A major critic of Long Beach’s government who has antagonized the city in court could soon be the one giving legal advice from inside City Hall if a recent poll holds true on Election Day.
In the race to be Long Beach City Attorney, a recent poll from Cal State Long Beach’s Center for Urban Politics and Policy showed former City Councilmember Gerrie Schipske leading with 24.4% over Assistant City Attorney Dawn McIntosh at 19.2%, with over 56% of voters still undecided. The race will likely be decided in Tuesday’s primary election since there are only two candidates.
Schipske and McIntosh have clashed on the campaign trail, with Schipske claiming the mantel of a crusading outsider intent on bringing a fresh perspective, while McIntosh has won institutional backing from Mayor Robert Garcia, City Council members and current City Attorney Charlie Parkin, who will retire in December.
Schipske, 71, doesn’t have the big-name endorsements, but she’s been on the local political scene for more than two decades as a two-term council member and former Long Beach City College trustee. She’s known for being outspoken against the city on issues including harsh critiques of how it tried and failed to reopen Long Beach Community Hospital and the illegal transfer of utility fees to the city’s general budget, and she has built a grassroots following among longtime City Hall critics.
Schipske has campaigned on a platform of change and standing up to the “political machine in Long Beach,” but her message, and her lead in the polls, have caused anxiety in the current City Attorney’s Office, where some staff have said they’re already getting their resumes together in the event that Schipske takes the reins.
“There’s a real concern due to her lack of experience (working in a City Attorney’s Office) and her stated opinion that our office doesn’t do good work,” said one source in the office, who asked to remain anonymous.
Schipske, for her part, said she’s planning for meaningful change if she’s elected and doesn’t want to create chaos within the department.
“Change is always uncomfortable, but the bottom line is the men and women who work in that department are dedicated to protecting the city and I’m going to continue to do that as well,” she said. “There are ways to make changes that don’t necessarily require upheaval.”
Matt Lesenyie, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, said Schipske’s roughly five-point lead in the poll indicates a good chance that she could win on Tuesday. While McIntosh currently works in the office, Schipske has more local name recognition, and that can go far in a race for a position like city attorney, where most voters aren’t very knowledgable on the job duties and qualifications, he said.
“Name recognition is everything in a race like this,” Lesenyie said.
Long Beach is one of just a handful of California cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, that elect their city attorneys. Some cities, like Huntington Beach and San Diego, have considered doing away with the elected position in favor of City Council members appointing an attorney to advise them.
Former Long Beach City Attorney Robert Shannon, who retired in 2013 after serving 15 years in the office, said there are benefits and drawbacks to having an elected position.
In an appointed position, he said, city leaders have more power. An elected position, on the other hand, provides more job security for a city attorney and allows voters to weigh in, but it can also lead to politics in a position that should be apolitical, he said.
“You don’t want a politician advising politicians, because they start from ulterior motives,” said Shannon, who has endorsed McIntosh. “So far, we’ve been successful in keeping politics out of the City Attorney’s Office.”
City attorneys play a critical role in municipal government. They review and draft city laws and contracts, and advise city leaders on a range of legal matters, from ethics and personnel issues to changing state and federal laws.
While some in the office are concerned over Schipske’s lack of experience working as a lawyer in municipal law, Schipske said she’s been a practicing attorney for more than 30 years and has worked as a lawyer in the health care industry. She said she gained significant experience in municipal law from her time as a councilwoman.
She’s also successfully fought the current City Attorney’s Office. Schipske was a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits against Long Beach alleging its practice of transferring excess money from the Water Department to the city’s general fund amounted to an illegal tax that ran afoul of the state constitution, which bars utilities from charging more than necessary for services.
The California Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Schipske’s position. It was a legal vindication that forced the city to pay back $30.8 million to its own Water Department, which is in the process of reimbursing ratepayers.
If elected, Schipske said says she plans to put more scrutiny on various city departments, and if that requires more time and resources, then so be it.
“The bottom line is, we need some change,” she said. “So many people have told me that they don’t trust what’s going on in Long Beach, and we’ve got to change that.”