South Bay voters tossed incumbents out of office in four cities, sending city halls a signal of voter discontent with crime, graffiti and strained city finances.
Incumbents in El Segundo, Lomita and Manhattan Beach were ousted in surprise defeats Tuesday. Even tiny Rolling Hills bumped 18-year incumbent Councilwoman Gordana Swanson, a favorite to win the race.
In Carson, however, where incumbents faced formidable challengers, Michael I. Mitoma, the city's appointed mayor, won the city's first election for the top post in a close race against retired economist James Peoples. Councilwoman Lorelie S. Olaes won another term in a squeaker against financial analyst Keith McDonald, son of state Assemblywoman Juanita M. McDonald (D-Carson).
That so many incumbents lost "is a reflection of how bad cities are in terms of the budgets and the recession," said Fernando Guerra, political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. "It's tough to be a city council (member) in the '90s. Councils can make a difference in zoning and planning, but if you talk about big trends like defense downsizing, their power to soften the blow is minuscule."
A new mayor and two new council members were elected in Avalon, but no incumbents were running for the posts. The status quo easily won out in Gardena, Lawndale and Palos Verdes Estates.
Voter turnout ranged from a low of 14.5% in Lawndale to 31.5% in Gardena and a high of 65.3% in Avalon.
Councilman Ralph J. Morrow Jr. was elected mayor, beating Councilwoman Barbara J. Doutt and two other candidates in the race to succeed longtime Mayor Hugh T. (Bud) Smith.
Businessmen Keith LeFever and Tim Winslow won two open spots on the City Council over five other candidates. Incumbent Hal Host did not seek another term, and Doutt gave up her seat to run for mayor.
Morrow took his victory as an indication that voters wanted City Hall to be more friendly to business.
"We have hospitals, we have cruise ships, we have a resort coming in from Arizona," he said. "It sends a loud, clear message from the community. They want a business-oriented council."
But the new City Hall leaders will soon have to come up with a way to keep the island's hospital and paramedic services. In separate advisory measures, voters supported their continued operation, even though the city is paying $520,000 this year to subsidize the hospital and pays $25,000 a month for Los Angeles County paramedic services.
Morrow "was pushing for keeping health care exactly how it is," Doutt said. "I was for keeping an open mind for possibilities."
Morrow's next step: "We're going to have to tell L.A. County we can't afford them and then figure out what we're going to do."
Throughout his campaign, Mitoma charged that Peoples, McDonald and city treasurer candidate Phyllis Y. Tucker ran as an African American slate. That all three lost--even though the race was close--was a signal that voters do not want racial politics at City Hall, he said.
"You can't run on race," Mitoma said when about half of the votes had been counted showing him with a slim lead. "You have to have a platform. You can't just say vote for me because I'm a certain color."
But the three challengers denied that they ran as a slate, even though they were all endorsed by United Voice, a grass-roots organization. The group had been formed to unify the African American community.
Still, race may have been on voters' minds in a city equally divided between African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Anglos and Latinos, Guerra said.
"It seems the Asian, Latino and Anglo voters went for the Asian candidates," he said. "Their Spanish-sounding surnames helped them out in the Latino community."
Peoples, McDonald and Tucker led after all the precincts had been counted, but an unusually large number of absentee ballots--which had been circulated by many candidates--pulled the incumbents ahead early Wednesday.
Olaes, for example, distributed about 1,200 applications for absentee ballots.
The campaign was bitter to the end. Earlier on Tuesday, Juanita McDonald said she would complain to the state Fair Political Practices Commission about a campaign advertisement in the Carson News that endorsed both the elder McDonald in her race for the Assembly and Olaes, her son's opponent. McDonald said that her office staff told Rep. Walter R. Tucker III (D-Compton), who placed the ad, that she did not want to be included.
"I was livid," Juanita McDonald said. "I do not wish anyone to be putting me in a slate with any semblance of disloyalty to my son."
City Clerk Helen Kawagoe handily won reelection against challenger Samson C. Labason. She has served in the post since 1974. Mary Louise Custer was reelected treasurer by a slim margin.
Incumbents J. B. Wise and Alan West were defeated in a city that has been struggling to raise revenue as the aerospace industry shrinks.
The victors, legislative analyst Liam B. Weston and U.S. Census surveyor Jane Waag Friedkin, said voters were upset with division at City Hall. Both West and Wise supported a controversial tax break the city gave to a hotel chain that plans to build in the city. As candidates, Friedkin and Weston opposed the move.
"The incumbents were making the same old tax-and-spend mistake," said Friedkin.
Wise has been on the council for four years and West for eight.
But West, whose daughter was slain in an early morning attack in her El Segundo apartment in February, said his campaign never got off the ground.
"My first speech was just about as flat as you could get," he said.
Wise said he was dismayed at what he called dirty politics. An ad in a local newspaper suggested that Wise and West--political allies--might be reelected out of sympathy after the death of West's daughter.
Throughout the campaign, challengers accused incumbents of ignoring the heavily African American and Latino neighborhoods on the city's north end, but their criticisms did not translate into votes.
Mayor Donald L. Dear, in office for 12 years, easily won reelection against aerospace worker Rafael Garcia and insurance benefits executive Philip Johnson. Councilman Mas Fukai, on the council for two decades, and Gwen Duffy, a 12-year veteran, beat challenger Steven Bradford, a recycling director for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.
