Long Beach voters ushered in a new era on Tuesday, soundly rejecting two-term Mayor Ernie Kell and setting up a runoff for his seat between a political newcomer and a City Hall insider.
Beverly O'Neill, the former president of Long Beach City College, led all 13 mayoral candidates in her first bid for public office. But O'Neill fell far short of the 50%-plus-one-vote mark needed to win the race outright. She faces the second-place finisher, City Councilman Ray Grabinski in a June 7 runoff.
Kell finished fifth. Also running ahead of him were Belmont Shore businessman Frank Colonna, the leading fund-raiser in the mayoral race, and City Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg.
The white-haired Kell, whose 13 years as a city councilman and six as mayor had made his name synonymous with City Hall, seemed to concede defeat with each new update of voting results Tuesday night. At several points, he clutched the arms of supporters and told them, softly, "One door closes, another door opens."
"The voters obviously wanted change," a subdued Kell said after learning the final results at Ninos Restaurant, his traditional election-night roost. "I think this has been a tough year for people and I accept that. I'm just proud of what we accomplished in the last 19 years."
In other Long Beach elections, two candidates hoping to become the City Council's first Latino members will continue their bids in June runoffs.
Former Long Beach school board member Jenny Oropeza was the top vote-getter in the 1st District council race. She will face Dianne McNinch, a longtime community organizer. In the 3rd District, Tonia Reyes Uranga was second to Mike Donelon, a general contractor.
A runoff also is set for the 9th District, where incumbent Councilman Warren Harwood trailed first-time candidate Jerry Schultz, a sheriff's deputy. During the campaign, Harwood was often criticized by his six challengers for his reputation as a council naysayer, the member most likely to cast the lone dissenting vote.
Two council incumbents won reelection by capturing more than 50% of the vote. The winners include 3rd District Councilman Douglas Drummond, who overcame speculation that he could suffer at the polls because of anti-gay remarks he made at a conservative forum last fall.
Two of his challengers said they decided to run, in part, after Drummond said he favored Cuban leader Fidel Castro's idea of quarantining gay men who are HIV-positive. But Drummond, who later apologized and voted with the council to censure himself, said the episode was behind him. "The public knew I apologized for those remarks and they accepted that," he said.
Also, Councilman Les Robbins easily recaptured his 5th District seat.
City Prosecutor John A. Vander Lans and City Auditor Gary L. Burroughs, meanwhile, fended off rare challenges to win reelection.
A ballot measure to outlaw smoking in most buildings in the city won overwhelming approval, but voters soundly rejected a measure that would have given the city Water Department more power to purchase land.
In the Long Beach Unified School District, marriage counselor Bonnie Lowenthal overcame opposition from school officials and overwhelmingly won election. Lowenthal, 54, replaces Oropeza, the board's first and only Latino member, who opted to run for the City Council.
School officials, noting the changing ethnic makeup of the district, had urged voters to replace Oropeza with another Latino, but Lowenthal defeated social services worker Olivia Nieto Herrera and Jerome Orlando Torres, an administrative analyst for the city of Long Beach.
In the mayor's race, political observers said the vote against Kell was a vote against the Long Beach of old, in which most residents were white and middle class. Kell, his challengers said, had lost touch with the needs of the increasingly diverse city, which has lost thousands of jobs to defense cutbacks in recent years and experienced the growth of immigrant Latino and Asian populations.
"Ernie Kell's showing in this race reflected the pent-up frustration and desire for change in a different direction," said Jeff Adler, a veteran of several Long Beach races, including Kell's two previous mayoral campaigns.
O'Neill, 63, the City Hall outsider, said her theme of civic renewal and her slogan "Make Long Beach proud again," hit home with voters looking for an alternative. "In our growth from a small city to a big city, we lost a lot--a sense of community, a sense of safety," she said. "The voters feel that there needs to be a new direction. I represent change."
Although Grabinski, 50, has spent two terms on the City Council, he also has tried to portray himself as an agent of change. Grabinski is often characterized as a populist politician, and pundits have referred to him as the "people's candidate." He said his neighborhood connections and his longtime commitment to law enforcement appealed to voters.
Grabinski and O'Neill pledged to wage "above-board" campaigns in the runoff, sticking to the issues and avoiding mudslinging. But on election night Grabinski had already begun taking jabs at his opponent.
"I've got a lot of successful government experience, versus her experience in one of the biggest bureaucracies there is, the Southern California education system," he said of O'Neill.
To many community leaders, an O'Neill-Grabinski matchup offers a break with the past. "For the first time neighborhood organizations and small businesses--people who have traditionally been outside the system--will have a voice," said Jose Ulloa, a community leader from central Long Beach.
For Kell, 65, the loss was his first since being elected to the City Council in 1975. From the beginning of this race, Kell seemed to be fighting an uphill battle.
Last July, he began walking door to door to reintroduce himself to voters, stopping at more than 5,000 residences.
Kell didn't use a political consultant this time, relying instead on his wife, Jackie, and a close-knit group of volunteers.
Times staff writer Edmund Newton and community correspondents Emily Adams and Psyche Pascual contributed to this story.