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In Long Beach, it's a write way to seek reelection

Two termed-out Long Beach council members are seeking reelection through a loophole that allows unlimited terms to write-in candidates. The approach irks some, but it's worked before.

November 25, 2009|By Tony Barboza

Tonia Reyes Uranga is hardly the first politician to ask for four more years.

It's the way the councilwoman is going about it that's irking some in Long Beach.

Reyes Uranga is supposed to be finished after eight years because of term limits. But a quirk in city law allows her to run for a third term as long as her name doesn't appear on the ballot.

So last month she became the second termed-out council member in the port city to run as a write-in candidate in the April 13 election, to the chagrin of some other contenders.

"I don't have to get my name out, I have to get the process out," said Reyes Uranga, elected in 2002 to represent the 7th District on the city's western flank. "It's really a lot of one-to-one teaching and telling people to 'write it in.' "

At a fundraiser this month she did just that, wielding a jumbo-sized ballot and novelty yellow pencil to give a step-by-step civics lesson.

"Fill in the box," she told her supporters, pointing to the write-in section of the ballot. "If you don't fill in the box you might as well go home."

Vice Mayor Val Lerch, who is running a write-in campaign for a third term in the city's 9th District in north Long Beach, has posted a primer on how to scrawl his name on the ballot.

Call him and his voicemail reminds you, too: "Hi, this is Val Lerch: L-E-R-C-H, just in case you want to write that down somewhere."

The write-in candidates' challengers aren't too pleased. Some say the incumbents are exploiting a loophole.

Brad Shore, a flight attendant and psychotherapist who has been campaigning door-to-door for Lerch's seat, said he was annoyed and disappointed by the write-in campaigns.

"Legally they found a way around term limits, but is it in the best spirit of the city?" he asked. "What we need is some new blood."

City voters have long favored term limits. Kind of.

A 1992 city law prohibits elections officials from printing on the ballot the name of anyone who has already served two terms. But it allows anyone to run for as many terms as they want as a write-in candidate.

At the time, proponents of the ballot restriction argued that term limits were essential to curbing the "endless potential for abuse associated with entrenched incumbents." Opponents said the law would create a perpetual cycle of "novices and lame ducks."

Reyes Uranga said she decided to seek a third term because it's a critical time for her district, with expansions planned for the Port of Long Beach and the 710 Freeway.

On his campaign website, Lerch says he is running to make sure projects in his district -- including a fire station and library -- are completed.

Reyes Uranga and Lerch are not the first to take advantage of the exemption: Beverly O'Neill persuaded supporters to write her into a third term as mayor in 2002.

If the primary fails to produce a majority vote-getter in their districts, Reyes Uranga's and Lerch's names would appear on the June runoff ballot.

Reyes Uranga is accustomed to challenges at the polls. She has gone through several close elections, even before being voted into office in 2002 by a 58-vote margin. In 1994 her rival won by one vote.

This time around, she said at the fundraiser, "It doesn't matter if people know me. It doesn't even matter if people love me. What matters is that they write in my name."

But James Johnson, an assistant city auditor who is running for Reyes Uranga's seat, has a different take: "I'm just glad to be on the ballot."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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