LeRoy Chase, longtime director of the Pacoima-based Boys & Girls Club of San Fernando Valley, on Tuesday entered the crowded race to succeed City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, establishing himself as the sole black contender.
Chase is among a dozen candidates maneuvering to replace the 81-year-old Bernardi in the council's heavily Latino 7th District, which covers much of the northeast Valley. Bernardi is running for mayor of Los Angeles.
At a news conference in a Boys & Girls Club parking lot, Chase, a novice candidate, cited crime, gangs and drugs as the major problem in the working-class district, and complained that City Hall continually shortchanges the district on police and other services.
Those themes have been struck by other candidates in the 7th District, which encompasses one of Los Angeles' poorest areas. It contains the shuttered General Motors assembly plant in Van Nuys as well as Blythe Street in Panorama City, one of the Valley's most drug-infested areas until a police crackdown last fall.
Although the district was redesigned by the City Council recently to increase the odds of a Latino winning, the race has attracted a racially diverse group of candidates. Because blacks make up 19% of registered voters, they may provide a strong springboard for the 48-year-old Chase in a campaign where so many candidates are vying for votes.
While the district's population is 70% Latino, non-Latino candidates have argued that the new council member should be chosen on the basis of qualifications, not race. Chase echoed those sentiments Tuesday, saying he hopes the contest does not become "a racial race."
"I can't accept that. I've been here for 25 years. And my color has just been people. In running for City Council, that's all I'm going to call upon, is the people,"
Chase said, speaking before about three dozen supporters, including Jose de Sosa, state chairman of the NAACP.
A Los Angeles native, Chase attended the University of Utah on a football scholarship. After graduating with a degree in physical and health education and recreation administration, he was hired in 1968 to head the Boys & Girls Club in Pacoima, built in the wake of the Watts riots.
Chase also is president of the Foothill Advisory Boosters Assn., which assists the Los Angeles Police Department's Foothill Division. He is a past president of the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce and a lifetime member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. A resident of Sylmar, he is married and has three daughters.
Chase said that while unemployment is a serious problem in the district, the job picture cannot be improved if new businesses are too cowed by crime to set up shop there.
To help cut crime, he said, civilians should replace desk-bound police officers, freeing them for street patrols.
He also said he favors continuing a statewide half-cent sales tax, imposed in 1991 but scheduled to expire in June, to help avoid state budget cuts that could erode city police services. But he opposes an initiative on the Los Angeles ballot in April that would boost property taxes to hire 1,000 more police officers.
"I don't think we should be taxing our people any more," he said.
Chase said that during the April riots, the East Valley remained relatively calm in large part because of the activities of the Boys & Girls Club. He said he and other club associates talked to local teen-agers, urging them to avoid street violence.
He also cited his experience in running the 1,000-member club, saying it has given him extensive management and fund-raising skills. It remains a safe haven in Pacoima, he said, despite the recent death of a 12-year-old girl in a drive-by shooting outside the club.
Chase said to create more jobs, City Hall should be made "business-friendly" by cutting permits and other red tape. He also said the state should contribute more money for better marketing of the Pacoima enterprise zone, which he said receives little attention. Enterprise zones are designed to attract new businesses with tax breaks and other incentives.
Chase declined to take a position on the politically touchy question of whether the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District should be broken up, saying he wanted more information before deciding. Critics have said creating separate districts, including one in the Valley, would increase racial segregation in inner-city schools.
Chase said he opposes mandatory term limits as an insult to voters' intelligence, but pledged to serve only two four-year terms if elected.
Although he praised drug-rehabilitation programs operated by Phoenix House, Chase said he opposes a proposed Phoenix House in-patient facility in a Lake View Terrace hospital. Placing such a program in a residential neighborhood is inappropriate and would hurt property values, he said.
In an interview last week, Chase brashly predicted he would win the April 20 primary election outright, despite the presence of so many other candidates. Political observers and most other candidates believe the crowded field virtually assures a June runoff between the two top vote-getters.