For the past few months, Sharon Humphrey-Peterson had been an eager, novice Los Angeles City Council candidate, glad-handing voters at nursing homes and all-night drugstores, passing out campaign literature and plotting strategy.
But Saturday, she was glumly back at her job as a hairdresser, abruptly knocked out of the 7th Council District race by a screw-up common to first-time contenders: she failed to turn in enough signatures of registered voters to qualify for the April 20 ballot.
Humphrey-Peterson was among several long-shot council candidates in the San Fernando Valley who experienced the political equivalent of sudden death Saturday after missing a high-noon city deadline to submit at least 500 valid voter names.
All incumbents and most experienced candidates for the four council seats that include Valley territory managed to stay in the competition by beating the signature deadline, according to election officials.
But some candidates may yet be forced off the ballot if officials invalidate some of their signatures. Election officials have until Feb. 23 to determine whether signatures are forged, duplicates or from voters outside the proper district.
Although the vast majority of candidates submitted more than 500 names, the process of getting them had its moments.
Irene Tovar, a candidate in the 7th District, discovered to her horror Friday afternoon that one of her petitions containing 25 names had been lost, forcing her to scour the streets that night in search of willing voters.
"I had to hustle at the last minute," said Tovar, who is among 11 candidates seeking to succeed incumbent Ernani Bernardi in the district, which covers the northeast Valley. "I still can't figure out what happened to the petition . . . That was kind of a scary moment."
Other candidates and their handlers complained that finding eligible voters to ink their petitions in the heavily working-class and Latino district was no picnic. Voter registration is significantly lower there than citywide.
"You can't go door to door because nobody's ever home. And there are parts of the city where no one will come to the door anyway. Unless you can register Rottweilers and pit bulls. They're the only ones who come to the door anyway," said Marc Litchman, campaign manager for both 7th District contender Rose Castaneda and 11th District incumbent Marvin Braude.
Litchman said the signature gathering for Castaneda, a top aide to Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) was done mostly by her friends. But he acknowledged that she got assistance from associates of the powerful Los Angeles political organization headed by Berman and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
One signature gatherer, who asked for anonymity, inadvertently wound up hunting voters at a private psychiatric facility in Sylmar. The gatherer got one signature from a woman resident, but a male resident, who was properly registered, balked at signing.
"He said it was too much pressure and he couldn't deal with it right now," the gatherer said.
Candidate Lyle Hall, widely considered the front-runner in the 7th District race, said he discovered to his dismay that two of his gatherers, sent door to door, simply signed the names of voters themselves.
"They just assumed people would sign, and they went ahead and signed for them," said Hall, adding that he removed about 35 phony signatures from his petitions "after I got my composure back." City officials said Saturday he had enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Other candidates, however, said they had little trouble picking up signatures.
Al Dib, the lone Republican in the 7th District race, said he easily collected more than 900 signatures himself. He was the first to turn in his petitions at City Hall and the first in the race to qualify for the ballot.
"Everywhere, I asked whether people were registered, and all the blacks were registered. Maybe one of 100 Hispanics were registered, so I didn't bother with them much . . . I can tell by their faces whether they're citizens or not," Dib said.
Sharon Humphrey-Peterson, the only candidate eliminated in the 7th District for failing to submit signatures, said she collected 375 signatures herself, buttonholing voters at night after getting off from her job at a salon in Tarzana.
But she fell short of the magic 500, she said, because a UCLA student who had volunteered to help her left 200 signatures at a friend's apartment. Later, those signatures could not be found, she said.
"It was a comedy of errors," Humphrey-Peterson said by telephone Saturday afternoon, as she busily performed a flurry of pre-Valentine's Day coloring jobs.
"He left them in the apartment of this artist guy named Todd, who is eccentric," she said, with only mild exasperation. "He didn't know if someone else picked them up and Todd didn't know what happened to them.
"I'm disappointed, because I think if I did get on the ballot, I had a good chance," she added.