When Lawrence E. Horner was growing up in Indianapolis, civics wasn't his favorite subject at school. "What am I going to need this for?" he once asked his mother.
His mother was stubborn, however, and pressed her reluctant son to study government. As it turned out, Horner's studies would be put to good use.
Today, he occupies the mayor's seat on the five-member Thousand Oaks City Council. It is the third time he has been elected by his colleagues to the one-year position during his 11 years on the council.
But his stature in the largely conservative Republican community nonetheless comes as a surprise to some because he is a black man.
His was the first black family to move into the upper-class environs of the Westlake area of Thousand Oaks. He is the father of one of the first black children to attend Newbury Park High School. And he is the first black mayor in Ventura County.
"A lot of people are surprised," Horner said. The black population in the city is minuscule, he said, less than 1,000 out of a population of nearly 94,000.
Horner, 55, sitting in his comfortable Northrop Corp. office where he is manager of quality assurance, said the expressions of amazement from people of all colors are not uncommon.
"If it's a Caucasian person, they will look surprised and smile and say, 'That's tremendous' and start asking questions about the city."
"If it's a black person, it's almost too hard for them to believe. First, they'll say they didn't know there were any blacks living in Thousand Oaks. And then they'll ask, 'How did you get elected?' "
It is a question Horner has answered frequently. "I'll say, 'Just like a person is elected in the black community: You present yourself, tell them what you're going to do and tell them you'll see them at the polls.' "
Apparently, Thousand Oaks voters have been satisfied with what they have heard and seen, reelecting Horner in 1978 and 1982 by increasing margins after he won his seat by 37 votes in 1974.
Horner, a physical sciences graduate of Indiana University, moved to Thousand Oaks in 1968 when he went to work for Litton Industries Inc. He joined Northrop in 1978. He soon became active in, and later headed, a Westlake homeowners group and the Westlake Athletic Assn., which organizes baseball, football and other leagues for children.
Headed Homeowner Groups
Prior to his election, Horner was president of an umbrella organization representing 34 Westlake homeowner groups. With such deep roots in Westlake, Horner has acted as the area's representative on the council even though council members are elected citywide.
Although a registered Democrat--and the lone Democrat on the council--Horner has supported area Republican politicians ranging from former Assemblyman Paul Priolo and former Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. to current Thousand Oaks Assemblyman Tom McClintock.
His association with Republicans does not offend local Democrats, said George Webb, chairman of the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee. Horner "is a standard Democrat from Ventura County," Webb said. "Basically, he is quite fiscally conservative and a social moderate, but not really an activist."
Horner calls himself an independent, describing the Democratic Party as "tired," but criticizing the GOP for not being "in tune with reality in the area of social needs."
It is his independence and no-nonsense style of council leadership that friends and council observers point to when asked to describe Horner.
"He runs a very tight meeting," said Frank Schillo, who won election to the council in November.
'Very Good Captain'
"He's a very good captain, and he doesn't allow any funny business," said Lynn Bickle, president of the Wildwood Homeowners Assn., a group that has clashed with Horner over the development of private land in the city's northwest corner.
"Anybody who appears before him will know what impression they've made and where they stand, and that's a lot easier than having to work in an ambiguous situation," said Charles Cohen, a former councilman and now an attorney for developers.
Other council observers say Horner was rude and intemperate during his first six or seven years on the council.
"I think he has come a long way since he was first elected councilman," said John Beyer, a senior-citizen activist and faithful council-watcher. "He was a little bit arrogant at first, didn't care too much about public opinion."
"He's a little bit short-fused," Bickle said. "In the past, he has kind of ruffled feathers."
But, over the past year or two, Horner has become more responsive and listens more to people or groups appearing before the council with a problem, council observers say.
'Using Kid Gloves'
"He is now using kid gloves where he would have used boxing gloves," said Madge Schaefer, a councilwoman who has had several differences of opinion with Horner.