As the clock winds down on Rae Gabelich’s final days this month as councilmember for Long Beach’s eighth district, she sat down with the Signal Tribune to reflect on her past eight years in office and spoke candidly about Council infighting, her accomplishments and running for mayor of Long Beach.
You were in the eighth district for eight years. You could have run for a third term as a write- in. Why didn’t you?
Yes. Let’s just go out with a blaze of glory!
You know, I did think about it, but really the last four years have been pretty challenging in my life. My mother-in-law was getting older. She passed at 95 last year, and that really brought a tremendous amount of stress, and then the decision had to be made to decide by January 17 (whether to run), and I was still coming out of that. And I thought, you know, do I really want to go through two more years of fighting every single Tuesday night? Because that to me is what it has become. It’s become a battle of wills on the Council. I’m done.
So does that mean your political life is over? Are you going to seek another office at some point?
No. You know, I have no interest at all in going to Sacramento and certainly not to D.C.
How about being the mayor (of Long Beach)?
I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about it. But there are a lot of us who are thinking about it.
I’ve heard that possibly Robert Garcia and Suja Lowenthal are also interested in running.
And Gerrie (Schipske) is interested. And the mayor “rumor” out there says that he may do a write-in. For me, I’m going to go away for a couple of months so that I’m not influenced by any friendly “come on, do it!” and then you get caught up in the emotion of it. I’ve got to make sure it’s right for me and really that I’m right for that position for the City.
What are two things you’re most proud of that you’ve accomplished in the last eight years?
Well, the first thing, of course, is the airport. I mean, we were able to take the super-sized facility that they wanted to build, which would have cost so much money. It could have ended up bankrupting the City. Really, when you talk to Mario Rodriguez, our airport director, he said there’s no way you could have sustained that. The airport would not have been sufficient, and it would have become a general-fund expense. So, not only that, my personal reason for it was with HUSH2 (Homes Under Stress and Hazard), it was about defending the quality of life for the people who are impacted each and every day by the airplanes flying over their homes or the schools. Actually, the first HUSH was in the mid-eighties, 1985, and it was spearheaded by Councilmember Ed Tuttle, who represented the eighth district. I was part of that. I was one of their gophers, and I went up to LA when he’d rent the buses, and we’d go up for the court hearings, and we’d go to City Hall, and we’d all speak on whatever our particular interest was. That started it and then in 2001, when we started reading little pieces about “Oh, Jet Blue is coming. Oh, there’s this ‘Red Team’ that the nayor put together, and we’re going to grow the airport and welcome tourism,” I’m like, wait a minute. Right over our homes? So that started up HUSH2, and pretty much the rest is history. You know, we tried to get our council representative to pay attention and carry the message, really, it was really a great team of people who were working together, trying to be reasonable and bring together information that was provided from all over the world. The impact of aircraft over homes and schools, and he just couldn’t do it, so I remember it was mid-December and I went “That’s it, I’m going to go get a vote.” And I did. (laughs)
What’s another accomplishment you’re really happy about?
You know, there [are] a lot of things. I went into one of my first meeting with the city manager. I had my list of 10 items I wanted to accomplish, and the first one was I wanted to do Long Beach Boulevard, repave Long Beach Boulevard [starting] at the 405 and [extending] all the way up to the 710, all the way through the eighth district. And for the folks that live in Bixby Knolls, I mean it was a real rocky road. For the folks that live north of Del Amo, they didn’t even know they were in the eighth district; they thought they were in the ninth district. They felt like the stepchild, so it was really important to me to build the awareness and find the funding so that we could bring the communities together north and south of Del Amo. We got a good start. You know, Al (Austin, Gabelich’s successor) certainly has his work cut out for him. But I know that’s his goal too. He wants to carry on and try to build that bridge.
How will that transition work? You’re leaving, when are you completely out? When does he (Austin) go completely in? How does that happen?
Well, tomorrow (July 3 council meeting) is– the way I’m saying it, is– it’s the last time that I get to push my button and talk for as long as I want to. The next [meeting] on the 10th is the last official meeting that’s more the thank-yous, and I get to say my farewells. I’m officially the council representative until the 16th at midnight and [Austin] gets sworn in the morning of the 17th, and he’ll be seated that night.
So what would you say is maybe your biggest frustration over the past eight years? Something you wanted to happen that just didn’t.
You know, the biggest frustration to me really is that [the Council] do not get along. You know, I believe the group of representatives for a city or any organization should have common goals, and they should understand what each person is there to give and what their dream is too. And that has not happened under the current leadership.
Why is that, though? Isn’t there an innate want by them (councilmembers) to have a consensus and get along and try to work together to make things happen?
