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The 'Under-Funded Underdog's' Best Friend

April 24, 1988|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — Among the hundreds who crowded into the City Council chambers last week to watch the ceremonial transition to a new council was an unassuming, middle-aged blonde who occupied a front row seat.

Fran Evans, a conservative Democrat with bipartisan tastes and a boundless appetite for hard work, was there to witness her latest success story take the oath of office. It was in part--some would say in large part--thanks to the political smarts of this housewife that Cerritos High School teacher Paul Bowlen amassed more votes than any other candidate to become the city's newest councilman, even outpolling incumbent and co-victor, Daniel Wong.

Bowlen's win underscores Evans' growing stature as a local political force, a highly sought-after campaign strategist who has played a major role in several successful election bids, shunning pay, plum appointments and the limelight while helping the likes of ABC school board members Jim Weisenberger and Catherine Grant and Cerritos Councilwoman Diana Needham.

"Fran Evans is now the doyenne of Cerritos politics," proclaimed Chris Fuentes, one of the many losers in this month's City Council contest. "At this point, her political word is almost law."

"I would say every candidate in Cerritos would love to have her," said Bowlen, who credited her with having "a great deal to do with" his election.

Underdogs Preferred

Evans, who celebrated her 51st birthday the same day Bowlen took office, tends to bypass the anointed candidates, often choosing to promote those she calls "under-funded underdogs."

"I look for the person who's almost not supposed to be there," said Evans, who is married to a retired federal government worker who now audits contracts for McDonnell Douglas.

Although Bowlen had finished surprisingly well in his first council campaign two years ago, he was still considered a dark horse in this month's election, in which he lacked the financial backing and endorsements enjoyed by several other candidates. He estimates that he put no more than $7,000 into his campaign, contrasted with expenditures of more than $20,000 by the election's top spenders.

Evans' embrace of Bowlen's campaign in some ways typifies her style. During the first weeks of the election season, she said she was not actively working for any of the nine candidates pursuing two seats. Then she took a solitary trip to Las Vegas, where she says she frequently goes to gamble and "get my head cleared," particularly before and after an election. By the time she returned from the black jack tables, she had decided Bowlen was the one she would help.

Her candidates defy pat classifications. They are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, big campaign spenders and low-budget office seekers. They are men and women, incumbents and unseasoned political aspirants, running for the school board, City Council, or even state office.

"I just look for special qualities, and I can't tell you what they are," said Evans, a South Texas native who moved to Cerritos 20 years ago, before the dairy cows had completely surrendered to cul de sacs and shopping centers. She says she champions office-seekers who have integrity as well as a sense of independence and responsiveness to voters. "It sounds so trite to say, but (they're) just real people," she said.

Cynics say she carefully chooses candidates who have the scent of a winner about them, despite their frequent dark-horse status. But she is not without her losing campaigns, most notably the 1986 council defeat of incumbent Alex Beanum.

But nobody denies that when Evans gets behind someone, she does so with wholehearted determination, favoring an old-fashioned, get-out-in-the-streets approach to slick packaging.

'People Love Her'

"She drives herself like a sled dog and people love her for it," Fuentes noted.

Grant, an attorney and political neophyte elected to the school board three years ago, said Evans "literally worked day and night" for her for nearly two months. "There wouldn't have been much of a campaign without her."

Evans herself said she becomes almost addicted to a campaign once she takes it on, leaving no leaf unturned. "I'm always on the razor's edge."

Blessed with a loyal network of political contacts, she organizes events, helps write campaign literature and steers her candidates to the right places at the right times.

"She is the most brilliant campaign strategist I know," Needham said. "She just has an innate sense of the right thing to do in a campaign. . . . She will only support somebody she really believes in, and she really makes a difference."

Candidates Pushed

Grant remembers that Evans rewrote her brochures, instructed her to walk in neighborhoods she would have otherwise avoided, and telephoned her on Sunday mornings to make sure she was not taking the day off.

Evans, Grant continued, cut one of her political flyers "all to pieces and very much simplified it. That was a little painful. But it was right."

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