COVER STORY : A Runoff Is About to Run Out : Come Tuesday, a Contested Council Race May Finally Have a Victor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Election night is finally over," Long Beach Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg proclaimed in July--after city officials had spent a month picking through ballots, arguing in court and wringing their hands in the wake of a virtual dead heat in a City Council race.

As it turned out, the proclamation was about eight months premature. An election process that included a primary in April and a race in June will--barring a tie--finally end Tuesday with a special runoff between 7th District candidates Mike Donelon and Tonia Reyes Uranga.

The outcome could have ramifications far outside of the Rorschach blot of a district on the city's west side. Some say it could determine the philosophical direction of Long Beach's city government.

Despite denials from both sides, many observers see the election as a classic contest between conservative and liberal--or, as supporters of each often prefer to characterize them--a "pro-business candidate" versus a "progressive."

The council already has four self-styled conservatives and four members who are either liberals or moderates. The 7th District representative could be the swing vote on numerous knotty issues, observers say.

The candidates, both of whom have devoted years to public service, are well-known around City Hall.

Donelon actually served 79 days on the council before a Superior Court judge found in September that the June 7 election had been so flawed that the only way to sort it out was to hold a new one.

The 42-year-old general contractor describes himself as "very much a moderate," and he has no party affiliation. He broke into public life 15 years ago as a founder and president of the California Heights Assn., and has been active in neighborhood preservation causes ever since.

According to opponents, Donelon has shown himself to be a kindred spirit with council conservatives.

Council watchers in Long Beach nodded knowingly in July when Donelon, in the first vote he cast during his brief tenure on the council, sided with the four conservatives in electing Douglas S. Drummond, an ex-police officer from the Belmont Shore neighborhood, as vice mayor. The losing nominee was Doris Topsy-Elvord, the council's only African American, who represents a central Long Beach district.

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The vote for Drummond, whom many view as the council's most conservative member, had nothing to do with ideology, Donelon insisted at the time. "He was the first one out of the chute in support of my council race," Donelon said.

Uranga has served on several city commissions and has been active in such organizations as the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the city's largest community organization. The 40-year-old training and employment consultant also serves on the boards of a myriad of groups, from St. Mary's Medical Center to Long Beach Youth Centers.

Beneath the veneer of civic-mindedness, her opponents say, there's a staunch liberal. Uranga concedes that if she is elected, she is likely to side with council members Topsy-Elvord, Alan S. Lowenthal and Jenny Oropeza, who are most often characterized as "liberals" when it comes to philosophical matters.

If it had been Uranga casting a vote in July, Topsy-Elvord would now be vice mayor. "Why shouldn't there be a woman in that post, someone from this side of town (the less affluent west side)?" she says.

Of course, ideologies usually carry little weight in the City Council. "So much of what we get into are neighborhood issues or land-use issues, which transcend liberal and conservative philosophies," says veteran Councilman Thomas J. Clark.

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One byproduct of the election fiasco--which first saw Uranga certified the winner by six votes after the June runoff election, then Donelon declared the victor by two votes a few days later--will be tightened procedures for counting the votes Tuesday.

Polling place inspectors have been given additional training to spot trouble, says City Clerk Shelba Powell. They have been encouraged to set questionable votes aside as provisional ballots until questions can be resolved. City clerks from neighboring cities have volunteered to serve as special roving inspectors, Powell said, and new procedures have been devised for counting absentee ballots.

Uranga's apparent victory in the runoff was overturned after a recount requested by Donelon. The City Clerk's office counted several votes that had been left out of the original tally. Then city officials determined that eight uncounted absentee ballots should be counted, leaving Donelon with a 2,936-to-2,934 edge.

"The important thing (this time) is we're not going to be rushed," Powell said. "We're not concerned about how early we finish."

The two candidates are vying to represent the city's most diverse council district.

District 7 has large blocs of whites, African Americans, Latinos and Asians. It encompasses California Heights and the Wrigley neighborhood and a swatch of West Long Beach. It also includes a small piece of Anaheim Street and its surrounding neighborhood.

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The district was drawn four years ago when the City Council opted to create a predominantly Latino district on the city's west side, forcing some odd juxtaposing of neighborhoods in other districts.

Despite the ethnic diversity, there remains a power base of predominantly white, middle-class homeowners in Wrigley and California Heights who generally turn out in high numbers on Election Day.

Figures from the city's Department of Planning and Building indicate that the district has a median family income of about $38,300, with about 30% of households earning better than $50,000 a year and 39% earning less than $25,000. The figures, based on a survey of census tracts, include a few people outside the district.

There are two hot neighborhood issues in the district: Long Beach Airport, which abuts the eastern edge of the district, and the proposed Transwest Park Research and Development Project on a site straddling the Long Beach-Signal Hill border.

The airport, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, has been steadily losing business for five years, as one commercial air carrier after another has abandoned Long Beach. For most of the neighbors, it has been good riddance to the sound of jets taking off and landing.

But Mayor Beverly O'Neill and others at City Hall, recognizing the economic value of the commercial air traffic, have been pushing to revitalize the airport and bring in more daily jet flights. According to economists, each daily airline flight is worth $175,000 in direct revenue to the city and $6 million throughout the year in overall economic impact.

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Donelon and Uranga both agree that the number of daily passenger and cargo flights--which, with the departure of Alaska Airlines last month now stands at only 10--should be upped to 41. That's the maximum number that a federal judge came up with--and the city recently agreed to--after 11 years of legal wrangling.

