It is a prized post, one of the most powerful elective offices in the state, and it's up for grabs. It's an open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
And it is the end of an era. After 16 years in office, Supervisor Deane Dana is retiring in December. So voters in his crescent-shaped coastal and southeast-area district have a chance to select a new face on the governing board of the nation's biggest county government.
With little more than three weeks left before the March 26 primary election, the race has become a classic contest between a well-financed insider and underfinanced outsiders.
Fueled by special interest campaign contributions, Dana's long-time political right-hand man, Donald Knabe, 52, has begun a final push with freeway billboards, street signs, cable television ads and campaign mailers.
Hard on his heels are two spirited rivals in a field of six candidates: former Rolling Hills Mayor Gordana Swanson, 60, who forced Dana into a runoff four years ago, and Long Beach Councilman Douglas Drummond, 58, making his first bid for higher office.
While attention is focused on those three, others in the race are Joel Lubin, an engineer for the California Public Utilities Commission; Norm Amjadi, an environmental health specialist, and Richard S. Markowski. None of the three has raised much money, and Markoswki is not actively campaigning. To avoid a runoff in November, the top finisher needs 50% of the vote plus one vote.
Knabe, a former Cerritos mayor, seeks to portray himself as an outsider who will "Stand Up for L.A." and bring experienced new leadership to county government.
In fact, Knabe is the ultimate insider, a behind-the-scenes deal maker and candidate of the county's political establishment who is running like an incumbent. His home away from home for the past 14 years has been the supervisors' wood-paneled world on the eighth floor of the county's Hall of Administration.
On the campaign trail, Knabe talks tough on crime, and promises to promote economic development and encourage new jobs, but generally steers clear of the minefield that is the county's continuing fiscal crisis.
He tries to distance himself from decisions made by the supervisors that contributed to the budget crisis. "I know that . . . my opponents have blamed me for all the ills that have happened in the county, even though I've never had the opportunity to cast a vote yet on the Board of Supervisors," Knabe told a recent luncheon gathering of Republican women at a Long Beach yacht club.
But Swanson and Drummond remind audiences that as Dana's chief deputy since 1982, Knabe cannot escape involvement with the lavish spending, salary and pension increases, and mortgaging of county assets that occurred even as the county's economic fortunes worsened in recent years.
"There has to be accountability and there has to be responsibility," Swanson, who runs a paralegal placement business with her son, said at a campaign forum in Lakewood this week.
Swanson and Drummond agree with Knabe that the county's top priority should be law enforcement and making the streets of the sprawling 4th District safer. They too pledge to promote business and new jobs, but they don't stop there. Both promise to put the county's financial house in order by changing the way that county government does business.
Drummond, a retired Long Beach police commander, pledges to seriously cut upper levels of county management.
Swanson, in particular, is sharply critical of what she calls "bloated salaries" and vows to pursue a 20% pay cut for county workers earning more than $100,000 a year.
While the local economy sank into its worst recession since the Depression and the state diverted more than $1 billion in county property taxes to deal with its own fiscal problems, she said: "The county didn't tighten its belt."
County records show that in a seven-year period, Knabe's base salary as Dana's top deputy increased from $70,491 to $103,455 a year. The 46.7% pay raise granted by the supervisors under a performance-based pay system for top county workers was more than double the average 19.5% increase received by county workers in the same period from July 1, 1989, to July 1, 1995.
Knabe said he received virtually no pay increase since 1992 and called the comparison with county workers unfair because there was a major restructuring of top salaries during the period.
He opposes an across-the-board pay reduction, noting that most county employees earning more than $100,000 are doctors in the health system, attorneys or prosecutors.
In recent weeks, Swanson complained bitterly that Knabe was still on the county payroll and demanded that he take time off while campaigning. Knabe has since agreed to do so.
Although sure to be overshadowed as the Republican presidential campaign reaches California, the outcome of this struggle for supervisor will have a powerful impact on the direction of county government for years to come.