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Norwalk Politics Dealt a Swift Kick : Upset Win by Napolitano Augurs Change, Confrontation

April 13, 1986|RALPH CIPRIANO | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — Grace Musquiz Napolitano's upset victory has sent a shock wave through the city's political establishment.

Because of Napolitano's election to the City Council, Norwalk will have a new mayor Tuesday, and in the coming months the city also may have a new city administrator.

Napolitano's victory also ensures a confrontation with other council members in the next few weeks over what she has characterized as lavish city spending at out-of-town seminars and conferences.

But it is in the long run where the Napolitano campaign may have the most profound effect.

As the first challenger in 28 years to unseat an elected incumbent, Napolitano may have transformed city elections by introducing professional political campaigns, council members said.

The Napolitano campaign "changes the pattern of Norwalk elections," Councilman Lou Banas said Wednesday. Banas, who lost to Napolitano by 28 votes, said her campaign proved that "challengers who are willing to spend the money and find a council's Achilles' heel can pound away on it and possibly succeed."

'A New Trend'

"I think that will be a new trend," agreed Peg Nelson, a council member since 1976. "Now that it can be shown that an incumbent can be unseated, lots of hopefuls will come forward" and conduct professional and expensive campaigns such as Napolitano's.

Council challengers in past elections usually gave polite speeches about such non-controversial topics in Norwalk as redevelopment and opposition to pornography. They usually spent a few thousand dollars on their volunteer-run campaigns and then the incumbents hosted victory parties.

Napolitano changed all that 10 months before the election by paying a professional, Randy Economy, $11,000 to run her campaign, and by investing $15,420 of her own money.

The campaign propelled candidates' campaign contributions to record heights. While no city politician had ever raised more than $9,000, Napolitano raised $22,591, Councilman Cecil N. Green, $38,023 and Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez, $30,632, according to the latest campaign finance reports, which were filed last month. Green and Rodriguez were reelected.

The Napolitano campaign hammered away at a negative issue--council travel expenses. In the 1984-85 fiscal year, the council spent $87,109 on travel and meeting expenses, an amount Napolitano repeatedly said was extravagant and wasteful.

The last mailer of the Napolitano campaign featured photos of the three incumbents smiling below the caption, "Why are these men so HAPPY?" The inside of the mailer says, "Because they traveled around the world with our tax dollars."

'One-Shot Deal'

The city's top vote-getter, Rodriguez, however, predicted that the Napolitano campaign would be a "one-shot deal."

"Norwalk does not have issues to speak of," Rodriguez said, adding that the large number of votes he and fellow incumbent Green garnered in last week's election was a "vote of confidence from the people that showed that they believed their officials are doing a good job." Rodriguez had 3,000 and Green had 2,980.

Rodriguez and Napolitano appear to be on a collision course over the travel issue, with council members now planning a trip to Palm Springs next month for an annual conference held by the California Contract Cities Assn. Last year, council members and city officials took their spouses to the conference and ran up a bill totaling $32,596.

During the campaign, Napolitano repeatedly referred to the Palm Springs trip as an example of wasteful spending, and said that the city should not have paid for expenses run up by officials' spouses. Rodriguez, however, said his reelection proved that residents are not upset by the travel issue, and that the city should continue to pay for spouses' expenses.

Banas also discounted the travel issue in his upset loss. Instead, Banas said that hundreds of residents who usually vote in favor of the incumbents did not vote for him this time because of resentment over Banas' role in pushing for the resignation of popular city administrator William H. Kraus in 1983.

Loan Defaults

Banas sought the investigation of allegations against Kraus that were raised by activist Ed White. Kraus resigned in 1983 after a report done for the city raised questions about his personal business dealings, including a number of loans Kraus had defaulted on and his business dealings with convicted criminals. No charges, however, were ever brought against Kraus.

"My conscience is totally clear that I've done the right thing," Banas said of the investigation of Kraus. Reflecting on his defeat, Banas said: "There's a reason for everything. Maybe the reason I was put on the council was to put an end to the Kraus era."

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