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ELECTIONS / THOUSAND OAKS CITY COUNCIL : Voters Wage War of Words in Campaign

October 30, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The three-page letter, impassioned and bitter, denounced a rival political bloc as "mean-spirited, manipulative and vicious." It claimed that voters had been "hoodwinked, lied to and mentally abused."

Standard political fare, perhaps, in these days of negative campaigns. Yet this letter had a twist: Its wrath was directed not at a candidate, but at a community advocacy group.

The race for three open seats on the Thousand Oaks City Council has turned so fierce that voters have taken to attacking other voters. That is, when they're not attacking the candidates themselves in smear sheets or blistering letters to the editor.

"It's the most incredibly nasty race I've ever seen in the 20 years I've been here--without a doubt," said Stephen Rubenstein, president of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce. "There are zealots on both sides."

Several of the 16 candidates have taken brazen swipes at one another in television commercials, newspaper ads and public forums. But the most aggressive mudslinging has come from voters, politicians past and present agree.

"I decry the fact that it's descended to this level," retired businessman and candidate Marshall Dixon said. Noting that both of the city's ideological camps have produced attack literature, Dixon added: "Nobody's hands are clean."

The public comment period during council meetings has degenerated into a vicious political free-for-all, with residents taking the podium to slam candidates they dislike. Voters have taken the initiative in print as well, circulating flyers that blast out-of-favor candidates in the most personal terms.

It's all part of politics--but politics that Thousand Oaks residents have never before known.

"I'm seeing it, I'm hearing it, but I just can't believe it's happening," said Diane Doria, a Newbury Park resident for 15 years. "The viciousness, the whining . . . the slate thing. I've never seen anything like this."

This race has become so inflamed, candidates and activists agree, because it offers voters a clear choice between competing ideologies.

On the one side, incumbent Judy Lazar promises continuity: She will stick to the policies that have built Thousand Oaks into an affluent, safe, envied community.

On the other side, incumbent Elois Zeanah pledges change: She will work to slow growth and break the political establishment that has dominated the city for 30 years.

Each camp has attracted a cluster of like-minded candidates.

Mayor Alex Fiore and Councilman Frank Schillo have endorsed Lazar, Dixon, firefighter Andy Fox, and police detective Michael Markey. Financial services manager Michael Friedman and public-access television producer Jeannette Scovill have said they share similar philosophies.

On the other side, Zeanah and Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski have endorsed retired filmmaker M. Ali Issari and city operations manager David Hare. City activist Ekbal Quidwai has declared himself an ally on most issues as well.

Only half a dozen candidates have remained unaligned: dentist Greg Cole, engineer Lee Laxdal, real estate salesman Chuck Morsa, planning Commissioner Irv Wasserman, mortgage broker Bill Williams and mobile carwash owner Lance Winslow.

*

The emergence of slates, for the first time ever, has sparked a rivalry of unprecedented intensity, longtime Thousand Oaks residents said.

"I said two months ago that this would be war, and it is--it's the war for Thousand Oaks," resident Michelle Koetke said. "It's like Gettysburg--brother against brother. There's a lot of retribution out there."

Anonymous vandals have taken the time-honored--though illegal--tradition of tampering with candidates' signs to new extremes. Lazar has lost nearly every sign she set up in Newbury Park. Hare estimated that 80% of his 400 signs have been torn down. And other candidates report that their placards have been mutilated with chain saws.

"It was a gory sight," Quidwai said of one Newbury Park street corner, where a dozen campaign signs were slashed and broken.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Kathy Kemp said she has received several formal complaints from candidates about sign vandalism. A newcomer to Thousand Oaks, Kemp said she cannot believe the high emotions surrounding this year's election. She saw one sign that "literally, someone had cut in slices," Kemp said. "It's ridiculous."

In perhaps the most startling incidents, Friedman reported receiving death threats and having his tires slashed outside his Wildwood home. Williams said he has also received a menacing call on his campaign hot line.

And an anonymous tip sheet circulating in town accuses one candidate of lying about his baptism and church membership.

"It's incredible that all this is going on in a race for City Council," Wasserman said. "I can understand if it's a presidential campaign, but a council race?" Sighing, he added: "Maybe I'm just naive."

While they deplore the negative atmosphere, most candidates predict that the slams will keep on coming--and even intensify--during the next week and a half.

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