We now take it for granted that members of the Long Beach City Council will be elected by the constituents they serve, those people who live in the various districts.
But it wasn’t so long ago that district elections in our town were nothing more than preliminaries for the big race, the citywide council race. In all cases, a field of candidates would run in each district, then the top two vote-getters would run-off in a citywide race which would elect each council person.
That system changed in the late 1970s, thanks in part to current Fifth District Councilwoman Jackie Kell, wife of then-Long Beach Mayor Ernie Kell.
“I funded the issue of district elections, I wrote the checks for the campaign to change to district elections in 1977. That’s when the walking candidates started,” said Kell. Prior to district elections, it was physically impossible for a candidate to meet all the voters as the final election was a citywide one.
Ernie Kell had won the fifth council race as a complete long shot. “Because Ernie walked, nobody among the city blue bloods knew who Ernie was, everyone wanted to know how he did it, he walked,” said Kell. “He didn’t spend very much money at all, walked door to door, he came in first.”
After his election, Councilman Kell was approached by some city activists who wanted to change the system. Apparently, the unique district primaries-which-led-to-the citywide elections system had been part of the city charter since the 1920s and hadn’t been effectively challenged in some fifty-plus years.
Most in the council accepted this system. After all, it was the horse they rode on into the council. “I was satisfied with the system they had,” said then-Third District Councilwoman Renee Simon. “It was an interesting hybrid. You’d get nominated by district. One of the two candidates who’d run in the general were already the candidate the district had selected.”
Simon did admit it took wide name recognition to win. “There was the feeling that it was very difficult for candidates who were not as well funded as others to get elected and because there were citywide elections, the amount of name recognition needed was large. There was this coalition of organizations that felt with district elections that these lesser-known candidates had a better chance. It was very well funded and not the choice of the newspaper at the time.”
Both Kell and Simon agreed that the citywide newspaper could pretty well call the shots through its coverage. “I had pretty good name recognition,” said Simon, who was well known for her work in advocating El Dorado Park among other accomplishments.
“The top two would face-off. Some (second place) candidates would win citywide but couldn’t win their district,” said Kell, who thought that was an unfair system. “You couldn’t win without the paper’s endorsement back them.”
Though she agreed with Kell that the system gave an advantage to newspaper-endorsed candidates, Simon also recalled that “my concern at that time was issues that affected Long Beach were citywide issues. They weren’t parochial district issues in a city that geographically at least was relatively small. My concern was that council people would be looking at their districts rather than at the city as a whole, though the districts are the people for whom they are solely responsible.”
“It made you accountable to your district and also accountable citywide. It became very expensive for council people who you can walk the district, but can’t walk citywide. A citywide mayor was the consequence that would give some citywide flavor to the council.”
“People started having garage sales,” to finance it, said Kell. “Sid Solomon (of LABCI) originally backed it. Four of the backers met in my living room with Ernie. I was just serving cookies. I said, ‘Ernie, I’m going to use my money to fund this.’ I had money I made from the stock market, so when I sat down and heard about it, I said ‘that’s for me’. I was the one who initially financed it,” said Kell.
It was put on the ballot and it passed. But the council balked, so according to Kell, “they put it on the ballot the next time, and it passed bigger.”
Before then, during every election, “you’d have 18 people running. “With district elections, the terms were staggered.”
Asked if she believes current council members have taken a district rather than a citywide view, Simon granted “I really can’t say whether that’s come to pass. My worse fears haven’t come true, that the city would be fragmented into nine little duchies.”
As a consequence, council elections became district elections, three-year council terms became four-year terms, the terms were staggered with only half the field in any one election, and a city-wide mayor position came into being.