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LOCAL ELECTIONS / COMMUNITY COLLEGES : Board Campaigns--One Polite, One Bitter--Focus on Fiscal Competence

June 04, 1993|JEAN MERL | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

With just a few days left until Tuesday's election, the low-profile but spirited contests for two seats on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees have turned into debates over who could best steer the district through its continuing financial storms.

In the race for Office No. 6, the opponents--incumbent Althea Baker, 43, and challenger Peter C. Halt, 32, a certified public accountant--are polite, each taking care not to say anything mean about the other in public.

But in the race for Office No. 2, the tone is decidedly acrimonious, as maverick incumbent Patrick Owens, 58, with much of the political and college district Establishment lined up against him, wages an uphill struggle to hang onto his seat on the seven-member board. His well-financed challenger is Elizabeth Jo Garfield, 40, a labor lawyer and part-time college instructor.

The contrast was apparent in a one-hour community television debate earlier this week, moderated by Century Cable's Bill Rosendahl.

Garfield got right to the point, opening the debate by stating: "The issue in this election is competence" and noting that Owens, who is often at odds with other board members, has virtually no endorsements from elected officials. She said that is unprecedented for an incumbent and reflects a widespread lack of confidence in him.

Owens, a former auto shop instructor at the district's Trade-Technical College, retorted that he did not need such endorsements four years ago, when he won a board seat by defeating a candidate backed by the politically influential American Federation of Teachers College Guild, which represents the district's teachers, clerical and technical staff and police officers.

He attacked Garfield's guild support, saying it made her too beholden to special interests to make sound decisions in a time of shrinking state funding. He also tried to make an issue of her marriage to board President Wallace Knox, implying that her decisions would be influenced by him.

Garfield said Owens' remarks reminded her of the arguments made during the 1920s by those who opposed giving women the right to vote. Listing some of her accomplishments and broad array of endorsements as evidence of her qualifications, she said the only people who raise the issue of her marriage to Knox are Owens and his supporters.

Guild President Leon Marsellier said his organization is supporting both the Garfield and Baker campaigns because it wants board members "who are well qualified, who have a good grasp of the issues, who understand our problems" and who have "good political contacts" in state government, which provides much of the funding for the state's 107 two-year colleges.

He acknowledged that the guild is "concentrating on Beth's campaign because she has to defeat an incumbent," and he denied that guild-backed candidates can be counted on to vote on the union's side.

"We've had disagreements with (guild-backed trustees). . . . the important thing is whether they are effective and understand the issues," Marsellier said. "Pat Owens has been a disaster."

Guild backing is a big factor in the sprawling, nine-college district. Candidates must run at large in the 116,000-student district--the nation's largest--which includes about three dozen other communities besides Los Angeles and is home to 1.2 million voters. Contributions by the guild and its members help pay for political mailers, especially "slate cards," which, for large numbers of voters, form the major source of information about the races.

Campaign finance reports filed with the county show that as of May 22, the end of the latest filing period, Garfield had raised more than $80,000, including more than $20,000 worth of mailings contributed by the guild. About $41,000 of the $77,000 raised by Baker came from guild spending on her behalf, the reports showed.

In contrast, Owens had raised about $27,000, mostly in loans. Halt had not yet filed his latest report, due May 27, county elections officials said Thursday.

Owens, outpolled by Garfield 34% to 22% in the primary, is campaigning as the underdog, counting for help on the network of Trade-Tech colleagues and students he organized to battle for better funding.

"He's a dedicated guy, but he's up against a pretty formidable group of people right now," said Roger Biasi, a retired Trade-Tech instructor who agrees with Owens that teachers should spend more time in class.

Businessman Halt, Baker's challenger, said that his background in finance would make him a unique asset on a board made up entirely of educators and attorneys. Drawing on contacts and experience gained as California treasurer of Ross Perot's presidential campaign, Halt has campaigned at scores of meetings of homeowner associations and other groups of likely voters.

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