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COVER STORY : MAYOR: 13 Candidates Vie to Lead Long Beach : A Baker's Dozen Vie for an Ounce of Power : Candidates for Long Beach Mayor Make Their Pitch for a Job That Lacks Clout

March 24, 1994|EMILY ADAMS and DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The man who occupies the mayor's chair must feel that he's wearing a straitjacket at times.

As the leader of California's fifth largest city, Mayor Ernie Kell is faced with the ills common to a major urban center: A record homicide rate, a looming budget deficit, neighborhood blight, potholes--all these headaches, and more, land on his desk.

But if Long Beach residents expect Kell to lead the ship of state through angry shoals, he must do so without oars. He has no vote on the nine-member City

Council. Most of his vetoes can be overridden with a simple majority. In short, it's a job that carries little official power.

Yet Kell and 12 other candidates are vying for the mayor's job. The challengers are an eclectic lot, including two City Council members, a real estate magnate, a former city college president, a Marxist, a former minister and a 20-year-old college student.

With so many candidates running, it is unlikely any will garner the necessary majority--50% plus one vote--required to win the April 12 primary. In that case, the two top vote-getters would meet in a June 7 runoff.

Most candidates brush aside the question of mayoral powerlessness, saying they will overcome this obstacle to beef up the police force, cut red tape and bring national recognition to Long Beach. In forums across the city, challengers have railed against Kell for failing to create a vision for Long Beach. These critics charge that for six years, Kell has governed this port city as a sleepy seaside town. And they say his few initiatives have been restricted to downtown and the wealthier Eastside.

Kell says critics overlook his tireless lobbying efforts in Sacramento and Washington on behalf of the city, and he wonders if his opponents are simply grandstanding.

"Leadership is not standing on a soapbox, taking credit for everything you do," said Kell, who earns $84,057 as mayor. "I'll match my personal success with anybody."

The mayor's race comes at a time when Long Beach is in transition--its bustling harbor, gleaming downtown skyscrapers and struggling shopping corridors are all on the cusp of change.

Once a predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles, a bastion of Navy and defense industry employees, only a shadow of Long Beach's former image remains. The naval hospital on the city's Eastside has closed, and the Navy base continues to scale back its operations. Defense plants, once the bulwark of a solid middle class, have laid off thousands, throwing the city's economy into a tailspin. Immigration has created cultural enclaves within the city, a cacophony of new languages and values.

As Long Beach sheds its Iowa-by-the-Sea image, most candidates say the mayor must be an ambassador to business, create more jobs, fill this port city's newly expanded Convention Center, its sleek downtown hotels, theaters and boutiques. And the mayor needs to be a diplomat to unite disparate neighborhoods. In this climate of rapid change, several candidates see an opportunity to reshape the skyline, to leave their own sprawling signatures on Long Beach.

"It's like someone is giving you a huge canvas, like 20-feet-by-200, and you can do anything with it," said Ray Grabinski, who is giving up his City Council seat after two terms to run for mayor. "You can leave one dot on it or create a major landscape."

Whether the mayor will actually be given the paint and brushes to leave a mark has been a matter of some contention.

Six years ago, Long Beach voters elevated the job from a ceremonial post rotated among council members every two years to a full-time elected position. A citizen's task force that recommended the changes wanted to give the mayor veto powers that would have required a two-thirds council vote to override. But the council watered down the measure that voters ultimately approved, requiring a simple majority to deny most vetoes.

Today, the mayor can propose ordinances and policy changes, but cannot vote on them. The city manager draws up the annual budget, although the mayor presents it to the council with his own recommendations. On budget issues, the mayor has a stronger veto, requiring a vote of two-thirds of the council members to override. Kell has used his veto twice--to block a package of budget increases and to force a proposed downtown apartment complex to reduce its number of units. The council voted to override Kell's veto on the budget issue, but he prevailed on the development dispute.

The mayor also makes appointments to the city commissions that oversee multimillion-dollar projects in redevelopment, planning and the harbor. But the mayor doesn't exert any real authority over those agencies, the commissioners say, and his appointments must be approved by the City Council.

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