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Around the Foothills

Targets had no chance to respond through political debate

April 12, 1990|DOUG SMITH

Something had to happen.

La Canada Flintridge was on the verge of getting through a volatile municipal election without the least eruption of bile.

The stakes were far too high to let it end that way. After several weeks of campaigning, the race boiled down to a choice between three candidates who would support a shopping center proposed by the town's leading merchant, the Sport Chalet, and three who would demand a substantial reduction in its scale.

In spite of the protests of all six that there were other important issues, Sport Chalet's proposal cleanly defined the field because its fate will set the course for the entire city's commercial future. And, as far as Sport Chalet's owner, Norbert Olberz, was concerned, Tuesday's voting was to render a simple thumbs up or thumbs down for his proposal.

So something had to happen.

It did, on Friday, perfectly timed by the attacker to leave the targets no chance of responding through reasonable political debate.

It came in the mail to the homes of all the city's registered voters: two folded, luridly printed flyers.

One attacked City Council candidate Peter Kudrave, showing photos of "apparent code violations" in an East Los Angeles rental for which he is responsible as executor of his late mother's estate. The other attacked candidate Liz Blackwelder, reporting a settlement she paid to end a real estate malpractice lawsuit against her 11 years ago.

"We just don't need any more people in government who play fast and loose with the law . . . do we?" it said.

A third flyer, arriving Monday, had no specific findings against a third candidate, Judy Breitman, but labeled her as the running mate of the other two.

Such shenanigans seem pretty unbecoming for a city whose wooded lanes of mansions are so uniformly immaculate as to proclaim the indivisibility of wealth.

The seeds of the hostility, it should be pointed out, were planted two years ago when political novices Chris Valente and Ed Phelps launched the bitterest campaign in the city's short history on their way to toppling two incumbents.

An anonymous and craftily written letter distributed to voters a few days before the election cast in memory the spirit of that campaign:

"Since incorporation, a small group of individuals have been working to control city government," it said. "Their control is now almost complete. This group is headed by someone we call the 'Silver Fox.' "

It didn't say who the Silver Fox was. But the image could have covered any incumbent except red-haired Joan Feehan.

Friday's assault was more brazen.

Along with the flyers came a tabloid publication of the California Republican Assembly, a powerful statewide volunteer group formed to endorse conservative Republicans, even in small, nonpartisan elections.

The paper backed the three supporters of the Sport Chalet proposal in an editorial written by the store's officers and published it beside a photo and letter from former President Ronald Reagan, endorsing the CRA and, by implication, the right candidates.

The CRA's state president said the use of Reagan's name and photo was authorized. (That a statewide organization would trade on the image of the Great Communicator to influence a city election is another story.)

The architect of the campaign was not Olberz himself, but Bob Haueter, for years an aide to Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale).

Haueter said he intended to leave politics when he went to work for Olberz as executive vice president of marketing. But politics followed him.

During the campaign, Haueter put his experienced ear to the ground and concluded that if Blackwelder, Breitman and Kudrave--by this time endorsed by the two 1988 upstarts--were to win, six years of planning by Sport Chalet would come to nothing.

Haueter advised his employer--a German immigrant who has until now been the embodiment of quiet endurance--that a loud, decisive blow was needed to identify the community's Republican values with the three candidates who backed Sport Chalet's plan.

In a stroke, Haueter catapulted the Angst of La Canada Flintridge politics from semiliterate innuendo to the potency and sophistication of a legislative campaign, not to mention the cost.

Haueter was at peace with his handiwork Tuesday night as he relaxed at the celebration party in the hillside mansion of Feehan, one of the victors. It was necessary, he said, to ensure that La Canada Flintridge voters knew who and what they were voting for.

Only three country blocks away, in the jukebox and pool room of another oak-shaded home, the losers interpreted it this way:

"Norbert bought this election," Kudrave said disconsolately.

The results exposed errors in both views. Absentee ballots showed that the electorate heavy in architects, lawyers and executives knew how it would vote even before Sport Chalet offered assistance.

But, right or wrong, Kudrave put his finger on the new political reality of La Canada Flintridge.

They'll be quoting him for a long time to come.

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