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Critics Call Edgerton 'Waffling Wally' : L.B. Councilman Thrives in Chameleon Role

August 17, 1986|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — On Councilman Wallace Edgerton's office wall hangs a bronze plaque from a liberal organization that chose him its "Outstanding Legislator" in 1985 for his 100% support on 13 issues such as the nuclear freeze, renters' rights and pay equity for women.

On the same wall, immediately above the small plaque, is a color photograph of the natty, square-jawed Edgerton with Ronald Reagan. Shoulders touching, the two men lean forward and smile.

"There are all kinds of dichotomy here," says Edgerton, a Democrat-turned-Republican whose history of switched positions on city issues has made him one of Long Beach's most interesting and unpredictable public officials.

He was dubbed "Waffling Wally" by a campaign opponent in 1984 because, after calling rent-control advocates "left-wing radicals" in 1980--and gaining the strong financial support of the city's business community--he became a supporter of renters' rights.

Changed His Mind

More recently, Edgerton, 52, a stockbroker and university lecturer on political science and public administration, changed his mind about being mayor. He walked away from the job even though two years before he had elicited a pledge of support from Ernie Kell, whom he then helped install as mayor.

Edgerton's final decision in July to support Kell for a second term was consistent with a decision he had made in 1985, but not with a more recent change of heart.

"I tested Ernie as late as three weeks before the appointment. I called in my chips," Edgerton said recently. "I told him I'd decided I wanted to at least experience it for a while. He said: 'Well, Wally, I wish you'd told me earlier. I've done a lot of work on this.' "

After a look of dismay subsided, Kell agreed to honor his pledge, both said. Then, a day or two later, Edgerton changed his mind again, saying he didn't have the time to do the job right. Kell was reappointed mayor.

During the last three months, Edgerton has also switched positions on two highly controversial issues--an entertainment license for a gay bar and dwelling height limits for Alamitos Bay communities.

Shift on Mayor Issue

And he has backed away from his fervent support last fall of a plan to create a full-time mayor with strong executive powers. In April he was still arguing that a professional mayor should have veto powers like a governor's or the President's. But three weeks ago, saying council members' powers should not be lessened, he voted for a weaker veto that would require only a simple council majority to override.

Edgerton said there were good reasons for most of those decisions. For example, he voted for the weak veto because members of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the liberal group that gave him its top legislator award, convinced him that a strong veto would harm the district-election method of selecting City Council members.

"When I got through talking to them, I had to admit they were correct. Sometimes these people sharpen you up." he said. (Though Edgerton now supports district elections, he voiced concern about the system in 1980 during a campaign backed by the Chamber of Commerce to switch back to citywide elections for council members.)

Edgerton said that he does sometimes have trouble making up his mind and may appear to experience a kind of "political schizophrenia."

"But this issue about Waffling Wally, I don't really agree with that," he said. "I think any legislator should be free to change their minds. You have people who put their feet in cement, then won't be confused by the facts or the evidence. . . . That's dangerous. I'd rather agonize. That's my personality. To be absolutely certain, that's when you get narrow-minded."

Regrets Some Decisions

Edgerton said his adaptability has enabled him, a businessman with a real estate license, to buck influential friends and support the rights of his constituents, three-quarters of whom are renters.

It has enabled him, a small-town boy raised by fundamentalist parents, to accept and support homosexuals, who make up a sizable part of his constituency. Those constituents returned him to office by a 3-to-1 vote margin over the candidate who called him "Waffling Wally," he noted.

Nonetheless, Edgerton said, he has come to regret some of the decisions he has made in recent months.

For example, he said he went against his better judgment in originally refusing Club Sylvia, a North Long Beach gay bar, an unrestricted entertainment license. He voted that way at Kell's request, Edgerton said, to show he was a solid member of Kell's team.

Edgerton also regrets attacking Councilwoman Jan Hall as "incompetent" and uncooperative, while supporting her opponent in the spring elections.

Then he twice quarreled bitterly and publicly with Councilman Warren Harwood on matters that could have been handled better, he said.

Criticism of Council

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