Long Beach residents will elect a new mayor this year, with the first step coming on April 8.
There are 10 candidates for mayor on the municipal primary ballot, and a runoff is expected since it seems very unlikely that any one candidate can gather 50% of the vote with such a large field. The top two finishers on April 8 will face off on June 3.
The candidates, in the order listed on the ballot, are Gerrie Schipske, Jana Shields, Steven Mozena, Doug Otto, Bonnie Lowenthal, Richard Camp, Damon Dunn, Mineo Gonzalez, Robert Garcia and Eric Rock. Of those, five have gathered most of the money, endorsements and media attention as potential winners. They are, in alphabetical order, Dunn, Garcia, Lowenthal, Otto and Schipske.
While there are some areas of agreement — economic development and public safety are top priorities for all — the five offer clear choices for voters, with different stands on issues and approaches to governing, as well as different backgrounds. All five sat down separately to talk about those issues.
While all five decried the demise of the Economic Development Bureau and said attracting businesses was key to the city’s financial stability, each has a different approach. Otto’s first white paper as a candidate (he has prepared several) was a jobs plan.
“The city needs to more aggressively pursue revenue, especially for the general fund,” Otto said. “I brought them proposals that included Home Depot (on Studebaker Road) and digital billboards, and they rejected them. There should have been a resolution of the Second and PCH development, and the fact that they didn’t gave the city a black eye… I’m also a big proponent of a medical corridor between St. Mary and Memorial (medical centers).”
Dunn, who said he retired in his mid-30s after a successful real estate investment career, has based much of his campaign on his business acumen. He said he would be hands-on in economic development.
“People want more services, and they understand that we need to grow the economy to pay for them,” Dunn said. “I have the business acumen and reach to bring more resources to the city… I can be the quintessential ambassador.”
Schipske said the current administration had been too reactive in economic development, and she would create a partnership between the mayor and city manager. She noted that she had served on the LA Development Corporation board and had worked to bring a clean technology zone to Long Beach. She said she wanted a return of emphasis on the three Ts — Trade, Technology and Tourism.
Garcia, the youngest candidate in the race, said he would help prepare the city for businesses focusing on green technology and health care. He also said he wants the Port of Long Beach to look more to the untapped market of South America.
Lowenthal said economic development would be her top priority. She also pointed to the Second and PCH project, noting that it could add $1 million a year in tax revenue. She said her experience and relationships built during her time as a state legislature would be an advantage.
Schipske has battled current Mayor Bob Foster over the use of one-time funds, saying that more annual oil revenue should be used for services. She also has pushed to install more performance measures and a more open budgeting process, including opening contract negotiations with employee unions.
“What we had was not pension reform,” Schipske said. “It was pension stabilization… We’ve got to have a serious policy discussion, and we’ve got to start from zero on the budget… The unions are realistic enough to understand that in order to keep jobs, we’re going to have to look at everything.”
Lowenthal, who served on the City Council before going to the Assembly, said she was comfortable with the amount of pension reform already done. It will take time to see the impacts, she added.
“We have to give our share,” Lowenthal said. “We can’t deprive people who have worked all their lives for a $20,000 or $30,000 pension. The pension reform was supposed to take 30 years, and it will.”
Garcia praised what has been done so far, but agreed it may take more sacrifice in the future.
“We’re still dealing with the ramifications of the 2002 pension mess,” he said. “If we hadn’t done the current deals, we would be in a much worse place. Moving forward, though, everything has to be on the table. I’ll continue to work with the employee groups.”
Dunn and Otto both also said that they believed more pension reform is coming, and more givebacks from employees may be necessary.
Otto listed City Hall relations with the Harbor Commission and port administration as one of his top three priorities. The rest of the candidates all said they would handle relations with the port differently than Foster, who has publicly taken the commission and management to task for decisions (particularly regarding location of the port headquarters) and removed Thomas Fields as a commissioner.
