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COVER STORY : Change Is in the Air : Influx of City Hall Newcomers Makes Long Beach Politics Tough to Predict--Which Is Just Fine With Council's 1st Latino, Jenny Oropeza


For the past few weeks, city officials, pundits and amateur prognosticators around Long Beach City Hall have been engaging in an age-old ritual that marks an imminent change in government: trying to figure out which way the political wind is blowing.

With a new mayor and three new council members coming aboard next week--the largest influx of new blood at the top in 40 years--the Long Beach City Council figures to have not just a new cast of characters but a new collective personality. Depending on whom you talk to, there's going to be a new bedrock majority of conservatives on the nine-member council, a 4-4 liberal-conservative split (with one council member or another being a swing vote) or a pattern of shifting alliances.

But there's one thing that just about everybody seems to agree on. Jenny Oropeza, the newly elected councilwoman from District 1, the first Latino to sit on the council and a Bill Clinton delegate to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, will be firmly in the liberal camp.

Last week, Oropeza could hardly wait to brush away that label.

"I don't think it's fair to put people in slots," she said testily.

Oropeza, 36, is an animated woman who seems to send out wisps of energy when she enters a room, like a locomotive coming into a station.

Since she won a runoff election last month, Oropeza has been sounding a lot more like a community-oriented pragmatist than a classic liberal. In fact, her first pronouncements as a soon-to-be-sworn-in councilwoman could have been pages from a conservative handbook.

Oropeza wants the city to be more business-friendly--offering big corporations juicy incentives to relocate in Long Beach, for example. She wants urban blight reduced in her downtown district. She wants more cops on the beat.

"I don't put myself in any (voting) bloc," she said. "I like to call myself a law-and-order person. It really depends on the issue as to where I fit on the liberal-conservative spectrum."

From the sound of it, the new Long Beach City Council could be remarkably hard to figure. Oropeza, Councilmen-elect Mike Donelon and Jerry Shultz and Mayor-elect Beverly O'Neill--all of whom will be sworn in Tuesday--seem willing to confound expectations of them.

Shultz, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who becomes part of a three-man "cop squad" on the council--joining Les Robbins, another deputy sheriff, and Douglas S. Drummond, a retired Long Beach police officer--says he feels comfortable with the conservative label that most observers place on him.

But he draws the line at supporting "privatization," saving tax dollars by hiring companies to replace city departments, one of the rallying calls of fiscal conservatives in Southern California since the mid-1980s.

"There are a lot of negatives to it," Shultz said. "You hire people for low wages who don't necessarily have the professional expertise."

Donelon warns that those who expect him to be part of a conservative juggernaut may be deeply disappointed. "I'm a political moderate," he insists. "People have tried to cubbyhole me. More than anything, I find that offensive."

A general contractor with distinctly pro-business proclivities, Donelon nevertheless won't support efforts to cut social service programs in order to beef up public safety. "We can't afford to cut youth programs or libraries to hire more cops," he said. "I'll always be a die-hard supporter of neighborhoods. That's my first priority."

And Mayor-elect O'Neill, a registered Democrat, talks with all the fervor of George Bush about making life easier for businesses and cutting back on crime.

Oropeza--who made history as the first Latino elected to the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education--is just as determined as the rest to resist doctrinaire disputes. At least in the beginning.

But her task in serving her majority-Latino district may be the hardest facing any council member.

More than 60% of the families in her district speak a language other than English at home, and almost a third of the population lives below the poverty level. More than half of Oropeza's constituents have not finished high school. Housing in District 1 is among the oldest, most crowded and dilapidated in the city, with 52% of it built before 1960.

Though the district includes the choice Pine Avenue restaurant and movie theater area, it also contains the lackluster Long Beach Plaza, a downtown shopping mall that, after two years, has yet to find a replacement for the vacant Buffum's department store outlet at the mall's southern end.

Ironically, Oropeza's credentials as a Latina elected official may be of little political value in District 1. The district lines, encompassing a population that is 56% Latino, were drawn four years ago specifically to increase opportunities for Latino candidates. But according to a study commissioned by Oropeza, only about 10% of the registered voters are Latino.

In some ways, Oropeza's ethnic background could be a liability, she says.

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