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The City Election : Bernardi Win Is for Little People, His Backers Say

June 08, 1989|AMY PYLE and STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro welcomed his victorious colleague Ernani Bernardi to the council meeting Wednesday with an admonishment to "please get his 'no' button replaced. He will need it for the next four years."

Bernardi, known as a naysayer at City Hall--particularly on spending issues--handily won Tuesday's runoff election over his challenger, city Fire Capt. Lyle Hall, who had more money, a more sophisticated mail campaign and labor unions' support that translated into scores of ready volunteers.

Organizers of Bernardi's campaign portray his 55%-45% win as a victory for the little people--the homeowners, horse owners and minority group leaders who rallied behind the incumbent.

"This is as close to grass-roots as it comes. This is as close as it comes to the way it used to be," said James Acevedo, one of Bernardi's campaign managers.

As an ebullient Bernardi took his seat on the council Wednesday, he was offered congratulatory hugs and handshakes from fellow council members, who often openly rebuke him for his penny-pinching and unwillingness to play political ball.

"This really was an affirmation of Ernie's integrity and good record in office," said Councilman Joel Wachs, one of Bernardi's few consistent council allies. "He does it his own way. He stands for what he believes in."

"It's good that he won. I hate to see an incumbent lose," said Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, who has often clashed with Bernardi over downtown redevelopment. "He's an honest man who's got some funny ideas. But that's his business."

Moments later, Bernardi brushed aside further kudos to turn his trademark outspokenness toward his defeated opponent's campaign, which he branded a stream of "irresponsible distortions and lies."

During an impromptu news conference, the 77-year-old Bernardi said Hall did himself in with a flurry of slick and biting mailers that attacked his age, his absences from the council and his failure to solve the crime, drug and housing problems of the East San Fernando Valley district.

"More people were turned off than anything else by those mailers," Bernardi said.

Bernardi joined other council members and political consultants in suggesting that Hall's endorsement by former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., now chairman of the state Democratic Party, may have backfired in the nonpartisan race. Both Hall and Bernardi are Democrats.

"Jerry Brown is not a popular figure," Ferraro said. "People recall what a shambles he left the state in."

Need for Analysis Cited

Hall and his campaign manager, Harvey Englander, denied that either the mailers or the Brown endorsement were to blame for the loss. Yet both said they will not know what went wrong until they analyze precinct-by-precinct breakdowns.

The beaming Bernardi who faced reporters in the council chamber on Wednesday was a far different man from the anxious Bernardi of Tuesday night. He sequestered himself in a back room of his Sylmar campaign headquarters after early returns showed him trailing his opponent by a wide margin.

Even for a man who relishes a good fight, it had been a very tough campaign. The toughest, as he freely admitted, of his 28 years on the council. He had to appeal to voters in a virtually new district--one that was drastically redrawn in 1986--and he had to best a formidable opponent.

It was a campaign Bernardi did not enter full force until after the April primary, so confident was he of an outright win then. It was only after he failed to gain more than half of the primary votes that Bernardi hired two campaign managers--one to solicit community support and the other to develop a mail campaign--and started concentrating in earnest on such standard campaign fare as fund-raising and public appearances.

During the runoff campaign while Hall was publicizing a bevy of endorsements from statewide and national politicians, Bernardi was harvesting local support.

Latino Support

Perhaps most significantly, a number of Latino community, business and political leaders gathered to back Bernardi, saying he had been more involved with their community than had Hall and that he was, at least, a known quantity.

"I think it was the first time in the Valley that the Latino leadership has jelled and come to the support of any candidate. . . . That's what put him over the top," said Al Avila, an aide to Councilman Richard Alatorre and a Sylmar resident.

Englander, Hall's campaign manager, was skeptical about the breadth of Bernardi's community support.

"If he had all this grass-roots support, why did he hire people the last day?" he groused.

Bernardi's campaign hired youths on Tuesday to pass out leaflets and carry placards.

Generally, a 10-point margin is nothing for an incumbent to gloat about, especially if he intends to run for reelection. But because Bernardi plans to retire after this term and because voter turnout was so low, most political observers said it was a healthy win.

Hall, who had expected a closer race, said Tuesday night that he would run again in four years, but on Wednesday, he added a contingency to that promise.

"I'll continue to be involved, and I'll continue to care about the community," Hall said. "If things are still the same way in four years as they are today, then of course I'll run."

Contributing to this story was Times staff writer Richard Simon.

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