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Challengers Want to Be Known as Outsiders

Knabe, an aide to the retiring incumbent Dana, has establishment support but is running as a reformer. Swanson struggles to find the money to get her message across.


As the race for the only open seat on the Board of Supervisors enters its final phase, Donald Knabe is changing roles. The political insider long accustomed to operating behind the scenes now is being cast as the reformer with a vision for Los Angeles County's future.

Knabe's effort to portray himself as an agent of change is no accident. It is intended to blunt the attack of rival Gordana Swanson, who sees the longtime chief deputy to retiring Supervisor Deane Dana as the epitome of what's wrong with the nation's largest county government.

Swanson, running as an outsider intent on shaking up the way the county operates, is struggling to find the money to get her message across, while Knabe hones his reform theme with the financial backing of county employee unions and special interests.

The sheer size of the 4th Supervisorial District--nearly 1.9 million residents and 852,500 registered voters--is intimidating to any candidate, even one with Knabe's fund-raising might.

And it underscores Swanson's basic problem: Money drives political campaigns, and it's hard to communicate to voters without enough cash.

Swanson, the former mayor of the gated city of Rolling Hills, raises money in small increments. There is virtually no sign of the big players at her events. Her largest donations by far have been loans from herself and her husband, a retired doctor.

Knabe is a different story. His contribution reports read like a who's who of special interests doing business with the county--from labor unions to large landowners, ambulance companies to oil giants, subway contractors to trash haulers.

The former mayor of Cerritos' campaign has all the trappings of money. To capture just over 40% of the vote in a crowded March primary, he raised and spent almost $1.6 million. That kind of money buys gold-toned Knabe lapel pins, freeway billboards, lawn signs, refrigerator magnets, glossy mailers, cable television ads, gala fund-raising dinners and campaign consultants.

Swanson captured 26% of the vote in the primary. She had raised just under $318,000, about half of it in personal loans. There are no gold pins for her contributors, just heartfelt thanks.

Knabe is on the Internet. Swanson is still trying to get in the mailbox.

Her campaign headquarters is in her home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Knabe has five campaign offices scattered across the district, all of them in free space provided by developers.

Knabe locked up the endorsements of the political establishment, from Sheriff Sherman Block and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to city council members in the 26 cities that make up the district. Organized labor is betting on Knabe in a big way.

Swanson wins endorsements from women's groups like the National Women's Political Caucus and environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.


The Amalgamated Transportation Union is alone among labor to get aboard her campaign, a reminder of her days as president of the Southern California Rapid Transit District before it disappeared into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Swanson lacks the in-depth knowledge of a highly complex county government. But Knabe knows so much minutia about the county that an audience can get lost just trying to follow him through a maze of programs in a host of locales.

The candidates ability to communicate their message is tied to their ability to raise money.

The differences in fund-raising between the two campaigns were never more striking than at two recent fund-raising events, one at the posh Century Plaza Hotel and the other at a spectacular oceanfront estate on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

In the same ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel that has played host to the last seven presidents of the United States, union leaders, lobbyists, developers, local officials and special interests who do business with the county turned out en masse for a recent $500-per-person Knabe fund-raiser that grossed $490,000 before expenses.

That outpouring of support--much of it from players long accustomed to working the corridors of power downtown--pushed Knabe's total fund-raising for the long campaign to well over $2 million.

A far smaller audience paid $200 a couple recently to join Swanson for an evening of politics and music at a bluff-top mansion overlooking the Pacific that raised less than $20,000. They were there to root for change, which has become a major issue in an intensely personal battle between the insider and outsider.

There is no love between the two candidates. At a face-to-face appearance Friday, they had to be coaxed into shaking hands. They routinely take rhetorical shots at each other.

A confident Knabe brands Swanson as his "naysayer opponent" and faults her for making "reckless political promises."

Swanson fires back by accusing Knabe of trying to inherit from Dana one of the most powerful elective offices in California. "It's not a dynasty," she declares.

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