LONG BEACH — With the resignation and death of 16-year Councilman James H. Wilson, 10 candidates--including three of the central area's best-known residents--have been drawn into a special 6th District race for City Council.
Wilson, who was convicted on 21 fraud counts before his May 16 resignation and sudden death from a heart attack in June, had faced only one serious election challenge since 1970.
But a long line of candidates--from the local NAACP president to an Olympic track medalist to a Cambodian immigrant businessman--will be on the Aug. 26 ballot, seeking the $12,600-a-year seat.
As a result, the 6th District is already alive with fund-raisers and endorsement interviews, and with aggressive maneuvering by candidates trying to gain early backing from voters who traditionally turn out in small numbers.
Candidates are aware of how few votes may be sufficient to win, especially this year with 10 in the race and a winner-take-all special election. Some say the winner may need only 600 to 900 votes to take a seat on the City Council.
There are 46,000 residents in the district, which stretches from Walnut Avenue on the east through the central city and into the industrial West Side. But it has just 10,840 registered voters, and only 2,403 of those turned out in a 1984 Wilson landslide.
"The 6th District has been dead politically, but now it's really coming to life," said candidate Dezebee Tyrone Miles, who received 181 votes against Wilson two years ago.
Prized by most candidates are those voters Wilson credited with consistently returning him to office--middle-aged and elderly residents, pioneers of a black community that has quadrupled in size since 1960.
Array of Special Problems
They have emerged as the most active members of a district that, according to census figures, is the city's youngest, poorest, least educated and most transient. In 1983, nearly one-third of all district residents received some form of public assistance, and city officials say the district's Southeast Asian and Latino immigrant populations have increased since then. The district had about equal numbers of blacks, whites and Latinos in 1980, but reapportionment in 1982 increased the percentage of racial minorities.
Many of those voters who supported Wilson are members of two institutions that are probably the central city's most powerful, the NAACP and the church.
Frank L. Berry, 43, president of the local NAACP chapter for eight years and a longtime ally of Wilson, said he has the endorsements of several members of the 26-person NAACP board, although that organization as policy does not endorse candidates.
But Clarence Smith, 55, another NAACP board member, is backed by the organization's vice president, Lillie Mae Wesley. Smith also claims the endorsement of the United Ministerial Alliance, an organization with representatives from most black churches in the central city.
Berry, however, said that some ministers have assured him of their support.
John B. Rambo, 41, a third candidate who has been highly visible in community affairs, is not seeking NAACP support, nor does he care much for the kind of slow-footed leadership he says that organization has provided locally.
"If I had sat around waiting for the NAACP to approve (of his community projects), I'd probably still be waiting," said Rambo, a bronze medalist in the Olympic high jump in 1964 who has organized successful youth sports and education programs.
Rambo, the only candidate to hire a professional campaign consultant, joins Berry and Smith and nearly every other candidate in saying that 6th District leadership has been ineffective and the district forgotten by City Hall.
Most candidates say crime is the most pressing problem in the district, which had more rape, murder and assault than any other in 1985.
An assortment of other problems, many common to poor communities nationwide, also blight the area, they say. Drugs are hawked openly, gangs operate with near impunity, graffiti is commonplace, jobs are few, and too much housing is old and deteriorating.
"Nobody gives a damn about the 6th District," said candidate Nil S. Hul, a 1975 immigrant, grocery store owner and past president of the Long Beach-based Cambodian Assn. of America.
"The 6th District does not get its fair share," Hul said. "You can go to the 6th District and you can buy drugs almost anywhere. You go to Belmont Shore and you see walking policemen. Do you see walking policemen in 6th District? No. . . . We get ripped off."
Rambo said: "We've got a tremendous drug problem. We've got 9- and 10-year-olds selling crack (cooked cocaine)."
City-arranged jobs with career opportunities may be part of the answer, he said. "You have to have sincere benefits at the end of the rainbow or else don't do it," he said.