There are two distinctly different sides of Donald Knabe.
One is the tough-talking, fund-raising, behind-the-scenes player long accustomed to being one step from the pinnacle of power in Los Angeles County government. A politician who is adept at using the advantages of near incumbency to tap special interests to finance his bid for an open seat on the nation's most powerful Board of Supervisors.
The other is a softer, more private person. A dedicated family man who has long been active in his church and community of Cerritos. A person who was deeply affected by the experience of being mayor of that small city at a time of tragedy.
A ghastly midair collision almost a decade ago brought an Aeromexico jetliner down on a quiet Cerritos neighborhood, killing 82, including a family friend. The pain is felt by Knabe even today.
He said that the experience more than anything else taught him the vital importance of the county's law enforcement, fire and mental health services. "When something like that hits, people expect public services and government to be there."
A week before the March 26 election, it is not clear which Knabe the public would see if he beats his five rivals in the crowded race to replace his retiring boss, Supervisor Deane Dana.
Knabe is the focal point of the 4th District contest because he is Dana's handpicked successor. He has raised by far the most money--almost six times more than his nearest rival--and has locked up endorsements from county labor unions, Sheriff Sherman Block, Board Chairman Mike Antonovich and a broad array of local officials.
As the campaign enters its crucial final days and Knabe struggles to avoid a runoff this fall, it is the sharp-edged political Knabe that voters are most likely to see.
If Knabe is in the room when a reporter interviews Dana, he often will jump in and answer a question before the supervisor has a chance.
But after 14 years as the aggressive chief of staff to the soft-spoken Dana, Knabe is struggling to step out of Dana's public shadow in the Board of Supervisors' chambers.
"I want to step up to the plate. I've been in the background," he said. "Your role as chief of staff is different from that of an elected official. I want to offer my insight and be a part of the change that is going to be taking place in county government."
His encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad programs of county government bespeaks his role as the consummate insider. He has a penchant for detail, and his campaign talks reflect a knowledge of bureaucratic minutiae.
But Knabe is having trouble escaping the legacy of the salary hikes and pension increases that helped propel the county to its worst fiscal crisis. He--more than anyone else on Dana's staff--has been involved in key decisions. Generally, he is a defender of the process, rather than a reformer.
Knabe tries to disassociate himself from past county decisions by promising to "address issues from this point forward, knowing full well that I'm trying to deal with the mistakes of the past."
Whether he can overcome his long connection with a troubled county government and capture Dana's chair in the board room is in the hands of the voters.
The record shows that Knabe has been well connected to those with a special interest in the actions of county government: the unions, the developers, the lobbyists and the companies that do business with the county.
In the year and a half since Dana announced that he would not seek reelection and endorsed his chief deputy, Knabe has raised more than $1.4 million for the campaign.
The biggest donors are the county probation officers union, which sent checks totaling $40,000 and paid for a campaign mailer, and the firefighters union, which gave $35,000.
His campaign contribution records show that others with an interest in the county long have had an interest in Knabe.
When he ran successfully for a second term on the Cerritos City Council in 1984, some of his biggest campaign contributions came not from that small landlocked city tucked into a corner of southeast L.A. County, but from influential developers who lease prime waterfront property in county-owned Marina del Rey.
"Granted, there is no marina in Cerritos," Knabe said in an interview. "They were given to me because they know me. If I didn't know them and I was running for the City Council in Cerritos, I wouldn't send them an invitation. I got to meet them through my relationship with Deane Dana, so they supported me."
Some of the same leaseholders provided the earliest seed money for Republican Knabe's bitterly fought but unsuccessful run for the state Senate in 1988 against former Sen. Cecil Green (D-Norwalk).
When he announced his candidacy for supervisor in late 1994, the marina developers were there with their checkbooks open to help launch Knabe's campaign. During the period, the county was engaged in protracted rent renegotiations with the leaseholders and planning for future high-rise development in the marina.