Next Tuesday Long Beach residents will head to the polls to elect its next group of officials that will lead the city for the next four years but the race at the top of the ticket, for Long Beach’s mayoral seat, has been conspicuously quiet.
There are two men running for the position; Mayor Robert Garcia, who is vying for reelection to the seat he won four years ago, and James “Henk” Conn, who has run a campaign on a shoestring budget in an attempt to unseat Garcia.
However, there have been no debates during this campaign between the two candidates, something the 10 candidates vying for mayor in 2014 faced at least a handful of times before election day. Conn said that if there were more choices this year he’s confident there would have been a debate. Instead, he’s shown up to candidate forums while the mayor has sent a representative or a pre-recorded message.
Now, Conn is alleging that the mayor, who raised some $400,000 for his reelection campaign, may not have been looking for a fight to keep his seat. Conn claims that in the days leading up to him officially filing paperwork with the city clerk to be a certified candidate, two people approached him in an attempt to convince him not to run at all.
Conn said one of those persons was Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association and Conn’s former high school classmate whom he rarely speaks with. Conn said Cohn messaged him in December asking to meet up and talk about their families.
When they did finally get together at the end of December he said Cohn’s message was that Conn should not run for mayor, and offered to set up a meeting between Conn and Garcia. At that meeting Conn says that Cohn made clear that a meeting with Garcia could be had that day, he just needed to make the call.
“When he got there his logic was that if I did not run the city would not have to print the citywide election materials, which would save $250,000 and he said that Dr. Garcia and I have a lot in common and I’d be surprised how much we have in common and that if I met with Dr. Garcia I could find ways to put my efforts into housing other than running for mayor,” Conn said.
Conn has run on a platform focused almost entirely on a pro-rent control stance. Local housing advocates are currently working toward collecting the necessary signatures to qualify it for a vote later this year and Garcia has come out against the idea multiple times in the past.
In screen shots of his messages with Cohn released to local media last week, a message dated January 3 shows Cohn asking if Conn is interested in meeting with Garcia. Conn responded that he didn’t think it was a good idea.
The messages and meeting were previously revealed to a Post reporter during an interview in February, however at the time Conn wished to remain off the record about the alleged attempt to set up a meeting between him and Garcia. Since then, as he has failed to gain traction on the campaign trail, Conn said he wants the voters of Long Beach to know what’s transpired, win or lose.
“It’s one thing to be angry and a victim but people aren’t going to vote on that,” Conn said. “They’re going to vote on confidence and change. I need their trust to show them that not only do I have good ideas but that they can trust me as a person. I got none of that. I got no audience, I got very low traction on this. I worked on it everyday, but there was never a side-by-side comparison of us so it’s been very difficult to earn voters’ trust.”
Conn had appealed to the local press for a debate to be organized but was unsuccessful in getting one.
In an email to the Post, Cohn does not deny meeting with Conn but called it a “non-story, non-issue”.
Cohn said that he saw Conn out trying to raise the required funds to file his paperwork and thought of the challenges he would face going up against Garcia and his fundraising abilities. He said the conversation was an attempt at being a devil’s advocate to figure out how and why Conn was going to run.
“I suggested that if he really wants to pursue his passions (rent control, housing) that it might be better to go meet with the mayor where there might be a commission seat or some place for him to have a voice, to have a seat at the table,” Cohn told the Post.
“I said that if/when he loses the election he would go back to being anonymous but by actually being in a position to work with city hall he could make more of a difference. I explained that I get to advocate for small business every day as an economic development commissioner. I said: why go through the hassle, cost the city a lot of money for a special election, and then not be able to make a difference for the issues you hold so dear to you?”
Their discussion came weeks before Garcia met with anti-land use element (LUE) activist and would-be mayoral candidate Robert Fox, who had pulled papers to challenge Garcia just days before the filing deadline.
In initial emails sent to supporters, Fox declared that he had extracted concessions from the mayor regarding the LUE, including closed-door sessions with community groups to further edit the proposed LUE maps. Fox later walked those comments back stating that his decision to not run against Garcia was not based on concessions but on their mutual agreement on issues surrounding the LUE and rent control.
Responding to Conn’s claims, Mark Taylor, Garcia’s current chief of staff who was speaking in his capacity as an official for Garcia’s reelection campaign, said that the mayor is looking forward to a victory April 10.
“Mayor Garcia never met or talked to Mr. Conn before the election. It’s our understanding that Blair Cohn is a high school friend with Mr. Conn and had his own conversations with him,” Taylor said. “We are focused on the election and look forward to a strong win on Tuesday night.”
Conn still remains confident that a victory is possible and said that going on record regarding his and Cohn’s meeting is more about transparency than a last ditch effort to secure votes.
“I feel confident that there’s a way to win,” Conn said. “I just have to figure it out. I hope I can find the thing that works to set this thing on fire before the election. I still have hope.”
 Editor’s note: the April 10 election is a normal municipal election, not a special election.
Jason Ruiz covers transportation for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or 951-310-1772.
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