"It's ridiculous to have an airport that's not an integral part of the economy of the city," Uranga says.

Donelon, who was once a leader in opposing more flights, says the district can live with 41 a day. Citing the agreement, Donelon says: "I fought like hell until there was a decision. But once there's a decision, you cooperate with it. It's a fact of life. The airport's going to stay there."

Transwest is the brainchild of Christopher Pook, the Long Beach Grand Prix impresario, who wants to build research facilities, an alternative fuels research center, a driving school and a one-mile track to be used for automotive research and four races a year on a largely abandoned oil field. It would cost $22 million.

Donelon says he is still neutral on the idea, which could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the economies of Long Beach and Signal Hill, according to Pook.

"He's got to prove it's not just a racetrack," Donelon says. But the candidate says he is willing to wait for independent financial studies of the plan as well as an environmental impact report.

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Uranga is considerably more skeptical because of the potential for neighborhood disruption, she says. "I'd like to see somebody build an incubator (a business project that generates permanent spinoff businesses and jobs) in the area," she says. "But a racetrack? I don't think so."

The ideological differences surface when it comes to discussing the city's budget crisis.

Donelon talks about "across-the-board" departmental cuts, excluding the police and fire departments, to make up for what promises to be a $20-million budget shortfall this year. A lot of city government could be streamlined, he says.

"We may have to contract out some (city) services," Donelon says. "It would be a last resort. I don't want to lay off anyone. But we have to make sure we're getting the most bang for our bucks."

Uranga agrees about the streamlining, but she is adamantly against privatizing services. "Mayor O'Neill said it well--that it was the last resort of a failed system," Uranga says. "It means you've failed at keeping your employees competitive. I don't think we've reached that point yet."

Uranga wants to encourage youth councils to advise adults in the city's neighborhood associations, contending that they can help young people become involved in civic issues and maintain public order.

"I can't believe how many young people there are out there who don't want to vote, don't want to register," she says.

Donelon says the key to public order is more jobs for young people.

Donelon, a trim, outdoorsy man, covered virtually the entire district, street by street, as he campaigned last month. Accompanied by Cal State Long Beach business major Jeff Gladinus and armed with a list of "high propensity" voters, the candidate often jogged from door to door.

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The contacts with voters were usually brief. "Here's one of my brochures," Donelon would say. "You can draw mustaches on it if you want."

Born in Houston, Donelon moved to Long Beach, his wife's hometown, 16 years ago to open a restaurant. Chris Donelon says her husband got involved in politics after she started circulating a zoning petition in their California Heights neighborhood.

"My mother and I were looking at some neighbors turning their garage into an apartment," says Chris Donelon, a jewelry designer and fitness trainer. "We said, 'We've got to do something about this.' "

When Chris Donelon got sick in the midst of the petition drive, Mike took over. He has been a familiar figure at community meetings ever since; most of the presidents of neighborhood associations in the district have endorsed him.

Uranga is a Los Angeles-born UCLA graduate with a degree in history. She moved to Long Beach 25 years ago from Compton. "There were Gypsies on our block (in Long Beach) and some people from Oklahoma," she says. "There were some Asian Buddhists and a black family. We were the Latinos on the block. It was a whole UN, and I loved it."

Uranga threw herself into community programs that encouraged diversity and strengthened ethnic groups. Her husband, Roberto, is a civil service recruiter for the city.

A sociable person with a deadpan sense of humor, Uranga relates easily to the people she encounters on the campaign trail. In recent weeks, she combined campaigning with an aid mission to some on the west side who had been flooded out during heavy rains. Uranga and her volunteers helped residents, some of whom spoke little English, fill out applications for emergency block grants from the city for repairs.

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In an Arlington Street neighborhood with numerous pro-Uranga lawn signs, residents dolefully showed her their damaged homes, some of which had rooms with as much as five feet of water from last month's storms.

"The city didn't even come with a cup of coffee," said resident David Baraza. "There were a lot of people here in the street with no dry clothes to wear."

Donelon has campaigned as an incumbent who already has a track record as the district's representative from his 79 days on the city council. The strategy has served him well in fund raising, as some groups have switched sides since June. For example, the Long Beach Firefighters Assn., which contributed to Uranga the last time, chipped in $1,500 for Donelon.

It had nothing to do with any failure on Uranga's part, says Bill Ardizzone, president of the group, which represents 450 firefighters. "Over the couple of months Mike was in there, we watched him very carefully," he says.

The most recent campaign finance reports showed Donelon raising about $27,000 to Uranga's $15,000. Many of Donelon's contributions come from business and real estate interests, including the Apartment Assn. of California, a landlord group, and some prominent Long Beach developers.

Donelon is unapologetic about his pro-business stance, contending it is a valuable perspective for a struggling city.

For their part, the voters, after seeing both candidates campaigning for much of the past 10 months, have probably already made their choices, both sides concede.

"Now it's just a matter of getting them to the polls," Uranga says.

The polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Mike Donelon

Age: 42

Occupation: General contractor

Comment: "People didn't know me before (serving 79 days on the council). Now they know me as a moderate. I'm very much a moderate."

Tonia Reyes Uranga

Age: 40

Occupation: Training and employment consultant

Comment: "For my volunteers, it's less a campaign than a cause. I couldn't very well back out and say, 'I want to go have pizza with my kids.' You get sucked in."

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