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LOCAL ELECTIONS / LONG BEACH, SANTA MONICA : Divergent Choices for Cities in Flux

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a city many see as at a crossroads, the Long Beach mayoral runoff has offered voters a clear-cut choice between a tough-talking veteran of local political wars and a refined academic making her debut as a candidate.

The race, one of a handful of municipal contests in the county on Tuesday’s ballot, pits Long Beach City Councilman Ray Grabinski against former Long Beach City College President Beverly O’Neill. Grabinski, 50, is a former pizza parlor owner who brings a no-nonsense approach to issues. O’Neill, 63, is known as an administrator who uses a personal touch to forge alliances.

Their differing proposals to stem Long Beach’s crime problem may best illustrate their contrasts--O’Neill calls for adding 150 police officers; Grabinski emphasizes the need for gang prevention programs and after-school recreation.

What remains to be seen is whether Grabinski will be more hurt than helped by his eight years on the council and whether O’Neill--who captured the highest number of votes among 13 candidates in the April primary--can persuade voters that she is ready to lead the state’s fifth-largest city.

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Long Beach voters also could take a historic step by electing Latinos to the nine-member City Council for the first time. Two Latina candidates are making strong bids for council seats, and their election would build on Latino political gains earned in other cities nationwide in recent years.

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Elsewhere on Tuesday, voters in Santa Monica will choose between competing visions for their aging Civic Center. Proponents of a measure to rejuvenate the 45-acre site near the Santa Monica Pier say a multimillion-dollar make-over would transform the area into a vibrant town square with parks, ponds and walkways.

Critics contend that the plan would allow RAND, which owns land next to the Civic Center, overly generous development rights that could lead to increased traffic congestion and air pollution.

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The redevelopment blueprint would not alter the city’s Art Deco City Hall, county courthouse or Civic Auditorium but would add more than 1 million square feet of development, including a new police headquarters and a massive parking structure.

The plan was hammered out after nearly five years of public hearings and enjoys the support of the often fractious City Council, which rarely agrees on development matters. But the plan has powerful opponents, including state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who helped launch the initiative campaign that put the issue on the ballot.

In Long Beach, the winner of the mayoral runoff will take the helm of a city in search of a new identity. Once home to giant defense contractors, a thriving naval station and a population with homogeneous Midwestern roots, Long Beach has seen military cutbacks throw its economy into a tailspin at a time when immigration has created growing Latino and Asian enclaves.

Political observers say six-year Mayor Ernie Kell lost his reelection bid in the April primary because he was out of touch with the city’s changing needs. Now, the pundits are watching to see which direction voters will go.

O’Neill is running as the City Hall outsider, untainted by any connection to elective politics but armed with an arsenal of connections from her 31 years at Long Beach City College. She has painted Grabinski as part of an aloof government that has failed to address the city’s pressing woes.

“I think we have to ask ourselves: ‘Is our city better off than it was eight years ago?’ ” O’Neill said, referring to Grabinski’s tenure on the council. “I think the answer is a resounding no.”

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Grabinski, who brushes aside suggestions that he is the insider candidate, describes himself as an “independent spirit” on the council and argues that his candidacy represents a threat to the city’s elite.

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“I am one of the merchants of change. I think the old guard sees me as a threat,” he said. "(O’Neill) is more of an insider than I am.”

Grabinski and his supporters also have focused on O’Neill’s lack of government experience. They question whether a political novice can tame a massive bureaucracy that oversees a nearly $400 million budget and a city that is beset by racial strife and economic troubles.

“This is not the kind of place that you walk into and just assume you can learn on the job,” Grabinski said.

Despite such criticisms, political observers rate O’Neill the favorite--if only because voters are angry with incumbents.

O’Neill captured 23% of the vote in the April primary, winning big on the affluent east side that is home to the largest percentage of the city’s registered voters. Grabinski garnered 21%, with the bulk of his support coming from the western and northern parts of the city that are home to middle-class homeowners and growing Latino and Cambodian immigrant communities.

Since then, O’Neill has picked up key endorsements from the primary’s third- and fourth-place finishers--Belmont Shore businessman Frank Colonna and City Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg.

Political insiders say the endorsements could be one of the deciding factors in the race. “They are a symptom of the way the vote is likely to go,” said Paul Schmidt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach. “Endorsements themselves don’t change voters minds, but it certainly helps to have them.”

For his part, Grabinski enjoys the support of the police officers union.

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