No. Actually, for some people, you know, the division makes you more powerful. You know, if you can divide and conquer, as they say. When Mayor Foster first came on board, and I’ll tell you, if you sat with him, if you have the opportunity to sit with him, he’s charming, he’s intelligent, he’s a great conversationalist, but he comes from a different background than most of us do. He was a CEO of Edison, and so when you get to that level, I think it’s your way or no way. And so (consensus) isn’t his style. It’s not his style to bring people together and to find the common ground. I could not tell you what the direction or what the goal is of our city today. I mean, I know we want to be bike-friendly, I know we focus on– each [councilmember] focuses on their own little area, but globally I really couldn’t tell you what his vision is to accomplish during his term. So that’s frustrating. That’s the most frustrating part…the communication breakdown among the councilmembers and then among the council with the mayor.
Does he (the mayor) have allies in the council?
Certainly he does.
What do you attribute to why they have aligned with the mayor and not other councilmembers? And who are they?
Oh, really? (laughs) You’re putting me out there, aren’t you? Well, you know, there’s a gang of five, and I think now it’s probably– I think that he can regularly rely on (districts) two (Suja Lowenthal) and three (Gary DeLong) and six (Dee Andrews) and seven (James Johnson). And then throw one (Robert Garcia) in there and four (O’Donnell). And you know he (O’Donnell) tries to be independent.
So why are they in the “in crowd” and other members are not?
You know, I can’t answer that. I don’t know. They don’t let me in. (laughs)
You can’t smoke cigars with them afterwards?
No, I gave that up a long time ago. But that to me is sad, really. We could have been so much more productive. I think that’s the part when you know you’re going to go into battle instead of coming together as a group and making decisions collectively that will benefit everybody. Doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be happy, but you look for common ground, and that has not happened.
So if you decide not to run for mayor, who do you think would be a good mayor?
You know, I’d really have to see the slate because you did mention a few, and I know Gerrie’s (Schipske) interested, but I hear that there are some folks, some of the business folks in Long Beach that are thinking about it. It’ll be interesting. I think we’ll have quite a selection, actually.
How would you describe the eighth district in its similarities and differences with other districts in Long Beach?
I will tell you that I think the eighth district is a microcosm of the whole city because we have the projects– I have three affordable housing projects in the eighth– and we have the Virginia Country Club in Bixby Knolls. It covers north Long Beach, which we have a very large Hispanic population up there, so we have the working class and the very wealthy.
So it’s more diverse than people probably realize?
Oh, it is. It is. I would say it’s the most diverse district in the city.
What do you think stands out about the eighth district that’s maybe a whole lot different than the rest of Long Beach?
Well, I think we have the wonderful opportunity of First Fridays now. And, you know, with our incredible [Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association] leader, Mr. Blair Cohn, and his sidekick, Krista Leaders. She’s his assistant. They have just turned Bixby Knolls into a destination. Really, I mean, it started about six years ago… Our street was empty. Atlantic Avenue was where the shopping was supposed to be, and more places were closing up than opening up. And so that was the biggest complaint of people that they had to go outside of the district and the city to find any kind of shopping that made them happy. And so that was my goal and along came Blair. We did have a couple of directors that were before him. And sometimes when a person comes into a position, they don’t come with the energy or the vision like Blair did, and they just remain status quo, and that wasn’t going to work. So, really, what we’ve experienced is a great resurgence in the area and it’s now, like I said, a destination for First Fridays. Come to First Fridays! It’s wonderful.
And you’re also responsible for the car show that’s now in its seventh year.
It is. It is. That takes place July 14, and last year we had over 13,000 people. Last year our special guest was (motor sports icon) Shirley Muldowney, and this year we are featuring two of Lions Drag Strips greatest guys, Tom McEwen and Don Prudhomme– better known as Don “The Snake” and Tom “The Mongoose.” And they go back to when they were rivals at Lions Drag Strip… This whole idea came together when first it was “We’re going to have a car show! We’re going to do something different up here.” And then I started connecting with some of my husband’s friends from when he was in the drag-racing era, and they said they’ve got this new thing they’re doing, and it’s called a “cacklefest.” So now we bring in 17 vintage dragsters, the drive-train is disconnected. We line them up. We close down the street. Atlantic’s closed from San Antonio down to Roosevelt, and we have vendors. And in the center of Atlantic and Carson we have the vintage dragsters, and they fire up throughout the day, and then at 8:00 at night it’s the grand finale, and they all fire up at the same time. If you’ve ever heard of someone refer to a drag race as a “ground-shaker,” this is truly an experience. It’s real loud, and people love it.
What is Signal Hill doing differently that Long Beach should or could be doing?
Well, I think you have to label Signal Hill as the little city that could and did and does. You know, they’re very successful. I mean, obviously, they’ve created a retail base that is significant. It really serves the entire community, and that’s something [Long Beach] hasn’t focused on. Our economic development is really not focused on small business. Signal Hill won over all our car dealerships. They’ve built a great center. That’s certainly a feather in their cap, if you will. In terms of term limits, it seems to work well for them not to have them. They seem to all work together well and on the same page. That’s what I told you [Long Beach Council is] missing is that camaraderie, if you will, that “working together” environment.