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LOCAL ELECTIONS LONG BEACH MAYOR'S RACE : Campaign Between Council Veterans Gets Personal


LONG BEACH — The race for the mayor's seat between two City Hall veterans, Mayor Ernie Kell and Councilman Tom Clark, has been characterized more by angry words than by competing visions of how this city should grapple with its many problems.

As the two contenders near the Tuesday runoff election, they have for the most part retained the campaign themes of the April primary, when they led a crowded field of candidates.

Clark, an optometrist who has been a councilman since 1966, complains that Kell has been a caretaker mayor whose first term has been short on leadership. Kell, a former councilman who was elected the city's first full-time mayor two years ago, has testily accused Clark of sending out "sleaze" mailers in the primary and of lacking personal integrity.

Kell has stepped up his campaigning and his spending since his surprisingly poor showing in the primary, when he fell far short of gaining the majority he needed to hold onto the mayor's office for another four years. With about 43% of the vote, Kell led Clark by less than 3 percentage points; the other candidates collectively garnered 16% of the vote.

Kell, 61, has shed a few pounds by walking daily to woo voters and catch up with Clark's walking schedule, which will have taken Clark to an estimated 15,000 homes by election day. A wealthy developer with a strong fund-raising base in the development and business community, Kell as of May 19 had spent $331,500 on his reelection bid, more than double the $128,000 Clark reported spending.

"The problem was that Tom had a couple of nasty, sleaze-type mailers in the primary, and I have to correct that," said Kell, who is still bristling over Clark's primary mailers, one of which implicitly blamed a rise in airport traffic on Kell--ignoring that the extra flights were ordered by a federal judge rather than a city official.

Kell has fought back with a mailer outlining his opposition to airport expansion and by twice sending out mailers quoting newspaper articles about what the Kell campaign has characterized as a series of ethical lapses on Clark's part. They include Clark's admission in the primary that he misquoted Kell in a campaign brochure, Clark's late filing of a campaign statement last year, the fact that Clark gave a false name when he was caught tearing down an opponent's campaign sign in 1988, and a vote of no confidence in Clark by five council members when he was serving as ceremonial mayor in 1979.

"These are ethical problems," Kell said.

Clark, his voice dripping with sarcasm, retorts: "Mr. Clean. He has a hit piece about me every week. . . . It's pure hit, dredging everything he could come up with and just giving one side of it. . . . We pointed out the issues. We've never done any personal attacks on Mr. Kell," said Clark, 63, accusing Kell of mounting a "personal vendetta" against him.

Kell, his avuncular tones dissolving into quick-tempered snipes when Clark is the subject, insists that he is simply discussing Clark's record.

The contest between the two political insiders has produced little in the way of new proposals or approaches to Long Beach's vexing problems of crime, growth and poverty. Asked at a recent candidates' forum about his vision of the city's future, Kell left some members of the audience shaking their heads when he answered that one of the things he wanted to do was replace the city's street lighting system.

In terms of new programs, Kell said in an interview that he favors establishment of a gigantic park-and-ride lot at the intersection of the San Diego and San Gabriel freeways to reduce commuter traffic on Long Beach streets.

Clark is proposing to establish neighborhood councils for residents, would consider creating an Office of Senior Affairs to deal with issues related to the elderly, and he says he would lead a fund-raising campaign for construction of a new art museum. He also favors more than doubling--to 1%--the amount of the city room tax allocated to the arts, and opening a child-care center for city employees.

Of his performance to date, Kell repeatedly boasts of creating a city Office of Education to coordinate city and school district programs and an Office of Neighborhood and Historic Preservation to promote preservation of landmark buildings and neighborhoods.

Clark dismisses the education office as "window dressing" and suggested at a candidates forum that if Kell is so interested in education, he should run for the local school board. "You have a school board and a school system with 4,000, 5,000 employees and to say the city can hire one person and have an Office of Education and have an impact, I think is presumptuous to say the least," Clark scoffed during an interview.

In recent mailers, Kell has also portrayed himself as a strong advocate of the homeless, citing his support of a state bond act that would provide funding for the homeless and a meeting he recently called to discuss homeless issues with mayors of other Southern California cities.

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