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93-year-old Hawthorne City Council candidate knows her turf

At age 93, Frances Stiglich has had plenty of practice keeping an eye on purse strings, municipal and personal.

Her scrutiny of Hawthorne’s City Hall phone records nearly two decades ago led to the ouster of an elected official who had moved to Hawaii but still collected his pay. In her current (and second) run for City Council, she has recycled a red T-shirt from an old campaign, stapling on a hand-lettered update.

“I’ve been yelling at the City Council for 40 years, and I’ve stopped a lot of shenanigans,” said Stiglich, who stumps for votes by walking precincts nearly every day.

She’s among the candidates in several Southern California cities and school districts with an election Nov. 8, when voters will decide, for example, on a mayor for Palm Springs and a replacement for Rep. Janice Hahn on the Los Angeles City Council.

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Though Stiglich isn’t the oldest Californian to run for office — a 100-year-old competed in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election — she may be the feistiest. She studies municipal documents, rarely misses a council meeting and is on a first-name basis with officials in Hawthorne, where she has lived for 66 years.

Four decades ago, she was living quietly with her family, working for the county assessor and paying scant attention to City Hall when she got wind of a large senior housing project planned near her home. She rallied neighbors to stop it, and an activist was born.

“I’m a gadfly,” she says proudly.

It’s not like she has nothing else to do. Widowed 15 years ago, Stiglich plays golf and, except for this busy election season, works out at a Gold’s Gym twice a week. Her doctor tells her she has “the body of a 60-year-old,” she says.

She drives her red 1993 Camry to San Diego to visit one of her two sons and uses a railroad pass to visit the other in Oregon. And she’s a regular at Hawthorne’s senior center. “If they all vote for me,” she says of her friends there, “I’m in.”

In other spare moments, she works in a wood shop in the garage behind her pale peach stucco home on a quiet cul-de-sac. She built her own bedroom furniture because she dislikes the fancy touches on manufactured fare. “Dust catchers,” she scoffs.

Her civic scoldings aside, Stiglich says she’s running because she loves her city: “Hawthorne’s been good to me, and I want to give back.”

Her crusades haven’t always turned out as planned. When she was trying to get the council to close a strip joint a few years ago, she invited a columnist from a local newspaper to accompany her to the “girlie show” so he could see for himself what a scourge it was.

“He ended up writing about how attractive the girls were,” she said. “So that didn’t work.”

And she once upbraided an official for making a $1.51 collect call.

But she’s best known for exposing what had been a well-kept secret in 1992: that Hawthorne’s city clerk had moved to Hawaii four years earlier, leaving an assistant to do most of his work but still drawing a $600-a-month salary. City officials said later that they had known what the clerk, Patrick E. Keller, was doing and hoped he would leave voluntarily.

After Stiglich discovered some telltale phone bills, the jig was up and Keller quit. The next year, Stiglich ran for City Council but came in fourth among eight candidates for a pair of seats.

For her current campaign, she budgeted just $1,000. But her sons urged her to “spend more of their inheritance,” so she raised the sum to $10,000, much of it going for mailers and red-and-white yard signs.

That war chest is more than some of her eight competitors for two council seats have, but it’s less than what’s available to the perceived frontrunners. With no incumbents in the race, City Hall handicappers privately give an edge to Olivia Valentine, a mediator/arbitrator and retired federal prosecutor, and two school board members: Nilo Michelin and John Vargas, whose brother Alex is running for mayor.

The other candidates are former city information technology manager Jose C. Gutierrez, Del Aire Baptist Church Pastor John L. Jefferson, Argosy University criminal justice professor Martin Offiah, businessman/information technology engineer Sean R. Walsh and retired salesperson William “Bill” P. Shultz.

All participated in an Oct. 11 candidate forum that is posted on the city website. Some also appeared at last week’s council meeting. Stiglich, wearing a quilted black vest over her campaign T-shirt and a visor that partly hid her thick gray locks, was one. She pounded the lectern while promising to “fight for the people” and “get money from somewhere” for more police.

That was after announcing her telephone number, a not-so-subtle dig at city officials who, she said, don’t return her calls.

jean.merl@latimes.com


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