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Rivals Add Spice to Judicial Race

Election: Incumbent liked by jurors squares off with former assessor who promises 'notoriety' for the campaign.

April 10, 1998|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judicial race usually is a genteel affair, as exciting to watch as a game of croquet. But a Los Angeles County Superior Court contest between two colorful candidates, each carrying political baggage, could bring drama to an off-year election.

For starters, there is nothing bland about Superior Court Judge Alexander H. Williams III, who acknowledges, "I'm not a potted plant." He is beloved by jurors but was embarrassed last year by a rare public rebuke for using profanity and directing "a vulgar gesture" toward lawyers in his courtroom.

At 53, Williams, who presides over a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, is a 14-year Superior Court veteran. He said he is ashamed of the rebuke and the incident that provoked it. But he added that he shouldn't lose his $107,000-a-year job over one bad day.

The challenger, former county assessor John Lynch, a 61-year-old attorney and tax consultant, appears ready to make an issue of the incident. This campaign "will have some notoriety to it," he said.

"That's politics. That's the American way," he added. "If you want comfortable, don't be a public official. Nobody promises anybody a rose garden."

The campaign will probably begin in earnest this week, when Lynch has said he will challenge Williams to a debate. Williams said he will consider the challenge, if and when it comes.

There are clear differences between the two candidates. One has to look no further than their election nominating papers. Williams' are signed by more than a dozen fellow judges. Lynch's, according to the challenger, are signed by "my neighbors and the guy who fixes my car."

Williams' background is Southern and military with a touch of the Ivy League. He graduated from Yale and the University of Virginia's law school. He serves as a judicial officer in the Naval Reserves. His mother was mayor of Richmond, Va., during the late 1980s.

He combs his graying hair with military precision; his posture and dress are impeccable. Traces of a Tidewater accent emerge in his speech, and he asks permission before addressing a new acquaintance by his or her first name. He greets jurors each day at his courtroom door, and they often send him card and letters when their service ends.

He is so intense, he admits, that "my court reporter once asked me, 'Is anal-retentive hyphenated?' "

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Lynch is a native New Yorker. He holds strong opinions and is not shy about expressing them. He cuts to the chase. He considers himself representative of the man on the street.

"I'm not pretty," he said at one point during an interview. "But I'm honest."

He tends to express himself in manly terms--speaking about "talking man to man" and saying, "If you want a man's vote, you've got to look him in the eye.' " But he later catches himself, adding that the same holds true for female voters.

He graduated from Fordham University, came to California and worked in the insurance industry. Later, he attended a non-accredited law school at night while he worked his way up through the ranks of the county assessor's office. He passed the bar in 1980 and won the top assessor's job in 1986, waging a grass-roots campaign and beating out some of his former bosses.

He served a tumultuous single term fraught with allegations from some of his subordinates that he was abusive and demanding. He was criticized for running an office widely viewed as inefficient and mismanaged. But he defended himself by saying many of the problems were inherited.

He is perhaps best remembered at the County Hall of Administration for tossing county auditors out of his office.

Now he says he was a good assessor and a good boss who gave his employees an extra 15 minutes for their lunch breaks.

When pressed about specifics, such as barring his employees from speaking with the media, he said he made some mistakes.

"Stupid is part of life sometimes," Lynch said. "We're not all intellectuals."

In the 1990 election, he lost his job to another up-from-the-ranks assessor who had the good fortune of sharing a name with a popular longtime supervisor, the late Kenneth Hahn who, ironically, had endorsed Lynch.

After the election, Lynch sued assessor Hahn for allegedly harassing him with dirty tricks, including signing him up for a dating service and directing late night phone calls to his home in Northridge. The suit was settled.

The loss has not diminished Lynch's taste for the political fray. He says he is ready to run another grass-roots campaign focused on issues such as judicial ethics and temperament.

He says judges are too insulated and that he wants to be a judge for the people.

And he is itching for a chance to ask Williams about the judicial commission's admonishment. He wants to ask why it wasn't mentioned on the incumbent's ballot statement, which will be mailed to the county's 3.7 million registered voters before the June 2 election.

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