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SECESSION SKETCHBOOK

Need Job, Will Work for Votes

October 31, 2002|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Benjamin Lesko's dining room table, which is about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, is not much of a dining room table, much less a headquarters for a political campaign. Piled with folders, covered in vinyl and overlooked by small maps and inspirational messages taped to the wall above, it is nonetheless the nerve center of a quixotic crusade for a city council seat that may never exist.

The 48-year-old Lesko, a man broad of gesture and girth, is one of eight candidates for the 10th district seat in the proposed San Fernando Valley city. Los Angeles voters are being asked to carve the new municipality from the existing city on election day Tuesday. Given that polls indicate the secession measure may fail badly, Lesko must be broad of spirit, too, to continue pressing his quest.

"Oh, it's a losing battle, a totally losing battle," he acknowledges with a smile and a wave of his hand. "It goes back to my experience getting sober and my religious experience -- you take all the steps and leave the rest up to God. It's important to me that, come Nov. 5, I leave nothing on the playing field. If it doesn't work, at least the energy will continue. In the long run, I'll feel better about myself and look better to my kids."

It's impossible to generalize about the 121 men and women whose names will be on the ballot in hopes of achieving elective office in the hypothetical city. Like Lesko, however, all but a few are venturing onto the landscape of politics for the first time, impelled by a sense that a brand new city offers ordinary citizens unique opportunities to take a hand in public affairs.

Their ranks include schoolteachers, small-business owners, actors, building contractors, a plumbing engineer, a dressmaker, a private investigator, a psychiatrist.

Lesko, who lives in Van Nuys, has worked as a rock-group road manager and technician, rock pianist, cartoon screenwriter, music video production manager, recording studio owner and organizer of charity golf tournaments. He recently put aside his latest and rather ailing business enterprise, as a self-employed calibrator of air cargo scales, to devote himself fully to his campaign. "This is very passionate stuff," he said. "Remember, I've been fixing scales for five years."

On a recent afternoon, Lesko haunted Panorama Mall in Panorama City, which is outside the centrally located 10th district but often patronized by district residents. The district includes Northridge, Reseda, North Hills as well as parts of Van Nuys and Encino. He proffered brightly colored copies of his single campaign brochure (Slogan: "It's not about family values. It's about the value of family.") and accosted prospective electors with a jovial "Hi, are you guys voting in the Nov. 5th election?"

Many said they were not. Many others spoke no English. Others who expressed interest were showered with half-humorous, extemporaneous, sometimes nearly stream-of-consciousness campaign-talk.

"Vote for me and I'll abolish parking tickets," he declared to three amused young men at an MTI mobile phone kiosk in the shopping mall.

"All right!" the young men chorused.

As he walked away, Lesko confided to a companion, "I'm a politician now. I'll say anything."

A few minutes later, as he drove his careworn Ford Ranger pickup truck to collect his fiancee's daughter at school (and do a little campaigning among waiting parents), a man in a Honda Accord abruptly swerved into his lane, nearly causing a collision. Lesko caught up with the errant driver at a red light, and rolled down his window. The man looked over hesitantly.

"You voting in the Nov. 5th election?" Lesko asked.

The surprised man said he was.

"I'm running for city council," Lesko said. "Vote for me. Look at the sticker on my rear bumper to get the address of my Web site."

The man, no doubt relieved, nodded he would.

The home-grown nature of Lesko's campaign is evident in his first campaign signs. They were made of pegboard and painted by 10-year-old Maggie Moore, the daughter of Lesko's fiancee, Jessica Moore, with whom he lives. (The couple plan to marry next March; Lesko already refers to Maggie and her 11-year-old brother Jacob as "my kids.") More recently, Lesko has acquired professionally printed campaign signs of bright green.

"My signs were 200 for $300, and that was about my total budget for the whole election," he said, shaking his head ruefully. "I started thinking I'd spend zero, but I'm not going to spend more than a thousand dollars."

Lesko has been withholding most of the new signs for "a blitz" just before the election. That, he reasons, will give them more impact, and opponents less time to tear them down, the latter an important consideration given that he can't afford to buy any more.

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