By Steven Piper
On his second day in office, the second Long Beach mayor from North Dakota had not handled too much business before he received a death threat. Apparently, somebody called his secretary and asked who the mayor was because they wanted to shoot him. When he was asked what to say back to the failed assassin, Mayor Ernie Kell said, “Tell them Tom Clark is still mayor.”
Those who attended the Historical Society of Long Beach’s (HSLB) third installment of the Mayors Oral History Series got to hear former mayor and HSLB president Kell extrapolate on the chilling phone call and other experiences during his ten-year term in office from 1984 to 1994.
Since moving from North Dakota, where he claimed he attended the smallest school (only four kids), Kell has assumed many diverse roles including: sailor, soldier, real estate agent, politician and aviator, with a couple of coast-to-coast flights under his belt.
After moving to California with his family in the early forties, Kell worked a variety of jobs. During the week, he would spend a few hours working in a grocery store and would spend evenings setting pins in a bowling alley. During the weekends he would work an eight-hour day in the grocery and four hours in the bowling alley.
When the fifties rolled around, Kell served as a sergeant in the Korean War. Following his discharge from the Army, Kell came back to Long Beach and worked full time while going to college four nights a week with 12 units each semester.
However, Kell was not purely about work. The soon-to-be politician took to racing cars as a hobby. “It’s a very exhilarating sport. It is really an adrenaline rush,” Kell said. “In my opinion, there is nothing more of an adrenaline rush than racing cars as fast as they can go before rolling them over.”
In 1975 Kell ran for city council. The jack-of-all-trades was then elected to represent Long Beach’s northeastern fifth district, which interviewer and former council member Evan Braude called the geographically largest district in Long Beach.
When Braude asked what issue Kell would like to change, the car enthusiast said he would change the way automobiles are insured. According to Kell, no-fault insurance is the best method. “I have studied that and read a lot of books on the issue and I still strongly believe it,” Kell said. “But I thought if I were in office maybe I could make more of a difference through no-fault insurance.” Kell said that issue was what motivated him when he ran unsuccessfully for assembly in 1974.
Kell’s future followed a different fate when he was voted in as mayor of Long Beach through a city-wide election in 1984. Braude asked Kell about the process of getting voted in through a city-wide process. “You either had to have a lot of money to get your mail out,” Kell said, “or, you had to get the endorsement of the Press-Telegram.” Kell insisted that, with about 450,000 residents, Long Beach is not a small city and that if he had to walk door to door, then it would take two or three lifetimes.
In addition to having to get voted in on a city-wide election, Kell had to govern without a vote, which he said made it especially hard to negotiate and set the agenda. He said it was like playing poker after going broke. However, events besides his losing a vote would affect Long Beach’s monetary situation.
When Braude asked Kell about any situations he wished he had handled differently, the former mayor mentioned losing revenue from car dealership sales. He explained that the sales revenue generated from such big-ticket items adds up to a lot of money.
Kell also said the Rodney King riots could have been handled better too. “We probably could have done a better job involving the riots although we were not as damaged as much as the other cities like Compton,” he said. The riots went on in and around Los Angeles for about six days, resulting in 53 deaths. The night of the riots Kell was in a police helicopter surveying the damage. “You could see all the way to Los Angeles, and the bad fires were in Los Angeles,” Kell said.
Even though Kell faced huge obstacles, he did mention a few positive accomplishments. The beach bike path was one. “I was one of the leaders of that, getting it before the city council,” Kell said. $600,000 in state funding was garnered for the cement trail. The car enthusiast was also in office to see the Grand Prix presented before the city council.
Together, Ernie Kell and his wife Jackie Kell, who also served on city council, have contributed 27 years to City Hall.
By the end of the Society’s series, which has been made possible in part by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, four decades of Long Beach history will have been covered. Next, Betty Karnette will interview former mayor Beverley O’Neill on Thursday, July 30 at 7pm at the HSLB.