"Killer Klowns from Outer Space" pushed Sheryl Iannitti into a City Council race.
In October, Iannitti hired 10 workers and spent $50,000 to put up Halloween decorations in front of her Palos Verdes Estates home, with a theme based on the horror comedy film, her favorite movie. There were 8-foot-tall wooden versions of characters from the movie, as well as an elephant standing on a ball, a ticket booth and a clown car.
But then city officials told her that some of her decorations were on city property. The 13-foot clown head with black lights was OK, they said, but she would have to take down the others.
City officials called police.
Her husband sued the city.
The city countersued.
Now, as the lawsuits make their way through court, Iannitti, 29, is planning to spend as much as $125,000 of her own money to try to win a spot in the March 3 election.
Too many decisions are made in secret, she said. The city government has become a self-serving bureaucracy, she said, adding that there is selective enforcement of city regulations.
"I put my phone number on my ballot statement and can't tell you how many calls I've gotten in support," she said. "I get notes in my mailbox, flowers. There is more support than I ever expected there would be."
Iannitti probably will spend 10 times as much as her opponents. If the same number of voters cast ballots this time as in the last contested city election in 2003 -- 3,075 -- she'll spend $40.65 per voter.
She recently spent $19,000 on a billboard that will stay up through the election.
"It's a lot of money," Iannitti conceded. "I certainly don't think I'm buying the election. I'm purchasing name recognition."
Iannitti is one of three candidates competing for two spots on the council. The job, a four-year term, pays nothing -- no honorarium, no per diem.
Incumbent Jim Goodhart said candidates typically spend less than $10,000 on their campaigns, and that he plans to spend "as little as possible" of his own money. "I'm just a working guy," an engineer and project manager for an aerospace company, he said.
The other candidate, Planning Commission Chairman George Bird, a criminal lawyer, said he's lent his campaign $1,000 but expects to be repaid.
"I didn't run thinking it would cost me out of pocket," he said. "I had no idea when I was asked to run that my candidacy would be up against someone with nearly unlimited funds and a budget which seems to be precedent-setting."
Big money doesn't guarantee victory, of course. For every politician like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who spent more than $70 million of his own money to win his first election -- there's a Michael Huffington, who spent $28 million, only to lose a 1994 U.S. Senate race to Dianne Feinstein, who spent about $12 million to win reelection.
Palos Verdes Estates isn't a city where local politics usually makes for bitter contests. In an election like this one, with no burning state issue or national campaigns pulling people to the polls, voters probably will be limited to those who already have a particular interest in local politics, said Allan Hoffenblum, who runs Target Book, a nonpartisan election bible.
"It doesn't mean spending a lot of money is ineffective," he said, but it doesn't have near the impact it would if the turnout were higher.
One of the things money can do, said veteran Democratic campaign consultant Kam Kuwata, is allow you to identify your supporters and make sure they get to the polls, even if you have to drive them.
And $125,000 buys a lot in a city of fewer than 14,000, even in one where a lot of people have a lot of money. According to Money magazine, the city's median family income in 2007 was $158,232 and the average home price $1.77 million.
Iannitti's billboard at Western Avenue and Palos Verdes Drive does not feature her image. It simply reads, "A Government of the People, by the People and for the People . . . Abraham Lincoln."
She has hired a political consultant, Jeff Adler of Long Beach, to run her campaign and expects to produce piles of campaign mailers and yard signs.
A short, slight woman with red hair, Iannitti is the owner of Angeli, a children's clothing store in nearby Rolling Hills Estates. Her husband, Dominic, 44, owns a mortgage documentation company in Carson. The couple have two sons and four daughters from Dominic's previous marriage.
Neither has been involved in politics, and they have not contributed to campaigns. Sheryl has been active in community organizations such as Rainbow Services, a shelter for battered women and abused children in San Pedro, and the Palos Verdes Junior League.
She says she and her husband hold at least five charity benefits a year at their house, each for 500 to 700 people. "I feel I'm saying thank you to everyone who donates," she said. "Have an evening on me."
The Mediterranean villa-style home, with a view of the Pacific and a Bentley in the driveway, is 15,000 square feet and features nine bedrooms and 11 bathrooms.
The couple also owns homes in Cabo San Lucas and Lake Tahoe, which they lend to charities that auction vacations as fundraisers.
Iannitti's Halloween dispute revolves around property that is maintained by her gardener and looks to be part of her lot.
Her problems with the city started shortly before Halloween 2006, when someone complained to officials about a mannequin hanging from a noose in a tree outside the house. The Iannittis moved the mannequin to another tree.
Their theme the next Halloween was "Pirates of the Caribbean," and they built a 40-foot-long pirate ship in the frontyard. After complaints from residents, a city code enforcement officer handed the Iannittis a letter on Halloween that told them which area was city property and asked them not to decorate it again, said City Atty. Joseph Pannone.
Then last year the Iannittis decided to go really big and applied for a special event permit so they could block off a portion of Via Coronel and hold a Halloween carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel and other rides. The permit was denied, but the Iannittis went ahead with their frontyard decorations.
There were more props in the backyard, including a mirrored maze for children and actors playing characters from the "Killer Klowns" movie. The decorations were supposed to be a backdrop for a party for 1,000, the cost of which Iannitti will not reveal. Moments from the party showed up on YouTube. Planning it was Iannitti's full-time job for three months.
"If you could find my door, anyone could come," she said recently.
Pannone said the couple spent $25,000 on fireworks.
The city forced the Iannittis to take down the decorations partly for safety reasons, Pannone said. "The street is kind of curvy, and they could be distracting to motorists," he said. "For aesthetic reasons we try to keep [city property] not cluttered, and if one person is allowed to clutter, it's difficult to say you can and you can't. It's better to be consistent."
Thus a political campaign was born.
"My point is we need change in Palos Verdes Estates, and it's coming, and it's going to happen," Iannitti said.