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LOCAL ELECTIONS / COMMUNITY COLLEGE BOARD : Money, Power and Education at Issue in Races for 3 Seats


In the spring of 1989, auto repair teacher Patrick Owens upset a union-backed aide to Mayor Tom Bradley to win a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.

Four years later, the maverick Owens is fighting for political survival in the April 20 municipal primary. Leading the pack of seven challengers are a labor lawyer who is married to the board president, and a Latino businessman with strong support in the San Fernando Valley.

The crowded field makes the battle for Owens' seat the liveliest of the races for three slots on the seven-member board. The two other incumbents seeking reelection, Lindsay Conner and Althea Baker, have drawn fewer opponents and are endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers College Guild and a host of local political leaders.

With Gov. Pete Wilson proposing to triple fees and cut funding to the state's 107 two-year colleges by about 11%, budget and spending questions are dogging the races. The board's recent 4-3 decision to sell a district-owned building and lease another for administrative headquarters also has become a major campaign issue.

The traditionally low voter turnout for community college district races heightens the influence of the college union's endorsement. The guild can marshal its members--district teachers, clerical workers and police officers--to get out the vote and pay for political mailers to voters who are likely to be sympathetic to its cause and candidates.

Campaigning through the mail is expensive but important because of the district's huge size. The 115,000-student district includes 27 cities, besides Los Angeles, as well as portions of several other communities.

Trustees are elected at large from throughout the nine-campus district. If no candidate in each of the three races wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will meet in a runoff June 8.

When Owens, 58, bucked the guild last time around to win Office No. 2, he had strong backing from fellow faculty members at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. His campaign is reminiscent of his 1989 race, with its underdog-vs.-Establishment theme.

Toting a red, white and blue motorcycle helmet and a black bag plastered with a campaign slogan, Owens strikes a populist pose. At candidate forums, he refers to challenger Elizabeth Garfield as "the person chosen to knock me off the board," a reference to Garfield's union backing.

"The guild wants my butt, let's make no mistake about it," Owens said at a recent forum.

Owens is often at odds with most of the other board members and with district administrators. He draws support from a small cadre of citizen gadflies who attend most meetings. He has devoted much of his time to trying to develop a network of alumni clubs to promote the colleges.

According to campaign finance statements for the period ending March 6, Owens had received $747 in cash contributions. Most of his money came from $13,609 in loans. He also gave his campaign three motorcycles worth $1,000 as prizes in a fund-raiser.

Garfield, 40, a labor relations lawyer who teaches at Trade-Tech and at UCLA, is endorsed by several local labor groups and many Democratic elected officials. She said she decided to run after the governor proposed a state budget that included heavy cuts for community colleges just as the state is struggling to overhaul its economy and Los Angeles is attempting to recover from last year's riots.

She said she expects her marriage to Wallace Knox, president of the college board, to be "a non-issue."

"I believe any woman who is running for public office should be judged on her own merits, Garfield said. "Anyone who knows me knows I have a mind of my own and tremendous accomplishments in my own right."

Even Garfield's supporters, however, worry privately that her relationship to Knox could be used against her, especially if she gets into a runoff.

"Beth is highly qualified, and she would be a very effective fighter for the district. But there is a concern that voters may not like the idea that two of the seven board seats would be occupied by members of the same family," said one supporter, who asked not to be identified.

Records show that Garfield has raised $6,650, including $5,000 she lent her campaign and a $100 contribution from her husband.

Joseph Ortiz, 51, who owns a public relations firm in North Hollywood, has support from several local Democratic and Latino organizations. State Sens. Diane Watson and Art Torres, both Los Angeles Democrats, are honorary co-chairs of his campaign.

A high school dropout who resumed his education in the military, Ortiz attended two district colleges, East Los Angeles and Valley, and has taught vocational education courses at several institutions.

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