and a former Picus deputy--has already mailed 40,000 pieces of political literature to 3rd District voters. And a phone bank set up on behalf of candidate Dennis Zine, a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, is making more than 1,000 calls a night to voters, said Zine’s political consultant, Rick Taylor.

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Although the lesser-known challengers got out of the gate early because they had to work harder to inform voters about themselves, some read Picus’ lack of activity as a sign of trouble.

“It looks like Joy’s in a runoff,” predicts attorney Roger Stannard, a local civic activist and Picus appointee to a Woodland Hills planning panel. If no candidate garners more than 50% of the vote, the two top vote-getters go into a June runoff.

Picus campaign consultant Bill Carrick denies his candidate is holding back or being overly confident, ticking off a list of events the incumbent attended only last week.

“Joy is crisscrossing the district,” Carrick said. “She’s busy making personal appearances.”

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Taking advantage of her office, Picus goes to dozens of events throughout the district that keep her visibility high.

Saturday she greeted ballplayers at the season opener for the West Hills Pony Baseball league, appeared at groundbreaking ceremonies for the Platte branch library and spoke to an annual American Legion banquet honoring heroic firefighters and police officers in Woodland Hills.

On Sunday, Picus told parishioners of Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Woodland Hills about her efforts to clean up drug dealing at Lanark Park and then flipped pancakes at the annual Birmingham High School Dads Pancake Breakfast.

In short, it’s a traditional incumbent campaign.

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Such appearances are not the only evidence that the Picus strategy relies on the advantages of incumbency. Picus also has been peppering voters with letters about her legislative initiatives, letters paid for by the taxpayers, not by her campaign.

One Picus missive went to targeted households reminding them of her support for their effort to seek U.S. Postal Service recognition of the desired name change of a segment of the community from Reseda to Encino. Other letters have detailed Picus’ fight against graffiti and her opposition to the massive Ahmanson Ranch development in Ventura County.

This taxpayer-funded mail campaign is all perfectly legal so long as no more than 199 pieces of identical mail are sent at a time. But it isn’t popular with non-incumbents.

“It’s the taxpayers who are paying for Picus’ campaign,” grouses Harvey Englander, Chick’s campaign consultant.

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The real question is, will such a subtle campaign be persuasive enough to keep Picus in office?

Some wonder, especially because Picus is being outspent by her collective foes on the campaign trail.

The most recent reports showed that Picus had raised about $95,000, compared to the $130,000 in the combined treasuries of her five foes. That was an abrupt change of fortune for the incumbent, who in her 1989 reelection spent $263,000, four times more than all five of her challengers combined.

“The difference now is that she’s poor,” said Taylor, Zine’s campaign manager. “She’s not raising enough money to run the usual paid campaign of an incumbent.”

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Taylor predicted that the challengers will collectively outspend Picus by 2-to-1, and “that means trouble,” he said. Taylor speculated that Picus may be suffering from “incumbent-itis.”

“The Picus people may be thinking they can get by on name identification and a token organizational push at the last minute,” he said.

Carrick, however, is confident about the electorate’s temperature.

“I think we feel good about the election,” he said. “There’s a strong base of voters out there who feel warmly and positively about Joy. Our campaign does not have a big problem. We just need to mobilize our base and get Joy’s message out to the younger voters who don’t know her as well.”

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One Picus stronghold lies in the 3rd District’s large and politically active Jewish community. Picus is a member of the huge Temple Aliyah and was the Jewish Federation Council’s former community relations director in the Valley.

The Picus reelection mail campaign will debut very soon and, according to her campaign manager, Suzanne Lewis, a door-to-door precinct-walking effort will start this weekend.

Still, the incumbent may have some catching up to do.

Along stretches of Sherman Way and Reseda Boulevard, brightly colored signs have been competing for motorists’ attention for weeks, advertising the campaigns of Chick, Zine and challenger Robert Gross, a Woodland Hills homeowner activist.

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Charles Nixon III and Mort Diamond, the two other challengers, reportedly have posted some signs as well.

Zine, Chick and Gross also have been walking precincts.

During an afternoon walk through a working-class precinct in Canoga Park, a reporter found that voters were beginning to focus on the election.

Dorothy Dennis, a retiree, said she received a letter from the Chick camp through her senior citizens group and is thinking hard about who should get her vote. Mary Lou Ramirez, a Cohasset Street resident, said her large family got into a debate last weekend about whom to support in the race.

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“We’re very political here,” Ramirez said.

Her daughter, Irene Gonzalez, said she is concerned that Picus may have lost touch with the voters. “Picus used to go to Reseda Elementary School and shake hands with the kids and parents at graduation,” Gonzalez said. “Now she just sends a representative or a note.”

Clancy Hill, a retired electrician for the Los Angeles Unified School District who lives on Covella Street, said he and his wife are eagerly awaiting Election Day. “We’ve been watching this election real close,” he said.


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