Local Activist Ponders a Wider Role in Long Beach

Times Staff Writer

It is not a response Justin Rudd expects from a would-be Miss America.

But as he coaches Miss Nevada in his Long Beach living room, asking her mock pageant questions about cosmetic surgery and her diet of chicken fingers and fries, he is unfazed by this potential misstep:

"What," Rudd asks Crystal Wosik, "do you dislike most about yourself?"

Miss Nevada does not pause. "My back fat." Rudd gives no grimace. "And my nose," she goes on. Rudd doesn't blink. "And my brothers make fun of my feet, so I'm self conscious about those too."

Phyllis George surely never uttered such a thing in her Miss America day, but Rudd has learned in the pageant coaching business how to shift negatives into positives.

"Now see," he tells Miss Nevada, "you want to be yourself, that's part of your charm ... but still bring out the positive."

Rudd's clients include Mrs. America 2006 -- whom he will coach again for this spring's Mrs. World competition in Russia -- and Miss California USA, now vying for Miss USA. He has made a part-time career out of guiding contestants toward success.

It's a wonder he has the time.

In Belmont Shore, a coastal neighborhood in the state's fifth largest city, Rudd is most widely recognized as an activist who has led thousands of residents to community service.

He has organized monthly beach cleanups, spelling bees offering scholarship money, creation of a dog beach, charity fundraisers, pet dress-up parades and toy drives for dogs in shelters.

"Justin gives people free snacks, hosts bulldog beauty contests, eschews cellphones," said Christopher Ward, naturalist for the city's El Dorado Nature Center Park, who also runs Long Beach's Adopt-a-Beach program. Rudd "has put together an entertaining and useful website, actually cares about making the city more livable and somehow exudes both creativity and integrity, wrapped up in a ton of energy."

Jane Parnes, board member of the Seal Beach Animal Care Center, calls Rudd "an amazing character" whose band of volunteers from his listserv of 4,100 animal enthusiasts hit area shelters the Friday before Christmas as part of his yearly "Operation Santa Paws" drive. The idea is to contribute pet toys, food and grooming products to Southland shelters, boosting the health of animals so they become more adoptable.

But Rudd -- a savvy self-promoter -- is on the verge of entering the often bruising field of local politics.

He is weighing a Long Beach City Council run and must decide by the Jan. 11 deadline. Supporters who volunteer at his nonpolitical community events -- he has 14 websites linked via www.justinrudd.com-- say his ability to mobilize thousands of residents could only grow with public office. The 3rd Council District includes about 50,000 residents in Belmont Shore, Belmont Heights, Naples and the eastern flank of Long Beach near the Orange County line.

Rudd lives in a modest apartment whose porch sign reads "Anything Is Possible." He said he makes no money off good deeds, eking by on his pageant coaching, the fitness classes he teaches and about $100 a week in online sales of a pageant tip guide.

"I'm a person who doesn't need a lot. I would say my one splurge is I go out to eat every night," said Rudd, who lives with a partner.

Fans, including Beth Barnes, president of the Long Beach chapter of Surfrider Foundation, see Rudd as a community leader. The national environmental group and others -- parents and pageant contestants, a producer of a sea otter documentary, an airline rep and some Girl Scouts -- were spending a recent Saturday sifting for cigarette butts and other trash on the beach.

"I look to Justin," Barnes said, "as our unofficial ombudsman of Belmont Shore."

Granted, elected officials must attend ribbon cuttings and other marginally silly photo ops, but is Long Beach ready for a council member who stages Mother's Day purse tosses and whose constant sidekick is a 40-pound bulldog named Rosie?

The city has been struggling with a variety of weighty issues, from homelessness and crime to the continuing financial woes of the Queen Mary. If Rudd enters the council race, only time will tell whether voters embrace a candidate best known for dog shows and picking up trash at the beach. Despite his volunteer efforts, Rudd is untested in the world of politics, which would require him to take positions on controversial issues.

Rudd laughs. "Oh, I think Rosie's more popular than me."

As he walked Miss Nevada through her pageant paces, he observed that the need to whirl a negative question around to underline the positive is a skill essential in both pageants and politics.

Rudd sat in his living room recently, notepad and pen poised, asking Wosik about her views on gun control and gambling, her volunteerism and how she keeps slim on chicken and fries. His dog panted and snorted around the room before collapsing on a chew toy.

The screen saver on Rudd's computer monitor provides a slide show of his life. He was born 36 years ago to a southeast Alabama family that still owns a furniture store in Ozark. His fraternal twin brother, Jason, is a second-term city commissioner in Dothan, Ala.

He is a graduate of Samford University business college in Alabama who arrived in Long Beach a few years after he moved to California in 1995.

He was a substitute teacher for two years in the Long Beach Unified School District and worked as a Disney stage performer.

Rosie, his bulldog, may look like a canine version of an old fat guy, but she is purebred, which is what drew him most recently into a civic debate over the American Kennel Club's demand that Long Beach drop its ban on dog breeding.

Rudd is concerned that city shelters can't handle the animals abandoned there and that breeding might add to the population.

His rallying of numerous speakers via electronic news alerts and links to his website played a role in swaying the City Council to put off voting on the issue.

He also helped establish a dog beach on the same sands where his monthly beach cleanups earned him an award this year from the Environmental Protection Agency. Through his nonprofit Community Action Team, Rudd and other city residents have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity over the years.

Some of Rudd's volunteers worry that politics could cramp his civic activity.

"He does [volunteer work] every month, year after year," said Tommy Kha, a consultant with the Hitachi Corp. who first volunteered for the beach cleanup years ago as a student. "He's like this role model to live by."

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