He drives through the neat and cozy neighborhoods he represents in east Long Beach and calls them "Middle America." To Ernie Kell, that means a place where people are nice and productive and hard-working--attributes that admirers use to describe Kell himself.
From humble beginnings and a childhood spent on a North Dakota farm, a background he likes to emphasize on the campaign trail, Kell has attained considerable success in the business and political worlds.
At 59, he is a millionaire and a 13-year public servant who by most accounts is responsive, accessible, industrious and rarely hampered by his acknowledged lack of political charisma. It is easy to see why his political hero is Harry S. Truman.
The city's appointed mayor reads three newspapers a day, but avoids fiction or things he considers to have only entertainment value. And he doesn't listen to music--he doesn't have a radio or record player at home. Instead, Kell likes to make tape recordings of his speeches and listen to them while driving in his car.
He spends at least two hours each day walking the neighborhoods he represents, despite polls showing that he has a healthy lead over Tuesday's mayoral opponent, City Councilwoman Jan Hall. Kell says he doesn't want to take anything for granted. "It's not my style," he said recently. Even during non-election years, he knocks on a few doors in District 5 every week, as he has since first being elected in 1975.
On the Long Beach council, Kell is viewed by most of his nine colleagues as the man who quietly gets things done. Working behind the scenes, the part-time mayor--now vying for the new full-time, elected post--has built a coalition that almost always assures him of a majority on any issue.
Some say Kell's command comes not because he is an especially innovative thinker but because he has a deft ability to implement other people's programs.
Councilman Wallace Edgerton, a Kell supporter, conceded that "Ernie is more of a pragmatist than a visionary." But if it wasn't for Kell, he said, a lot of jobs wouldn't get done.
"If I have a vision, I'll sell it to the mayor and he'll sell it to the council," Edgerton said. The mayor "operates more like a congressional party man. He tries to build a team."
Kell says he has lots of ideas of his own. But recognizing a good plan, no matter whose it is, can often be a "vision in itself," he said. Even if Kell has not come up with most of the city programs being touted by his campaign, he says he was the official who made sure they were properly analyzed by committees and then effectively enacted.
"It's the people who you assign to these things that is the key," Kell said.
Harbor Commissioner Robert Langslet, who called Kell a tireless and dependable worker, said: "Most of us in the business community that have worked with Ernie trust him. He's very honest. When he says something, he follows through on it."
While Kell and his backers say he gets things accomplished by being supportive and loyal to his colleagues, Tom Clark, a longtime councilman and a political foe of Kell's, has a different opinion: "He basically has put the coalition together by helping them out in their campaigns."
Kell has helped his friends on the council by giving them small personal loans or contributions or by introducing them to potential campaign donors, Clark and others say.
Edgerton acknowledges that Kell gave him a small personal loan years ago, and Vice Mayor Warren Harwood says Kell gave him two loans, both under $1,500, during his campaigns. All were repaid, the officials say.
Kell, who can afford to be financially generous, said the loans involved "insignificant amounts of money" and played no part in council affairs.
Edgerton put it this way: Unlike those "with money and power who will buy other people . . . Kell is a very generous person who will help others with money, it's true. But he is a giver on an emotional basis. It has nothing to do with politics."
Kell acknowledges that he is personally close to several of his public colleagues. He has become good friends with Edgerton. He is godfather to Harwood's two children. And when Councilman Edd Tuttle remarried a couple of years ago, Kell performed the ceremony.
Even when Tuttle had to stage a comeback from alcoholism and an embarrassing public confrontation with black youths caused the council to censure him in 1985, Kell did not back away from him. Instead, he supported Tuttle for vice mayor.
"Edd Tuttle at that time did not need somebody to ridicule him. He needed a friend," Kell said.
Edgerton said: "That's his No. 1 card: loyalty."
Banker James Gray, a former harbor commissioner who backs Hall for mayor, criticizes Kell's scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours style of leadership. A strong coalition, Gray said, would be better built through mutual respect and "testing each other" on different ideas and issues.