LONG BEACH — The message crackled from the telephone answering machine at Ernie Kell's home Monday evening. "Tom Clark tells me he has five votes. Where did you go wrong?"
Kell, though cautious and pragmatic, allowed himself a little smile.
That an old friend, Ken Sobieski, would say such a thing, even in jest, reaffirmed what Kell already knew: He had the five City Council votes necessary for a second two-year term as the titular head of the nation's 37th largest city.
And, on Tuesday, Kell was reappointed on a 7-1 vote, gaining the support of a reconstituted council that might have favored 20-year Councilman Thomas Clark, a three-time mayor who wanted a fourth term.
There was no drama this time, not like 1984, when the council split 4-4 between incumbent Clark and challenger Kell, while former Councilman Marc Wilder waited until the last minute to back Kell.
Kell retained the support this week of Councilmen Wallace Edgerton, Warren Harwood and Edd Tuttle, the core of his 1984 coalition. And, with Wilder retired, he got his swing vote from Ray Grabinski, who on June 3 upset veteran Councilwoman Eunice Sato, a Clark supporter two years ago.
Clark also voted for Kell. So did Wilder's successor, Evan Anderson Braude, although Kell said he had not thought it necessary to solicit Braude's vote. Only Councilwoman Jan Hall, whom Kell opposed in her recent bitter race with dentist Jim Serles, voted against the mayor.
Reserved and Likeable
Kell, 58, a reserved and likeable man, a self-made millionaire of modest beginnings, said he was honored by the reappointment. "It's the highest position I have ever held," he said.
He praised his supporters, especially Edgerton, who Kell said "would be Mayor Edgerton today had he chose to run for the office." As part of a gentleman's agreement struck in 1984, Kell vowed to support Edgerton this year, but Edgerton begged off months ago, saying he did not have enough time to earn a living and also be mayor.
Kell also lauded Tuttle, who, staging a comeback from alcoholism and an ugly public confrontation with black youths that led to his 1985 council censure, was chosen vice mayor on a 5-3 vote, with Clark, Hall and Braude dissenting.
Kell's reappointment climaxed what supporters said was a strikingly successful first term. They said that by working full time in a part-time position, by orchestrating the Year 2000 long-range planning process, and by holding together a council coalition that frequently pulls in different directions, he proved he could be a leader on citywide issues.
It was that leadership quality that some of the city's most well-known citizens--now Kell backers--had doubted in 1984, even though Kell had served as councilman from the suburban 5th District for nine years.
The vote was also a personal victory for Kell, who as a young man struggled to overcome a severe stutter and who remains today uncomfortable when making a speech. A shy country boy as a child in North Dakota, a merchant seaman in Saudi Arabia at 17 and still a hired hand at 27, he parlayed a night-school engineering education into successful drafting and real estate development companies. By age 43, he could retire.
Now, as mayor, Kell said he probably will be the favorite if the city decides to elect a full-time mayor in 1988. The mayor now makes $13,800. A proposal that calls for a full-time, $68,500-a-year mayor, elected citywide, is before the council, which must approve it by Aug. 8 if it is to make the November ballot.
For that inside track, Kell must thank Grabinski, whom the mayor did not openly support in the June 3 election. Aware of Sato's popularity with 7th District voters (she had not been seriously challenged since 1975), Kell had contributed $175 to her campaign in 1985. He said, however, that he was privately rooting for Grabinski, and on election night he was at the victory celebration. Grabinski almost immediately voiced his support for Kell.
"I think something that a lot of people overlooked is that Ernie and I, without really trying, have had the same views on issues for a long time and that has brought us together," Grabinski said this week.
Grabinski and Kell also have similar political backgrounds as community activists who have challenged the conservative Long Beach establishment.
Kell, an early member of the liberal Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, first won his council seat in 1975 while advocating a change in the City Charter to elect council members by district instead of citywide. He spent about $18,000 of his own money in successfully promoting that change in 1976 and another $15,000 in 1980, when the change was again challenged by the Chamber of Commerce and others.
Likewise, Grabinski emerged as a spokesman for a California Heights community group beginning in 1980. He was supported by LBACI and 19 other community, labor and special-interest groups in defeating Sato.
Doesn't Fault Kell