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Write-Ins Give Long Beach Race a Twist

June 02, 2002|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to election oddities, things don't get much stranger than in Long Beach, where Tuesday's runoff for mayor features three--not the customary two--candidates.

And just one name on the ballot.

Two of the contenders, the popular but termed-out Mayor Beverly O'Neill and self-described City Hall outsider Norm Ryan, are running write-in campaigns. They face Vice Mayor Dan Baker, the only mayoral candidate whose name voters will see when they cast ballots by mail or enter the voting booth.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 367 words Type of Material: Correction
* Long Beach race--A story in Sunday's California section on the Long Beach mayor's race incorrectly stated the age of one of the candidates, Vice Mayor Dan Baker. He is 36.

The contest is one of a smattering of local elections around Los Angeles County on Tuesday, including those for a school bond measure in the Santa Clarita Valley and twin measures in Pomona to reduce or eliminate the utility users tax. In Long Beach, Tuesday's ballot features two other runoff contests, for the 7th District City Council seat and for the 5th District post on the Long Beach Unified School District board.

But it is the top-of-the-ticket mayor's race--and the weird circumstances surrounding it--that will probably give the state's fifth-largest city a new chapter in the annals of electioneering.

"Long Beach is unique.... I would say Long Beach has the best-trained write-in electorate anywhere in the United States," quipped Cal State Long Beach political scientist Paul Schmidt.

O'Neill sailed into largely uncharted waters early last year when, approaching the end of her second four-year term as mayor, she decided to seek a third term. Unlike most cities with laws limiting the number of terms for politicians, Long Beach has an important exception: It allows write-in candidacies for officials who have served the allotted two terms.

Starting with the January 2001 news conference in which she waved a bundle of pencils as she announced her reelection bid, O'Neill's main campaign effort has been to tell voters how they can reelect her by writing her name on their ballots. She sent pencils in her political mailers, which included absentee ballot applications, and she hammered home her "you can write me in" message at every opportunity, from candidates forums to the greeting on the telephone answering machine at her campaign headquarters.

Despite strong sentiment for term limits in Long Beach (voters overwhelmingly approved the limits in 1992 and turned down a measure to ease them in 2000) and the obvious hurdle for any write-in, O'Neill got 11,032 votes to come in first among a field of seven in the April 9 primary. But her 28% of the vote fell far short of the 50%-plus-one needed to win the primary, so she found herself in the runoff--again as a write-in--with Baker, who finished second with 25% of the vote.

Ryan, a businessman who led the successful 2000 campaign to cut the city's utility tax, finished third with 23%. He sued to be included on the ballot, but the judge said the runoff was meant to be a two-way contest between the top vote getters. The judge also turned down a similar request by O'Neill, saying the city's ordinance is clear in prohibiting a termed-out officeholder from appearing on the ballot.

Political scientist Schmidt said the system that produced the three-way, one-name runoff has turned the primary into "a sort of exhibition game.... It's a strange system, and I think it needs fixing."

The situation has posed challenges even for the one candidate who did make the ballot.

Baker, who said he has knocked on nearly 25,000 doors during the daily precinct walks he has been making since July, worries that voters will not bother to turn out in the mistaken belief that he, as the only one on the ballot, has the election in the bag.

"If we can get the turnout, my prospects are great," he said.

Baker, 29, was elected in 1999 to the 2nd Council District seat, which includes the massive Port of Long Beach, the city's main economic engine. The port is also a major source of pollution, noise and truck traffic on the Long Beach Freeway.

Baker calls for a tougher stance on port-related environmental problems. He also would like to see a redesign of the federal breakwater (which O'Neill opposes) to generate some waves and cleaner water at the city's beaches. Baker also promises to pay more attention to the diverse neighborhoods in the city of 461,500, with emphasis on such "quality of life" services as repairing sidewalks and trimming trees.

"Over the last decade there has been a lot of focus on trade and tourism and less on taking care of the people who live here," he said.

A former customs officer who battled drug trafficking, Baker also calls for adding 75 officers to the Long Beach Police Department. He has been endorsed by the Long Beach Police Officers Assn. and by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

Baker acknowledges O'Neill's popularity but downplays her stunning primary upset. He notes that he carried more of the city's nine council districts and that "three-fourths of the voters said they wanted somebody different for mayor.... I think voters are ready for a change."

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