Patrick Owens, the political maverick who bucked the odds four years ago to win a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, on Wednesday found himself the underdog once again.
Owens' poor showing Tuesday in the eight-candidate primary election for Office No. 2 sent him to a June 8 runoff against union-backed labor lawyer Elizabeth Garfield, who outpolled him 33.7% to 21.2%.
Althea Baker, another of the three incumbents seeking reelection to the seven-member board, also found herself in a runoff--she will face accountant Peter C. Halt, an energetic political newcomer, for Office No. 6.
With five candidates in the contest, Baker, 43, mustered 49.4% of the ballots cast, leaving her short of the 50%-plus-one required to win outright. Halt, 32, parlayed a popular campaign theme, contacts made during his stint as Ross Perot's California campaign treasurer and tireless speeches to community groups into a 20.9% share of the vote. He nosed out Southwest College administrator Stanley Camilla Viltz, 48, who had been widely viewed as the challenger with the best chance at meeting Baker in a runoff. Viltz finished fourth with 9.6%, after communications director Fernando del Rio, 61, who pulled in 12.2.%
But Lindsay Conner easily won a fourth term in Office No. 4, racking up 62.2% of the vote against two challengers.
"I'm feeling absolutely fantastic," said Conner, 37, a three-term trustee, who leaped to a comfortable lead early in the ballot count. "I think it says that if you work hard for the voters and the students, they will reward you with victory and a chance to continue that work."
The elections brought mixed results for the American Federation of Teachers Community College Guild, which strongly backed Garfield, Baker and Conner. But guild official John R. McDowell Jr. said the organization, which represents district teachers, clerical workers and police officers, was not surprised at the results.
"Overall, we're pretty pleased," McDowell said, "but we realize the dynamics change totally from the primary to the general. These are now totally different races."
The guild's political backing is important in the nine-college district, which contains 1.2 million voters. It can raise thousands of dollars for political mailers to voters who might otherwise have little or no exposure to a candidate.
But guild-backed candidates can be defeated, as demonstrated by Owens in 1989 and again by Trustee Kenneth Washington in 1991.
Owens, 58, said that his low vote tally came as no surprise and predicted that he will triumph in the runoff. He spent Election Day walking precincts and working telephone banks for mayoral candidate Richard Riordan.
Owens said it was Riordan's ideas for improving schools that attracted him.
Most observers expect Owens to try to make an issue of the fact that Garfield, 40, is married to college board Trustee Wallace Knox. But many say his prospects for holding on to his office are dim.
"He made about as poor a showing as an incumbent can have," said campaign consultant Robert Knowles, who worked with another Owens challenger, Joseph Ortiz. "Garfield is vulnerable on her union backing and on her marriage to Knox, but I don't know whether Owens has the capability of capitalizing on (those factors)."