By Tim Whyte
Lee Schramling was probably not going to be elected to the Santa Clarita City Council.
It was 1992. He was running against an incumbent, Jan Heidt, who was one of the original five council members from the city’s formation in 1987. She had a strong base of support.
Also on the ballot was George Pederson, an immensely well-liked retired law enforcement officer who had served as commander of the Sheriff’s Department’s jail near Castaic, then known as the Wayside Honor Rancho.
With founding Mayor Howard “Buck” McKeon leaving the council to start his career in Congress, Jan and George were the clear front-runners for the two seats in the ’92 election.
Yet, someone evidently viewed Schramling as a threat to win, because we got an anonymous news tip, perfectly timed just a few weeks before the election: Schramling had a criminal conviction in his past.
It was a charge from nearly a decade prior, when he had gotten bounced out of his job as a Hawthorne police officer after getting caught in a sheriff’s sting operation: He had stolen a purse that was “found” at a crime scene.
It contained cocaine, planted there by the deputies running the sting. He took it home that night, in his own vehicle. And when the arresting officers searched his locker at work, they also found a bag of marijuana.
Schramling contended he was innocent, the marijuana had been planted in his locker and he was planning to book the purse into evidence the next day when he returned to work. But, the grand theft conviction stood. (One of his election opponents had hired a private investigator to dig up the dirt.)
There was no denying we had to run a news story on it. When you get word that a City Council candidate has that kind of an incident in his past, there’s really not a choice.
But the timing of it — well, it left a bad taste. When you’re the local media outlet and a tip like that gets dropped in your lap strictly because someone seeks political gain, you feel used.
When the tip about a candidate involves a criminal record like this one did, you’re hard-pressed to ignore it. It’s a lose-lose situation: Do you sit on the story, and wait until after the election? If you do that, you are protecting the candidate and opening yourself to valid criticism that you didn’t do your job so you could protect a political candidate’s record from scrutiny.
And if you run the story, you are going to be viewed — by some, anyway — as intentionally timing the story to torpedo a candidate, even if that’s not your true intent.
We ran the story. Other media also picked up on it.
As I recall, Schramling wasn’t happy about it, but on some level he seemed to understand why we did it. Even if he was angry, he handled it well.
When election day came, Schramling, who was considered to be a “slow-growth” candidate, finished seventh out of 16 candidates. (Yep, ’92 was a rodeo just like 2018 is going to be, with 15 candidates…)
An ironic aside: The man in eighth behind Schramling was Ken Dean, a nice guy who is running again this year. Back in the ’90s, I referred to Ken in one of my columns as a “perennial candidate.” He still reminds me about that long-ago wisecrack. But there he is again this year, one of 15 on the Nov. 6 ballot. Part of me roots for him.
Back to ’92: Would Schramling have been elected if we hadn’t run that story? Odds are, no. Heidt and Pederson really had that thing locked up.
Would he have finished higher than seventh if we’d sat on the story? Maybe. People liked him, although he lacked the financial backing enjoyed by the top candidates.
Would sitting on the story have been the right thing for the paper to do? No. But we still didn’t like that feeling of being used by someone whose motives were cynical.
In any case, the odds are no one in that 16-horse race was going to touch either Heidt or Pederson. Then, as now, even local City Council elections were driven by the benefits of incumbency and money.
Heidt (6,748 votes) and Pederson (5,693) spanked that massive field. Third-place Mike Lyons was more than 2,000 votes behind them. The candidates in 15th and 16th place, I’m pretty sure, swept the votes of their immediate families but not much else.
For Schramling’s part, he went on to become known as a good guy in the community. As some have said recently about national figures ranging from football coaches to NBA team owners to a certain Supreme Court nominee: The totality of our being is not necessarily defined by our worst moment.
That’s not to excuse bad behavior, but what I saw happen with Schramling was this: After his election defeat, he went on to build a new career in real estate and to cultivate strong connections with the community, in particular at Canyon High School, where he would become known as “Mr. Canyon.”
Check this out, from the Canyon High website, when a scholarship was announced in his memory after he died in 2016: “For over 25 years, Lee Schramling has been on the sidelines supporting Canyon Cowboy football. Lee would also often assist in the school’s annual Economic Summit and had actively participated in both the Parent and District Advisory Committees. Lee was the Hart District’s volunteer of the year in 2014, but unfortunately recently passed away after a three-month-long battle with pancreatic cancer.”
Lee Schramling’s life, in total, was not defined by the incident from his past that defined his 1992 run for City Council.
I bring all this up now because I see some of the same political tactics in play. We haven’t had to deal with a situation like the one from 1992 (and I hope we don’t). Still, the “I’ve got some dirt…” tips are flowing into the newsroom, albeit a little earlier than in ’92 because absentee voters are so much more important now. Gotta get out front, early.
Some tips are valid, and result in news stories. Some prove not to be valid, or don’t rise to the level of being news.
Still, all these years later, I don’t like that feeling of being “used” by someone who sends in a tip solely for political gain — especially when you know he or she has been sitting on a piece of information until just the right time to release it and inflict the most damage. (There’s a Dianne Feinstein reference in here if you want to read between the lines…)
But, now as it was then, it remains part of the job to sift through those tips, and try to apply an honest sense of news judgment: Even if it’s politically motivated, is it news? Is the information credible? What is most fair to all candidates involved, and most importantly, what best serves our readers, who are our most important stakeholders?
Sometimes, those answers create difficult balances to strike.
The campaigns for City Council and other elected offices, from school boards to state legislative seats and a hotly contested congressional seat, are just getting into high gear. Will there be tales of malfeasance, deception, treachery and, yes, even redemption?
Saddle up. It’s going to be a rodeo. Let’s see if we can hang on for 8 seconds…
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @TimWhyte.