LONG BEACH — As always, the 6th District City Council candidates, armed with lists of registered voters, have come to the 1400 block of Lime Avenue.
Wherever else they may go in the central city and West Side seeking support, the politicians come back to Lime--and to nearby Olive and Myrtle avenues, and a handful of other neighborhoods that have residents who always seem to vote.
For 50 years these streets, with their well-kept homes and abundant churches, have been the heart of Long Beach's growing black community. They surround Poly High School in an intermittent network of stable residences, broken only by apartment rows and liquor stores and other reminders of the inner city.
And now on a hot August afternoon, two of the three apparent front-runners in a 10-candidate race in Tuesday's special, winner-take-all election pick the 1400 block of Lime to begin their canvassing.
Neither Clarence Smith, 55, nor John Rambo, 41, has personally walked the street before in this campaign, a two-month sprint to decide who will replace the late James H. Wilson. The 16-year councilman resigned in May after a fraud conviction, then died suddenly of a heart attack in June.
But as the election approaches, both candidates gravitate to the neighborhood.
Smith goes to church a few blocks away and for eight years has been the director of the city Park Department's Central Facilities Center, up the street about seven blocks.
Rambo lived here as a child, discovering on these streets the skills that would bring him a bronze medal in the high jump in the 1964 Olympics and a professional basketball contract with the St. Louis Hawks. He has coached youth sports teams on nearby fields for 20 years. And he has set up novel education programs in nearby schools while working in community relations for 17 years for General Telephone Co.
Smith goes to each door as the candidate who has raised the most money (about $12,000) and garnered the most endorsements from labor, community and religious organizations. His candidacy has the blessing of the central city's United Ministerial Alliance. He also claims the near-unanimous support of the active members of the NAACP's local board of directors, even though a third contending candidate, Frank L. Berry, president of the Long Beach chapter, insists that "several" directors will be voting for him. Berry also says that 4 of the 11 churches of the ministerial alliance have endorsed him.
Rambo is hoping that Smith and Berry split the vote of older, more conservative central city residents--the group Wilson credited with consistently returning him to office. At a lean 6 feet 7, Rambo has nurtured an image as a young and enthusiastic community activist who does not wait for the approval of the churches or the NAACP to try to force change.
At 4 p.m. the temperature on Lime Avenue is still in the 90s. Smith, dressed in slacks, white shirt and a tie, knocks on three doors and secures promises of five votes.
A 55-year-old woman says she had "an encounter" with Rambo 15 years ago and wouldn't vote for him. She likes Smith because, as his campaign literature points out, "he has served in the religious areas."
Nealie Whittacker, 73, says she and her husband will use the absentee ballot applications provided by Smith to vote for him. She knows Smith, she says, because he has been helpful to senior citizens at the facilities center at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. "Everybody I talk to says they're going to vote for Clarence," she says. (The Whittacker absentee-ballot applications are among 1,137 returned during the campaign, the city clerk's office says. Smith returned about 500, Berry about 300, and Nil S. Hul, a grocer and Cambodian immigrant, about 270.)
Two doors away, Charles Henderson, 42, and his 36-year-old wife, Patricia, also back Smith. Henderson and Rambo played together as kids, Henderson says. But Henderson, like Smith, is a city employee and both are church officers. Smith had spoken briefly at the First Providence Baptist Church the previous Sunday and been well received, Henderson notes.
Vow to Fight Drug Sales
As Smith goes from door to door, he emphasizes themes that have been adopted by almost all of the 10 candidates. They say they will better organize the community to fight crime, particularly drug sales, and to get a fair share of the new development that is occurring in most of the city.
But Smith adds a twist that he thinks has won over some voters. "If I win, I'll retire and work full time as a councilman. And that's a great advantage for this district," he tells a woman who has an "Elect Frank Berry" sign in her window.
By 5:30 p.m., the amiable and casually dressed Rambo is on the stump with his 15-year-old goddaughter, Shayla. He yells across streets to old acquaintences, asking about basketball skills and waistlines.