Johnson and Bradford sought to become the first two African Americans on the council. They contended that the Police Department poorly patrols the city's north end, while south and central sections of the city get immediate attention.
The incumbents denied such favoritism and accused the challengers of promoting divisiveness in the city.
"There were so many twisted untruths brought up," Fukai said.
Still, Fukai said he did note that Bradford beat both him and Duffy in seven north Gardena precincts.
"I hear their message and I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure their needs are met, regardless of race or color," Fukai said.
Voters reelected Mayor Harold E. Hofmann, although Councilwoman Nancy Marthens captured a large number of votes in a last-minute write-in campaign. Incumbent Larry Rudolph was reelected to City Council, and retired office manager Virginia M. Rhodes won an open seat.
Even though Marthens was a serious write-in opponent, Hofmann said his victory speaks for itself.
"I feel good," said Hofmann, his voice barely a rasp due to a sore throat. "I feel very good."
But Marthens said the fact that she drew 409 votes to Hofmann's 829 proves that many Lawndale voters are unhappy.
"For a write-in candidacy this is a very respectable showing and I'm really not at all displeased with it," she said.
In her campaign, Marthens warned voters that Hofmann, Rudolph and candidate Bruce R. McKee would vote in a bloc, limiting debate and stripping the other council members of power. Rudolph won an easy reelection bid, but McKee lost by a slim margin to Rhodes.
"I'm very pleased," Rhodes said. "I think a definite statement was made to this council--that the three-man bloc is not what people are looking for."
In a city where no incumbent has lost for 20 years, all three incumbents up for reelection were ousted.
Voters bumped Councilmen Robert Hargrave, Peter J. Rossick and Chuck Taylor in favor of challengers David Albert, a manufacturing executive, Lawson Pedigo, a property manager, and Ben Traina, an aerospace contract manager.
The new councilmen said the city needed new leadership because of problems with crime and graffiti. And all three favor term limits. Incumbents opposed that idea, saying residents could vote them out of office if they were dissatisfied.
"I think people were getting restless in Lomita and weren't getting the changes they wanted," Pedigo said. "Now, we'll get to work."
The new majority also is looking to cut council pay, health benefits and travel allowances. Albert sent out literature showing that council members were applying money that was intended to provide medical coverage to life insurance policies that can be cashed out.
"It was just a matter of people being made aware of what's going on in City Hall," Albert said. "I think my letter got to the voters."
Incumbents argued that they were entitled to the benefits as employees of the city. Travel allowances, they said, enabled them to meet with lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington.
The challengers "all worked really hard on their campaigns," said Rossick, who has been on the council for eight years. "Some of them worked much harder than I did."
Councilwoman Connie Sieber was the only incumbent running in the race for two seats, but voters passed over her in favor of lawyer Joan Jones and retired account executive Jack Cunningham.
Sieber came in fourth behind lawyer James A. Shalvoy.
"Maybe it's just time for a change," Sieber said. She was seeking a third term, which she deemed a controversial move in Manhattan Beach.
"I knew it was an uphill fight," she said. "But I thought it was incumbent on me to offer a choice."
Jones and Cunningham had been characterized as pro-business and received strong backing from local firms, but said they were just as supportive of homeowners groups.
The election "will change the competence level of the council," Jones said. The council will "focus more on issues than on personalities."
Because of problems with the automatic vote-counting machines, final results could not be counted until early Wednesday.
The first machine, supplied by the Anaheim election consulting firm Martin and Chapman, failed shortly before the polls closed at 8 p.m. A backup machine arrived from Anaheim more than an hour later, but it didn't work, either.
"Technology has failed us," said Assistant City Clerk La Vonne Harkless. By the time a third ballot-counting machine arrived shortly after 11 p.m., the crowd had dwindled to a few dozen.
PALOS VERDES ESTATES
Incumbents Rosemary Humphrey and Michael Moody were easily reelected, and attorney William A. Finer won the council's open seat.
Challenger Massoud JavaDiZadeh vowed to run again.
"It's very difficult to run against an establishment, but we gave them a good run," JavaDiZadeh said.
Finer said he wants to ensure the Palos Verdes Homes Assn. and the city work together so residents understand that their homes have to meet building and aesthetic codes.
"One of the things Massoud played off was that people were discontented" in dealing with the homeowners association and the city, Finer said.
In this tiny, gated community, it wouldn't be tough to know if voters wanted to throw out their elected officials. That's why Gordana Swanson was so surprised at her loss.
"Nobody here can believe it," said Swanson, who has been on the council since 1976. "In a community this small I would know if there was a dissatisfaction with the job I was doing. There wasn't a sense that anyone wanted to boot me out."
Voters elected venture capital investor B. Allen Lay and businessman Frank Hill. Councilwoman Jody Murdock won reelection. Councilwoman Ginny Leeuwenburgh did not run.
"I am not devastated by this in the least," Swanson said. "It's the first time in 20 years I will have time to dedicate to my family and to making money without the demands of public service."
Hill "made a point of term limits and it apparently struck a sympathy note with some of the voters," Lay said. "Gordana has done a very good job for a lot of years and has been a positive influence for the city."
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Gordon Dillow and Lisa Richardson, and community correspondents James Benning, Samantha Dunn, Jon Garcia, Ann Griffith, Mary Guthrie, Susan Woodward and Iris Yokoi.
* ELECTION RETURNS: B7