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Long Beach's Termed-Out Mayor Scores One for the Record Books

June 06, 2002|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the ballots were counted Wednesday, two remarkable things emerged about the Long Beach mayor's race: A termed-out incumbent won in a city ardently for term limits, and she did it as a write-in candidate.

Some 16,500 people on Tuesday wrote in their votes for Mayor Beverly O'Neill, who won her third term by a healthy 10-point margin over the one person whose name was on the ballot. Even the author of the city's term-limits ordinance endorsed her.

"It's very unusual," observed John Lott, a University of Chicago law professor, who studied the influence of term limits on California's legislative races. "I don't know of anyone who has succeeded, at least not a person getting around term limits."

The O'Neill victory is exceptional, he added, because it is so rare "that write-ins win, in any case. And in a term-limits situation, I don't think I've heard of a case that's like Long Beach."

The outcome of this race for mayor of the state's fifth-largest city would have been noteworthy no matter who won: The election was a runoff with one name on the ballot, and two write-in candidates.

Finishing second was Vice Mayor Dan Baker, a former U.S. Customs officer who had the ballot to himself but earned 36% of the vote.

In third place was another write-in candidate, Norm Ryan, a businessman who wrote a successful initiative to reduce utility taxes in 2000. Ryan won 18% of the vote.

Some 5,200 ballots--mostly absentee ballots delivered to polls after 1 p.m. election day--require signature verification and remain uncounted, the Long Beach city clerk said.

Those results will probably not be available until Tuesday.

The outcome of the mayor's race is not expected to shift, but a Long Beach runoff for a City Council position was too close to call Wednesday.

In the 7th District election, Mike Donelon trailed Tonia Reyes Uranga by 16 votes.

The city's other runoff was for the 5th District position on the Long Beach Unified School District board.

James John Choura earned 52.3% of the vote to beat Jeannine McManigal-Ball, who earned 47.6% of the vote.

In other Los Angeles County races, voters in Saugus approved, with a 73% margin, an elementary school bond. In Pomona, voters handily rejected two measures that would have reduced or eliminated the city's utility tax and sanitation fees, which city officials say fund a large number of services to residents.

But it was the mayor's race in Long Beach that drew widespread attention. The mayor's job pays $99,000 a year, but has no voting authority. However, the position carries significant influence in the region, in part because the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles fuel the economies of many communities in southeast Los Angeles County. O'Neill supporters credit her eight-year tenure as mayor and relationships with city, county and federal officials as key factors in Long Beach's economic recovery and that of neighboring cities.

Long Beach City Councilman Dennis Carroll, a judge pro tem for Los Angeles County Superior Court, was not a politician when he wrote the 1992 term-limits ordinance. O'Neill supported a later proposition that would have allowed a termed-out incumbent to be on the ballot under certain circumstances. It was defeated by 53% of the voters.

"I saw that as a sign that voters were either softening on term limits, or they loved the mayor," Carroll said. "And I think it was both."

The ordinance restricts elected officials to two terms but allows them to run as write-in candidates. But no one, including Carroll, anticipated all the twists of this campaign.

Who would have expected a write-in candidate to place first in the primary, leaving only the second-place finisher on the ballot?

About 18 months ago when O'Neill contemplated what was clearly an uphill run for a third term, friends told her not to do it. On Wednesday, she recalled asking her election advisors whether a write-in candidate had ever won. They could think of none.

"One of the political magazines ... could only think of 1954, when Strom Thurmond was a write-in for senator in South Carolina. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me, 1954?' " O'Neill said.

But polls of Long Beach residents at the time encouraged her that she had a chance of winning, she said, longshot though it might be.

Carroll said Wednesday that he endorsed O'Neill's run, despite his term-limits ordinance. "I think Long Beach is on the verge of pulling things together on several major projects, and she was there and helped institute many of them," Carroll said. "And they are about to blossom. She will be very helpful to watering and seeing those plants grow."

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