CERRITOS — The lineup of contenders in this spring's City Council election includes the unexpected and lacks the expected, complicating a contest that could significantly change the face of city leadership.
A year ago, after the passage of a grass-roots initiative limiting the time council members can serve, predictions abounded that the 1988 election would attract a wide-open field of council hopefuls eager to replace the two politically powerful incumbents who would be forced out of office by the term restrictions.
But legal questions have weakened the initiative's clout, letting Mayor Daniel Wong enter a race from which most assumed he would be barred. His most vehement opponent will likely be Chris Fuentes, a community activist whose last-minute candidacy promises to add fireworks to the election.
At the same time, two prospective candidates who could have attracted strong followings--former councilman Alex Beanum and Planning Commissioner George Ray--chose not to run in the April 12, citywide election. The result, say some observers, is a council contest with few, if any, sure bets among the field of nine candidates. The top two vote-getters will take office.
'A Very Close Race'
"I think we have a group of candidates who are probably starting out at the same place," Councilwoman Ann Joynt said.
"I think it's going to be a very close race," said Councilman Don Knabe, who is not seeking reelection because he plans to run for the state Senate. "I'm still surprised there were not more candidates. I expected at least 15," he added, speculating that Wong's reelection bid discouraged some potential candidates.
Although Wong has the advantages of a 10-year incumbency and a well-financed campaign organization, he is also running under what Joynt calls "the little gray cloud of Proposition H."
Proposition H, a City Charter amendment approved in a communitywide vote in late 1986, prohibits council members from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms without a two-year respite from office. It was passed on the assumption that it would force well established incumbents, including Wong and Knabe, off the council at the end of their terms.
But the city attorney has said the amendment's wording regarding incumbents is so vague that it does not preclude Wong and Knabe from seeking third terms. Wong has interpreted the legal opinion as a green light for another run, saying that if the voters really didn't intend for him to serve a third term, they can defeat him.
The blessings of the city attorney notwithstanding, the mere fact that Wong is running could emerge as a major issue in an election that may otherwise remain without substantial controversy. Fuentes and candidate Bernard Einson, both members of a small group responsible for passage of the charter amendment, have already complained that Wong is ignoring the amendment's mandate.
"They want a forum against Dan," said Mary Villegas, a local political activist who is supporting Wong. "They didn't go to court, so this is probably their way to hack away."
The council, hoping to obtain a court ruling that would clarify the amendment's effect on incumbents, offered to give the pro-amendment group $10,000 to file a lawsuit, challenging the city attorney's opinion. But the group refused the money, insisting that the term restrictions had clearly been aimed at the incumbents.
The sudden emergence of two candidates from the so-called Proposition H group is seen as a possible detriment to both. Joynt, the closest thing to a council ally the Proposition H group has, says the group's chances of carrying a seat have been eroded with Fuentes' entrance into the race.
"I think Chris' (Fuentes) candidacy hurt . . . I think his candidacy significantly changes the complexion of the entire election," Joynt observed.
Fuentes and Einson both rebut that, saying they are not a slate, but two like-minded candidates running for two seats. Fuentes, who has worked for many candidates but never before been one, says he simply looked at the roster of contenders and saw only one he could wholeheartedly support, Einson.
In the absence of Ray, observers say developer George Marsh is the most likely to pick up Knabe supporters. Marsh, a former Bellflower councilman who moved to Cerritos in 1984, has been lining up support for months, and he has the endorsements of Knabe, Councilman Barry Rabbitt, and Ray.
Rabbitt says Beanum's decision not to run will probably help both Wong and Marsh, since Beanum would have appealed to the same voters.
Defeated by Joynt two years ago, Beanum has long had his sights on this spring's election and had already raised $4,000 toward his campaign. Although he took out nomination papers, he didn't file them. Beanum says he realized he has too many family and business demands to engage in a political campaign.