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A Low-Key Style Opens Doors for New Councilman : Politics: Alan Lowenthal gains foothold by championing causes for the downtrodden, but even staunch conservatives take notice of the former professor.

July 18, 1993|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — The apartment manager was livid when she entered the office of Alan S. Lowenthal, university professor and community activist turned city councilman.

What did Lowenthal think he was doing, voting to repeal a law that lets police cite or arrest the homeless for camping on public property? Don't ease up, she said, clamp down on the homeless on public and private property.

"I clean human defecation off my property that's been done in the night," the manager said. "I have tenants who are ready to leave."

Lowenthal remained calm and professorial. He explained his unsuccessful attempt to repeal the ordinance.

"I don't believe that I stand for trespassing, trampling on people's property," said Lowenthal, a soft-spoken man. "The only thing I wanted to do was reduce the criminality. To think you're going to eliminate the problem by citing them, you're not."

After 30 minutes of discussion, the apartment manager said she felt better. At Lowenthal's suggestion, she agreed to join neighborhood associations that have organized to fight crime and other problems, including vagrancy.

Lowenthal had another recruit.

Since taking office a year ago, the councilman has allayed many of the questions and fears raised about his politics during the election campaign.

As head of the liberal watchdog group Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, he was suspect. Many conservative business and community leaders saw Lowenthal as a wild-eyed leftist who championed social programs for the poor even if it meant destroying the city's business climate and property values.

But in the past 12 months, Lowenthal has retained the loyalty of most supporters while winning the admiration of many detractors. He has acquired a reputation as a voice of reason and as one of the hardest-working and best-prepared council members.

"He listens. And if you pour information on him, he's subject to a change of position, and I like that," said Douglas S. Drummond, one of the council's most conservative members. "Now, I don't always like how he votes, but I'm sure glad to work with him."

Lowenthal also has emerged as an effective force on major issues.

He played key roles in the efforts to keep the Queen Mary in town and to save the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. He also campaigned successfully to open the city's first Community Police Center, on 7th Street in his district.

Lowenthal has tried to move on liberal social issues as well, but so far, has met resistance.

The councilman was stymied last month when he sought to repeal the ordinance banning homeless encampments. And last month, the City Council turned thumbs down on a proposal to extend employee benefits to city workers in domestic partnerships. Lowenthal, a strong advocate of gay and lesbian rights, pushed the proposal, which had languished in committee for more than two years.

His support for domestic partnerships has drawn the most fire from constituents--primarily fundamentalist religious groups that consider homosexuality immoral.

"There's almost a disregard for the Christian community . . . almost a disdain for it," said the Rev. Mark Chappell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Long Beach. "I'm not going to go on a crusade against Alan Lowenthal, but I'm going to encourage my members to consider candidates' actions in light of the Scriptures."

Lowenthal said he voted his conscience, and he expects to champion the cause again.

"I don't think the people in my district will make a big thing out of it," said Lowenthal, who represents an area with more gay and lesbian residents and businesses than any other part of the city. "I wouldn't have changed what I did on that issue. It was a basic issue of civil rights."

Lowenthal, 52 and the divorced father of two sons, calls himself a progressive dedicated to political and social reform.

His 14th floor office at City Hall is decorated with symbols of civil rights causes and liberal politics.

There's a photo of African-American activist Jesse Jackson, and an award from the predominantly gay Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club. A framed newspaper clip hangs on the wall: "Never again. Survivor tells of death camps . . . "

Lowenthal, who describes himself as a cultural Jew, said his commitment to activism is rooted in the Holocaust. The atrocities hit home during a visit shortly after World War II from a cousin just out of a Nazi prison camp.

"All he could eat was baby food," said Lowenthal, who was about 4 at the time. "I had never seen anyone so emaciated, so sickly. It had a tremendous impact on me."

Lowenthal's specialty as a professor at Cal State Long Beach is community psychology. Similar to sociology, the discipline seeks to understand and find solutions to social ills.

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