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COVER STORY : A Runoff Is About to Run Out : Come Tuesday, a Contested Council Race May Finally Have a Victor

February 02, 1995|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Election night is finally over," Long Beach Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg proclaimed in July--after city officials had spent a month picking through ballots, arguing in court and wringing their hands in the wake of a virtual dead heat in a City Council race.

As it turned out, the proclamation was about eight months premature. An election process that included a primary in April and a race in June will--barring a tie--finally end Tuesday with a special runoff between 7th District candidates Mike Donelon and Tonia Reyes Uranga.

The outcome could have ramifications far outside of the Rorschach blot of a district on the city's west side. Some say it could determine the philosophical direction of Long Beach's city government.

Despite denials from both sides, many observers see the election as a classic contest between conservative and liberal--or, as supporters of each often prefer to characterize them--a "pro-business candidate" versus a "progressive."

The council already has four self-styled conservatives and four members who are either liberals or moderates. The 7th District representative could be the swing vote on numerous knotty issues, observers say.

The candidates, both of whom have devoted years to public service, are well-known around City Hall.

Donelon actually served 79 days on the council before a Superior Court judge found in September that the June 7 election had been so flawed that the only way to sort it out was to hold a new one.

The 42-year-old general contractor describes himself as "very much a moderate," and he has no party affiliation. He broke into public life 15 years ago as a founder and president of the California Heights Assn., and has been active in neighborhood preservation causes ever since.

According to opponents, Donelon has shown himself to be a kindred spirit with council conservatives.

Council watchers in Long Beach nodded knowingly in July when Donelon, in the first vote he cast during his brief tenure on the council, sided with the four conservatives in electing Douglas S. Drummond, an ex-police officer from the Belmont Shore neighborhood, as vice mayor. The losing nominee was Doris Topsy-Elvord, the council's only African American, who represents a central Long Beach district.

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The vote for Drummond, whom many view as the council's most conservative member, had nothing to do with ideology, Donelon insisted at the time. "He was the first one out of the chute in support of my council race," Donelon said.

Uranga has served on several city commissions and has been active in such organizations as the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the city's largest community organization. The 40-year-old training and employment consultant also serves on the boards of a myriad of groups, from St. Mary's Medical Center to Long Beach Youth Centers.

Beneath the veneer of civic-mindedness, her opponents say, there's a staunch liberal. Uranga concedes that if she is elected, she is likely to side with council members Topsy-Elvord, Alan S. Lowenthal and Jenny Oropeza, who are most often characterized as "liberals" when it comes to philosophical matters.

If it had been Uranga casting a vote in July, Topsy-Elvord would now be vice mayor. "Why shouldn't there be a woman in that post, someone from this side of town (the less affluent west side)?" she says.

Of course, ideologies usually carry little weight in the City Council. "So much of what we get into are neighborhood issues or land-use issues, which transcend liberal and conservative philosophies," says veteran Councilman Thomas J. Clark.

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One byproduct of the election fiasco--which first saw Uranga certified the winner by six votes after the June runoff election, then Donelon declared the victor by two votes a few days later--will be tightened procedures for counting the votes Tuesday.

Polling place inspectors have been given additional training to spot trouble, says City Clerk Shelba Powell. They have been encouraged to set questionable votes aside as provisional ballots until questions can be resolved. City clerks from neighboring cities have volunteered to serve as special roving inspectors, Powell said, and new procedures have been devised for counting absentee ballots.

Uranga's apparent victory in the runoff was overturned after a recount requested by Donelon. The City Clerk's office counted several votes that had been left out of the original tally. Then city officials determined that eight uncounted absentee ballots should be counted, leaving Donelon with a 2,936-to-2,934 edge.

"The important thing (this time) is we're not going to be rushed," Powell said. "We're not concerned about how early we finish."

The two candidates are vying to represent the city's most diverse council district.

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