Two major gay-oriented political organizations buoyed the campaign hopes of West Hollywood council candidate Gene La Pietra this week by voting to endorse him in the city's Nov. 4 election.
On Monday night, the board of directors of the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), regarded as the most influential gay-oriented political group in Southern California, voted to endorse La Pietra. On the same night, the steering committee of the Stonewall Democratic Club also backed him.
La Pietra hailed the endorsements as evidence that his campaign, racked in recent weeks by revelations that he once owned several adult bookstores and was convicted in the mid-1970s on state and federal obscenity charges, is gaining momentum.
"You might say it was a grand slam," La Pietra said the day after the endorsements. "I think it indicates what I've been saying all along, that my campaign has the broadest community support. These groups have reviewed all the facts concerning my candidacy and thought I was the best candidate."
His campaign manager, Rick Taylor, said the endorsements show strong backing for La Pietra among gay leaders and would indicate support from gay voters in West Hollywood.
"I think it's a sign of his strong support, not just in the gay community, but outside as well," Taylor said. "People have been looking him over with a fine-toothed comb and now they are confirming their support for him."
However, the votes did not completely overshadow the continuing controversy over La Pietra's criminal convictions and his failure early in the campaign to disclose them. Lynn D. Shepodd, co-chair of MECLA, said the group's board of directors also released a statement expressing disappointment with La Pietra's handling of the revelations.
"MECLA endorsed Mr. La Pietra for his long-time support of gay, lesbian and women's issues," Shepodd said. "We feel strongly that Mr. La Pietra would have better served the entire community if he had been direct and forthright on his past business endeavors."
Before Monday's vote, La Pietra's support from MECLA had seemed in doubt. The group's political committee had voted twice to recommend to the board that MECLA make no endorsement in the West Hollywood race.
Shepodd acknowledged that the political committee had voted for no recommendations, but she added that in all endorsements, the board has final say.
"This is not the first time the board and the political committee have had different opinions," she added. "We felt it was most important to base our decision on the qualifications of the candidates, and we felt that Gene was more qualified."
Shepodd declined to give a breakdown of the board's votes, but she added that "there was no split. Some people had different perspectives, but in the end, it was a comfortable decision for everybody."
At the Stonewall club, President James La Maida said La Pietra won the endorsement with two votes to spare.
"I think we needed time to reflect," he said. "There were still some of us who preferred no endorsement, but the majority (64%) clearly were with Gene."
Abbe Land, who is La Pietra's major rival (the third candidate is furniture dealer Stephen D. Michael), insisted that MECLA's statement about La Pietra's past convictions and the close vote at Stonewall indicate that his support in the gay community is far from unanimous.
"I don't see that these votes show any great improvement in Gene's standing," she said. "He's still scrambling. He had to push hard in the last week to get these endorsements, which he was expected to get much earlier. And in any case, I'm not at all certain that winning the votes of some gay leaders means that he has a monopoly in gay voters."
Land's campaign manager, Parke Skelton, pointed to a less-publicized recent attempt by some of La Pietra's supporters to ask him to withdraw from the race as evidence that La Pietra's campaign is still troubled.
"He's struggling to hold onto his narrow base," Skelton said.
Several members of West Hollywood for Good Government, a group of political moderates and business leaders, attempted last week to gather support for a plan under which La Pietra would drop out of the race and be replaced by a write-in candidate. That candidate was to be Ruth Williams, a city rent stabilization commissioner who has twice run unsuccessfully for a council post and is now working in La Pietra's campaign.
But the effort failed to attract enough support, Good Government members said.
"It's a trial balloon that never went anywhere," said F. Peter Freed, a West Hollywood businessman and Good Government member who supports La Pietra. "In any political organization, there will always be some who don't agree with a majority opinion. It certainly hasn't led to any defections."
Williams acknowledged being approached to run as a write-in candidate, but said she quickly decided against it.
"They asked me if Gene was not running, would I be willing to run? I said if he was not running, I would. But at this point, I saw no reason for him not to run, and I'm still backing him."
La Pietra said he was unaware of the attempt to ask him to drop out of the race. "I've never been approached by anyone to do that," he said.