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The Greening of Beverly Hills Politics : Candidates, Critics Call Spending 'Obscene'

March 27, 1988|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

Running for office in Beverly Hills is an expensive proposition.

In a city where grass-roots techniques such as house-to-house precinct walking can be hampered by residential security systems or servants tending the door, political consultants say a candidate needs at least $50,000 to run a viable campaign.

The contenders don't always stop there: In recent years, some City Council candidates spent nearly $100,000 to campaign for a job that pays $330 a month.

This year's campaign promises to be as costly. Two of the 13 City Council candidates reported spending $25,000 each during the first two weeks of the two-month season leading to the April 12 election. Interviews with the candidates show that the most expensive campaigns this year are likely to be between $70,000 and $80,000.

"For a city of 32,000, it is clearly unusual," said Robert M. Stern, co-director of the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a nonprofit organization studying local campaign funding. "Beverly Hills may be the most expensive local race on a cost-per-vote basis."

$28 Per Vote

Since about 7,000 of the city's 20,000 registered voters actually cast ballots, a $100,000 campaign equals more than $14 per potential vote. Since 3,500 votes are usually enough to win, a winner who spends $100,000 pays $28 a vote.

Critics complain that the cost of running for office is keeping some potential candidates out of Beverly Hills politics.

Candidates and political consultants agree that the spending in Beverly Hills elections is getting out of hand. But they are also quick to note that, for now, it's necessary if a candidate expects to make a serious run at office.

"I find it appalling, but I have to deal with it realistically," said council candidate Allan L. Alexander. He said he probably will spend between $40,000 and $50,000 in his campaign.

"I think it's ridiculous," said longtime political consultant Rudy Cole. "But candidates think, 'It's something I have to do if I want to win.' "

"I think its obscene," said council candidate Ellen Stern Harris, whose campaign budget is $25,000. "Why anybody feels the need to pay $50,000 to serve in a position that is not a full-time job is beyond me."

Even Councilman Maxwell H. Salter, who spent $97,000 in 1986 to win one of two City Council seats, says the spending is too high.

"I honestly think that we should make a sincere, concerted effort to limit the spending," he said. "Looking back, I would have to say that I did more good walking door-to-door than spending all that money" on mailers.

Stern said several factors contribute to the high cost of campaigns.

He said the amount spent is determined by the amount of competition and a candidate's chance of winning--not by the affluence or size of the community.

In San Marino, a San Gabriel Valley city of 14,000 with an affluent population similar to Beverly Hills', City Council campaigns have traditionally cost only a few thousand dollars, according to City Manager John Nowak.

"They send out a mailer and maybe put up some lawn signs, and that's about it," said Nowak. In this year's race, six candidates, including one incumbent, are running for three council seats.

Torrance, a middle-class South Bay community, has a population (140,000) four times greater than Beverly Hills, and voter registration (72,000) more than three times greater. Yet the most expensive campaigns ($25,000) cost one-fourth of what is spent on the most expensive campaigns in Beverly Hills.

Candidates and consultants say the biggest cost of a campaign is printing and mailing literature, which runs between $5,000 and $10,000 per mailing.

Even though voter turnout in Beverly Hills is generally only 30%, literature is sent to all 20,000 voters, or about 15,000 households.

"You have to try to get the public interested," said Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro, who spent $127,000 in 1984 to get elected. "There is a perception among the public that those not willing to spend the money will not be taken seriously."

There is also the "fear factor," Stern said. "The fear that if you don't spend $50,000, your opponent will. If all sides were limited you wouldn't have a fear factor."

In the 1986 race for two council seats, Salter said he bought a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times Westside section for about $6,000 only after another candidate, incumbent Councilwoman Annabelle Heiferman, bought one.

Consultants 'Helpful'

"Nobody wants to take a chance and later say, 'I should have spent that extra few thousand,' " Salter said.

Heiferman said she bought the ad--which would cost about $7,600 today--because her consultants told her that if she didn't it would show "weakness."

Stern said another factor contributing to the high cost of campaigns is that they are becoming more professional. He said candidates are paying between $5,000 and $20,000 for political consultants and sophisticated mailers.

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