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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

100, but Still in the Running

Centenarian plans a write-in campaign. She doesn't expect to win, but she does have some points to make.

August 15, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The disqualified 100-year-old gubernatorial candidate Mathilda Karel Spak, a hospital volunteer who favors velvet housecoats and junk food, vowed Thursday to run a write-in campaign.

Although she didn't make the recall ballot for what the secretary of state called a lack of required signatures, Spak said she was undaunted, and was assembling her kitchen cabinet of advisors, including a boyfriend 25 years her junior.

She is not, she explained in an interview, some senile coot or a self-promoting kook. She has no delusions of unseating Gray Davis or beating any of the 135 candidates now vying for governor.

"If I can make a half-dozen people think about the plight of children in this country, of how to feed and clothe and take care of them medically so not one is uncared for, I will be a success," she said, patting her unnaturally brown hair. "I figure I've got five more good years of work in me. Quit when I'm 105, right?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Spak profile -- An article in Friday's California section about Mathilda Karel Spak, a disqualified gubernatorial recall candidate, incorrectly reported her birth date as Sept. 7, 1902. She was born Sept. 5 of that year. Also, a photo caption accompanying the article incorrectly called her a smoker. She is a former smoker.

So her bid for governor wasn't, as previously reported, a publicity stunt for the 99 Cents Only Stores chain? Yes and no, she said.

The company ran ads seeking a 99-year-old candidate and she responded, arguing that they could bankroll her $3,500 application cost and pitch her as 99 plus one.

But she already had a relationship with the company, Spak said. When she was 99, she had contacted the president of the retail chain and offered to attend store openings and ribbon cuttings in exchange for a $9,999 donation each visit to one of her many charitable causes; the president agreed.

That's right, she said with a wink: a senior citizen shakedown for a good cause.

In her Long Beach ocean-view condo, Spak, wearing a burgundy velvet housecoat, filled in some biographical blank spots. Leaning on a cane, her one concession to several heart attacks and strokes, she led a tour of her political empire, decorated with an oil painting of pink flamingos and dozens of glass figurines.

There were portraits of her beau, Richard Lewis, founder of Accountants Overload, whom she met through the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation. He will chair her campaign, she said. And mounds of candy, from imported licorice to Fannie May chocolates. Lewis sends her expensive chocolates, "but I prefer the cheap stuff," she said, pointing at boxes of Tootsie Rolls stuffed into her microwave.

She amasses teddy bears and other donated items for children at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where she started the Children's Clothes Closet for poor pediatric patients. For her 100th birthday, children in every wing of the hospital wrote thank you notes, citing her generosity and kindness.

"The children absolutely love her," said Debbie Downing, the hospital's director of volunteer services, of the woman more commonly called Karel. "She has all the qualities of a great leader. If we want a leader to inspire, Karel qualifies."

As to why at a century old she feels it necessary to enter what will be a bruising race, Spak said she lends the wisdom of age, concern for others and what she described as common-sense economics -- "I'm cheap, and I don't spend what I don't have" -- to the job of governor.

She learned frugality by necessity when she was growing up, she said. Spak was born in Chicago on Sept. 7, 1902; her father died at age 45 before she was a year old. Her mother, a Russian immigrant, raised three children by running a small store, but was diagnosed with a neural muscular disease called myasthenia gravis and died at 55.

Married and co-owner with her husband of a commercial real estate and insurance company in Chicago, Spak registered to vote as an Independent, thinking it better for business, and hasn't changed her party affiliation since.

She had no children, and after her husband died she sold the business and retired in 1960 to Long Beach. She had visited the city on business since the 1930s, she said, and was in town during the 1933 earthquake.

In April 1961, she began volunteering at Long Beach Memorial, where she oversees and dispatches volunteers on Thursdays. She also volunteers two days a week at the foundation where she met her beau.

Repeatedly asked on her brief campaign trail whether she's had a face-lift -- this is Southern California, after all -- she has said "absolutely not." Most of her life she smoked and drank, she said. She knocked off the scotch some years ago, sticking to coffee now, which she drinks all day. Her only vice is junk food, her beauty treatment nothing more than Vaseline and living well.

"My doctor said I'm too cheap for a face-lift," she said with a sigh. "And it's true. It's why I'd be a good governor. I'm cheap."

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