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'Next time, some other things will have to be right.' : Politics Gives Newcomer a Harsh Lesson

April 21, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

SAN GABRIEL — Arthur Almaguer figured he had a lot to offer this city. He was an experienced businessman, a community volunteer and an avowed do-gooder. "I spoke to a few people, and they said, 'Go for it,' " he said last week.

So the 33-year-old substitute teacher and self-employed owner of a small office supply business went for it. He had 500 orange-and-green signs printed up, saying, "Almaguer--Share the Vision," and he declared himself a candidate for the San Gabriel City Council.

Two months later, an emotionally battered Almaguer sat in a coffee shop on Valley Boulevard and tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

Out of more than 5,000 votes cast in the April 12 election, he won fewer than 600. The top two council vote-getters got more than 3,000 votes each in a rancorous campaign that saw three incumbents swept out of office by a slate of slow-growth advocates.

Finished Dead Last

Except for a candidate who had withdrawn from the race more than a month before the election, Almaguer came in dead last. "It was like David fighting two Goliaths," he said. "I was challenging two well-financed campaigns."

Even more painful to this idealist and "born-again" Christian--one of his aims in running for office was "to promote Christian values"--was that he had become an object of scorn from slow-growth activists. Supporters of the three-man slate of City Council challengers singled him out as a "spoiler" and an "opportunist" with no credibility in the city's political life.

It was a bitter lesson in American political campaigning for Almaguer, a short, agile-looking man with a neatly trimmed mustache. "People always say that politics are dirty," he said. "They are."

The victorious candidates, who ran on a pledge to slow the rapid development they claimed was encouraged by a "concrete-happy" City Council, are more amicably inclined toward Almaguer now than during the campaign. "Now that it's over, I'd like to sit down with him and find out some of his ideas," newly elected Councilman Frank Blaszcak said.

Viewed as Upstart

But they persist in viewing Almaguer as an upstart who didn't even know where the City Council chambers were before he declared his candidacy. "As I said in the campaign, I don't feel that he paid his dues in the whole effort," Blaszcak said.

Running for office was an idea that had been simmering in his mind for years, Almaguer said. "It didn't spring out all of a sudden."

The oldest son of an Army sergeant, Almaguer grew up in and around Los Angeles. Always small for his age--he's 5-foot-2 3/4--Almaguer was obsessed by sports. "You can imagine all the razzing I'd get with the kids," he said. "I told myself I can't just be as good as the big guys. I've got to be better. That's what drove me--to be better than the best."

His athleticism drove him to participate in five sports during his senior year at Whittier High School--cross-country, junior varsity football, wrestling, track and baseball. "I was like a person possessed," said Almaguer, who was selected the 1972 "Sportsman of the Year" by his schoolmates.

He graduated from Loyola University and went on to a career as an administrator of private business schools in Los Angeles, the most recent of which went out of business last year.

Sense of Sportsmanship

From his youth, Almaguer said, he had always carried a strong sense of teamwork and sportsmanship. Now, as a volunteer soccer coach for 8- and 9-year-old boys, he tries to instill high values in his charges.

"It's something I emphasize with my kids," said Almaguer, who has two sons and two daughters. "If you're winning, don't rub it in. If you lose, hold your head high, shake hands with the winners and say, 'Good game.' "

There seemed to be little of that playing-field idealism in San Gabriel's City Council election this year. For more than a year, the council and a grass-roots group, Citizens For Responsible Development, had gone at each other in a bare-knuckle fight over growth. Almaguer saw a role for himself in the dispute. "There's so much animosity, you have to have a neutral person in there," he said.

Mostly, Almaguer wanted to portray himself as a business-oriented candidate with slow-growth leanings who could help turn the city's fiscal problems around. "I like to come in on a situation where there are problems and turn it around," he said. "You know, make that baby hum again."

But the other candidates--a total of seven, not including the dropout, were running for three seats--perceived him differently.

Drain on Support

While the incumbents welcomed him into the race, the challengers saw Almaguer as a potential drain on their own support. "We realized his presence in the election could have been a vote-splitter," said Greg O'Sullivan, co-chairman of the slow-growth citizens group.

"I expected to be attacked by the incumbents," Almaguer said. "At least they were cordial."

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