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June 6, 2001     Beverly Hills Weekly
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June 6, 2001
 

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By Amanda Michne In the 1970s, a local college student named Rona Chazan stood in front of the old Food Giant on Canon Drive trying to solicit support for an amendment to end the Vietnam War. Now, nearly 30 years later, that student, now known as Rona Leuin, is still active in campaigns, working for the issues and the can- didates in Beverly Hills politics. There are others like her. Motivated by the desire to make a difference, and thriving on the excitement of an election race, the powers behind the thrones in Beverly Hills work, sometimes quietly, sometimes fiercely, to put their candidate into office. During this lull between the recent city council election and the upcoming school board race, a few members of this small, but strong group took time to share their election memories and cam- paign secrets. Movers and Shakers "We moved here in 1971 the day after the big earthquake and things have been shaking for us ever since," joked Judie Fenton, unquestionably one of the most powerful players in Beverly Hills politics. The campaigns under her belt read like a who's who in local gov- ernment and include names like, Vicki Reynolds, Fred Stem, Lillian Raffel, Chuck Aronberg, Joe Tilem, Willie Brien, AJ Willmer, Ben Stansbury, Dana Tomarken, Les Bronte and Linda Briskman, to name just a few. Fenton's first foray onto the local election stage even featured an element of political intrigue when she found herself in a game of musical campaign chairs. Fenton had never worked on a campaign before a friend asked her to help out with Sally Gunter's school board bid. While working for Gunter, Fenton paid close attention to the issues and the opinions of others and soon unexpectedly found herself "enthralled" with one of Gunter's opponents, a woman by the name of Vicki Reynolds. "I just started listening to the other candidates and decided, on my own, that I needed to switch," Fenton said. That was just the beginning. Since then, Reynolds served on the school board from 1975 to 1983 and then served three terms on the City Council before retiring this past March. Fenton's help is even more coveted than ever. But a candidate does not necessarily need to vote Fenton's way in order to get her support. "They don't always have to represent my views," Fenton said. She looks for "values," "trustworthiness" and "commitment" in a candidate and said she must feel "close" to them in order to summon the necessary motivation to wage a campaign. "I don't take every cam- paign. I take them when I'm very motivated. You don't just take something on because it's a job." .Fenton said, and added that she works on many campaigns as a friend and not always as a "professional" endeavor. "It [is] a really nice way to meet people in the community. You make the most wonder- ful friends on campaigns," Fenton said. "You don't always agree on the candidates," Fenton said, but the relationships remain close. So close that politics has also been a family affair. Fenton's husband Frank served on the school board from 1983 to 1991 and was elected city treasurer in March. "People have asked me if I'm going to run," Fenton said. "But I feel I can make a big- ger difference. I don't want to be a kingmaker, I just want to be heard." Fenton also said that, although she enjoys the "challenge" of a campaign, she does not think that she has the "temperament" to serve as an elected official herself. "I don't think anybody really knows what they're getting into," Fenton said. "I don't think many of [the candidates] have political agendas when they first start. I think politics does that to people." The art of campaigning in Beverly Hills has not changed too in three decades, Fenton said, although she mentioned that there are fewer volunteers available (which she blames on the economy) and she points out that necessary expenses, from postage stamps to newspaper advertisements, have gone up. "You really have to spend money in order to get your message out, I'm sorry to say" Fenton said. She estimates that local campaigns need to spend between $40,000 and $50,000 including a safety net of money to prepare for catastrophes. "We set a budget for the max but then we never spend it." Fenton, who has worked on both city council and school board elections, said the dif- ference between the two is a question of interest. "The schools are in a smaller hemisphere. It's all about the children. On the city coun- cil you have to have a broader spectrum of interest," Other campaign experts agree. All Politics Is Local "A school board campaign is much more personal because we are talking about peo- ple's children," said Marcia Smith, who added that Beverly Hills residents are much more passionate about their schools than they are about city issues. "People view the school dis- trict in a much more proprietary way." But whether the office is for city or school, Smith said the most important quality a can- didate for local office can possess is being a "consensus builder with deep roots in the community." "They must have specific qualifications for the job that they are running for and it needs to be somebody who can connect with their neighbors," Smith said. Smith has lived in Beverly Hills for the past 16 years, with her husband Mark, who grew up here. With a background in television writing and producing, Smith has experience crafting speeches for candidates on the national stage but in the last few years, has turned her attention to Beverly Hills and put her skills to work on the local level. "I just want to be useful," Smith said. "It's a way of giving back and doing something in the community that I hope is helpful." Smith first got involved with local politics during the 1999 school board campaign of' Willie Brien. "It was the right person at the right time," Smith said. "It was a great experience, but the important part was that it was Willie." Smith plans to help Alan Kaye with his campaign for the school board this coming November. She also worked on Steve Webb's unsuccessful bid for the city council this past March. Been There, Done That If it happened in Beverly Hills politics, Rudy Cole was likely involved. This savvy, experienced operator has been sharing his campaign talents in the city, and also through- out the state, for more than 40 years. His campaign career was a natural progression of his involvement in the Beverly Hills 14 Beverly Hills Weekly