“The port for a long time had a reputation as being run like a business,” Otto said. “That has changed. It was lost last year in all the brouhaha. When someone of the caliber of Nick Sramek (who resigned), who is a true public servant, says he can’t take it, you need to do something… I would hope not to be hands on. I believe in the council/city manager form of government.”
Schipske voted against Foster’s action to remove Fields, calling it a political move. Dunn, Garcia and Lowenthal were less critical, although all said they would have handled the situation differently. Dunn leaned toward a “get good people and let them alone” approach while Garcia and Lowenthal said they would have been more discreet.
“The mayor had every right to question the budget,” Lowenthal said. “I do think the criticisms could have been done behind closed doors, though, so you don’t scare customers away. It would have been helpful if there were a travel audit earlier, too.”
Foster’s other recent controversy has been a push to move ahead with proposals to rebuild the Civic Center, including City Hall and the Main Library. All five candidates said the process is moving too quickly, but diverge from there.
“I like to use the used car analogy,” Garcia said. “What we’re doing now is the car is at the mechanic, and we’re doing a diagnostic. We may not even be able to afford a new car, or it may cost more to fix the used car and it may not be worth it… It will be the next council that makes any decisions, though.”
“The Civic Center is a boondoggle,” Schipske responded. “It is a gross fiscal irresponsibility to not at least get an RFP on retrofitting City Hall. Now we are spending nearly $3 million — $1.5 million on consultants and $1.5 million for the developers — when the majority of the City Council is leaving and the mayor is leaving in July. The timing is suspect.”
Dunn said he wanted to see more numbers, but the current information indicates that a public-private partnership may be the only way to deal with the seismic issues.
Otto said that he didn’t think a rebuild of the entire Civic Center would work without including a headquarters for the Harbor Department. He said there might be an opportunity to move the Main Library somewhere else downtown, such as the post office building on Long Beach Boulevard.
Lowenthal said the library should be the most important building in the Civic Center, and it should be designed as a regional draw. But, she added, she isn’t interested in selling public land there, and more alternatives need to be considered.
Again, public safety was a high priority with all the candidates, but the approach taken varied considerably. After several years of cuts, both the Police and Fire departments conducted academies last year to train new officers. But those recruits essentially hold the line against attrition, with no new positions.
“I’ve walked 12,000 doors personally,” Dunn said. “People care about safety. They care about property crime, their kids’ safety, response times… When you get to staffing levels, the police chief and the fire chief are my experts. I want to be able to give them the resources they need to do the job, but how it’s done is a city management level decision. I don’t want to add staff just to add staff.”
Garcia touts the fact that he has been chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee while crime rates have dropped to a 40-year low. He said that isn’t just a credit to the Police Department, but to the council’s emphasis on maintaining parks and libraries as places of safe alternatives.
Otto said the 20% reduction in staffing levels at police and fire “is beginning to be felt,” but that it would take a growing general fund to add more resources. Schipske long has been an advocate of using more oil money for police and fire, and said restoring fire services to at least 2008 levels is critical.
“I think you have to look at the budget on a year-to-year basis,” Lowenthal said. “Public safety is ultimately the most important thing, and I don’t agree with proportional cuts. I’d even consider using one-time revenue sources when necessary.”
Schipske has based her campaign on the open government platform she has championed for the City Council. She said both elected officials and the general public aren’t as informed as they should be, and an open, transparent process should be part of everything the government does.
“For example, we need to change the budget process a lot,” Schipske said. “There’s not enough time for the council to review it, and I’d release it at the same time the city manager released it to me as mayor. We need more public engagement, and with the Open Government Platform (a computer program) we could put all the budget online and people could be involved.”
Dunn said he understood the need for council members to pay most attention to their district constituents. It would be up to the mayor to help them with their pressing needs and — since the council is part-time and the mayor full-time — provide them with the information necessary to make informed decisions on citywide issues.
“We should work together to accomplish things,” Dunn said. “The Charter gives the mayor the tools to get that done… The mayor gets the data together, the mayor shapes the strategy. He may not have a vote, but he does have influence, and can give the data to shape the issue.”
