Termed-Out Long Beach Mayor In Quixotic Bid for Third Stint

Staff Reporter

She's a very popular mayor of a major city who is termed out in a few months. But unlike New York's Rudy Giuliani, who toyed with the idea of finding a way to stay in office, this mayor actually is running again.

In a move unprecedented in recent electoral history, two-term Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, who by rights should be termed out, is running as a write-in candidate for re-election on the April 9 ballot.

Her unorthodox campaign is generating mixed reviews.

"Look, she's done great things for this city and I really, really like the job she's done. But I think she needs to step down gracefully, out of respect for term limits," said Leigh Clausen, a Long Beach resident who works at nearby Lakewood Regional Medical Center. "It would ensure her reputation as one of our great mayors."

Few in the business community are willing to express such opinions publicly, but the sentiment appears widespread. "I've talked to business leaders and canvassed neighborhoods, and the one question that keeps coming up over and over again is 'Why is she doing this? Why doesn't she just step down when she's on top?'" one local business consultant said.

O'Neill, 69, is undeterred by such sentiments. The soft-spoken former Long Beach City College president says she has a lot of unfinished business as her second term winds down.

"I want to serve the city as long as the city wants me to serve," O'Neill said last week after delivering her eighth State of the City address a speech well-received by 1,500 business and community leaders. "There are so many pending projects that I want to see through."

She ticked off the unfinished work: the Queensway Bay redevelopment project, the City Plaza downtown retail development, several downtown residential projects, and expansion of the city's port.

"I think she's done a terrific job and it's just great she's running again," said Tom Russell, a partner in the Long Beach law firm of Woolley & Russell. "She's getting my vote."

O'Neill is trying to take advantage of a loophole in Long Beach's 10-year-old term limit law that allows write-in candidates to run, even if they already have served the two terms the law limits them to.

It's an uphill battle: Besides the skepticism from voters, she's running against two well-financed councilmembers. She also must convince those who do support her effort to actually write her name in on the ballot, never an easy task.

"This is a really difficult task for her to pull off," said Paul Schmidt, professor of political science at California State University Long Beach, who has tracked local politics for several years.

Primary obstacles

To wage a successful write-in campaign, O'Neill said she will need to place first or second in the primary election. To reach that threshold, she will probably need to get 40 percent of the vote, or about 17,000 write-in votes. Rarely in electoral history have write-in candidates ever garnered more than 10 percent of the vote.

With low turnout expected (19 percent of registered voters voted in the April 1998 primary) and three well-known and well-financed candidates, a June runoff is virtually assured. The other two candidates are Councilman and Vice Mayor Dan Baker and Councilman Ray Grabinski, who ran unsuccessfully against O'Neill four years ago.

Even if O'Neill places first or second in the April 9 primary, her name can't automatically appear on the runoff ballot. Back in November, 2000, an attempt to allow the names of write-in candidates to appear on runoff ballots in Long Beach failed at the polls.

O'Neill said she won't push to be a write-in candidate in the runoff election if she doesn't come in first or second in the primary. A poor primary showing would indicate there is not enough support to win in June, she said. O'Neill chose to focus her efforts on the primary campaign just in case one of the candidates on the ballot happened to win enough votes to prevent a runoff. Campaigning for the primary also increases her exposure to voters.

There have been no recent instances of a sitting mayor of a major city running as a write-in candidate. Some sitting mayors have tried to change term limits laws to run again. Most recently, New Orleans Mayor Mark Morial spent more than $1 million in a bid to change that city's charter to allow him to run for a third term; the ballot measure last Oct. 20 failed by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.

O'Neill hopes that her record as mayor will carry her into the runoff. When she entered the mayor's post eight years ago, the city was wracked by recession, the U.S. Navy had just announced it was closing the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing Co.) was announcing major job cuts and gang warfare dominated large tracts of the city.

From those depths, O'Neill presided over a significant turnaround: the waterfront was remade, the economy was transformed from a defense-driven machine to a more diverse mix of retail, tourism and international trade, and crime rates fell. While much of the improvement was due to factors beyond O'Neill's control, she has been happy to accept credit.

Buoyed by the optimism, O'Neill announced a year ago that she would seek a write-in candidacy for a third term as mayor. But since then, the economy has headed south once again, thanks to the recession and the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The softening of the local economy may reinforce the desire for term limits among the electorate.

Lack of polling

But to date, there has been no independent polling to gauge how deep this sentiment runs or where O'Neill stands among the other six announced candidates in the race.

Through June 30 of last year (the last reporting period for which data are available), Vice Mayor Baker equaled the incumbent mayor in fundraising with $75,000. Figures for the last half of 2001 will be submitted to city officials on Jan. 31 and will be made public soon afterwards. (Councilman Grabinski entered the race last summer, after the first reporting period.)

"One thing is clear, even with those early figures: Dan Baker is raising enough money to wage a successful campaign," said Schmidt. Baker, who is gay, has raised some money from local and national gay-rights organizations.

But with O'Neill's write-in effort, this is no ordinary campaign.

"As far as we know, there has been no recent analogous election," said Mike Orlito, campaign manager for Baker. "It's hard to tell between who says they would vote for her and then who will actually go to the trouble to write her name on the ballot."

O'Neill won't contemplate her next move should she fail to place first or second in the primary. She has ruled out running for another office, like the state Legislature or Congress, saying she is not interested in commuting to Washington or Sacramento.

"That's why I chose to run for a third term as mayor rather than run for another office, even though I know it's an uphill battle," she said.

Asked if she would retire if she doesn't make the runoff cut, she retorted: "I'm not going to lose."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.