Garcia has been vice mayor since 2012, and said that he already has shown how he differs in style from Foster. He emphasized that it was a matter of style, not a matter of different policies.
“While I agree with Mayor Foster 80% of the time, we are also very different people,” Garcia said. “I bring my own style of being positive, of working with people, of bringing people together. I am a consensus builder.”
Otto also lays claim to the consensus builder label, pointing to his time as a City College trustee, Planning Commissioner and leading the city’s strategic planning process.
“I’m a believer in the council-manager form of government,” he said. “My style is more collaborative… The blessing is that the habits learned by this council go away with a new council. I’d help each one improve their district, but realize that the district is not their fiefdom. I think you need to acknowledge their ambitions while helping them understand the responsibility to the city as a whole.”
Lowenthal said she has had long experience working with other politicians to get things done, and would continue to do so. She would count on relationships built over those years, she said.
“I’m a big believer in participatory government,” she said. “I develop a team approach, and have agreement in regards to a team vision. I’d develop that with the council as well as with the major committees and commissions. We need to work together.
Dealing With Negatives
Every political candidate must deal with negative perceptions, and that’s even more true with a high-profile campaign. Here’s how the candidates respond.
Dunn has lived in Long Beach for just more than two years. His short time here has people questioning his commitment.
“When I went to Stanford, the professors didn’t care where I was from, and when I was in the NFL, the coaches didn’t care where I lived,” Dunn said. “It was a meritocracy. My focus is on ideas. If this race is about who has lived here the longest, I’m not going to win it. But if it’s decided on merit, I feel good.”
Garcia has been a councilman for just more than one term. He is young (36), and people see him as politically ambitious, likely to use the mayor’s office as a steppingstone to a higher position.
“I plan to be mayor for as long as the voters let me be,” Garcia said. “I’m running for a four-year term, and I believe it takes eight years to do the job. I love Long Beach, it is the place where I became an American, it is my home and I will retire here.”
Lowenthal is the oldest candidate at 74, and has spent the last six years serving in Sacramento. Critics say she may be too old and not connected with the city.
“I’ve never left Long Beach,” Lowenthal said. “It’s my home, and I’ve been here except for the legislative session. And as for age, people tell me I have far more energy than everyone around me.”
Otto, 65, is a cancer survivor, overcoming throat cancer. His health and age have come into question.
“65 is the new 50, and I’m healthier than I’ve been in 20 years,” Otto said. “You can ask anybody whether I have the energy… and I’m not using this as a steppingstone. This is a moment in time, and it’s mine.”
Schipske has a reputation as an outspoken maverick who can’t work with others. Critics say she couldn’t form a coalition.
“99% of the time, the council votes 9-0,” she said. “I’ve sponsored many things that have passed that way. The one time I couldn’t get a second was when I wanted the election oversight committee to discuss disclosing communications to council members and contributions from contractors. Why weren’t you (the media) asking why no one wanted to discuss that?”
A closing statement is traditional in candidate forums. Here are five, in reverse alphabetical order.
“I’ve had more people thanking me for standing up and asking the right questions, even if they don’t agree with me,” Schipske said. “I’d rather be known as that than as a lap dog.”
“Long Beach needs to feel trust in their leadership,” Otto said. “I’ve shown that leadership… Long Beach needs leadership they can count on when it matters. I’ve shown that is me.”
“I bring the relationships I’ve formed over my 45 years in Long Beach,” Lowenthal said. “I really understand the very basics of how this city works. I have the ability to develop consensus and move the city forward.”
“I want to be mayor, and I’m ready to be mayor from day one,” Garcia said. “I have the right combination of experience and new ideas. I’m proud to support Mayor Foster, and I’m ready to take the next step for the city.”
“I don’t owe anybody,” Dunn said. “I’m 100% transparent, and 100% independent… I’m thankful for the opportunity to compete, and I’ve done the very best I can do. If the voters choose me, I’ll serve honorably.”
The primary election is April 8. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.