By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
In the June 3 election, 16 candidates competed for four seats on the Torrance City Council. Two appointed incumbents retained their seats and two new members were elected.
Because then-Councilmember Pat Furey was elected mayor, another vacancy on the council opened up, and the new council voted to allow him to appoint his successor. Among the 12 applicants is Leilani Kimmel-Dagastino, who finished fifth in the council election. If selected, she would be the council’s only Asian Pacific Islander member.
The decision will be made at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Current vice chair and former chair of the Torrance Commission on Aging, Kimmel-Dagastino said, “I wanted to run for City Council because that’s where real change can happen immediately. I had been serving on a Torrance commission for six years, and there’s only so much you can do at that level. Commissions make recommendations to the City Council that they may or may not take action on.
“My commission serves the needs of the senior community and Torrance has an aging population. There has to be someone who cares about making sure the services are in place for this group of people.”
One of the main issues during the campaign was an increase in crime, especially burglaries, attributed to the early release of inmates due to prison overcrowding. “Since I am a Partner in Policing with the Torrance Police Department and a Disaster Service CERT volunteer for the city, I have been assisting in outreach programs and setting up neighborhood watch programs so I have first-hand knowledge of what we are dealing with,” she said.
Another issue was pension reform. “Since I have an MBA in quantitative analysis (from Pepperdine University) and have been working in finance for many years, I was able to drill through the actuarial projections and explain the city’s plan for addressing this issue,” she said. “I received the endorsements of both the Torrance Police Officers Association and the Torrance Firefighters Association, who are two big beneficiaries of pensions, and was able to convince them that should assumptions not pan out in the future, changes may need to be made in the plans. Also, I received no monetary campaign contributions from either union.”
Because of the difficulty of standing out in a crowd of 16 candidates, Kimmel-Dagostino had to target her message. “My main audience was senior citizens and the Asian community,” she said. “I also had a following through my work with the disaster preparedness groups and my community service groups.
“With so many candidates running, they peeled off a lot of the necessary votes that could have pushed me into fourth position. I was only 765 votes short of winning a seat on the City Council.”
Kimmel-Dagostino, whose paternal grandparents came from Austria and Czechoslovakia and whose maternal grandparents came from Japan, stressed the importance of Asian Pacific Islander representation on the council: “The Torrance population is predominantly white, but 35 percent of our population is trending Asian. A city council should reflect the makeup of the community. Kashiwa is our sister city but we have no Japanese person on the council. In fact, we have never had a Japanese woman serve on the City Council.
“There has never been any recognition for Asian Pacific Heritage Month or Day of Remembrance. There is no role model for our students to aspire to. An API would bring the customs, heritage, and business practices of the population to light.”
Kimmel-Dagostino favors the appointment process over a special election, which would cost about $200,000. “The city has no budget for it and it would be a waste of taxpayer money. Also it would impose a financial burden on the candidates who just finished an election. A prudent city council should be able to make a decision that would reflect the will of the people.
“I have already indicated that I will run in 2016. The term for the fifth seat is only two years anyway (the remainder of Furey’s term), so the person would have to run in 2016 regardless of the outcome.”
Whether it is her or not, Kimmel-Dagostino thinks one of the top vote-getters should be appointed, rather than applicants who did not run. “We spent our time, money, and energy to be elected. We stood before the voters in forums to be judged. We walked precincts, talked to voters on the telephone, answered emails, and made countless appearances at events large and small. The people know us and where we stand.”
Other than filling out her application and interviewing with the mayor and council, she doesn’t think it necessary to lobby for the position. “They all know what I stand for and we all campaigned together for almost a year, so there is no need to lobby anyone. If individual citizens would like to express their opinion of me, then that it their right to do so. I’ve done enough outreach to the community during the election … I finished in fifth place in this election and the citizens have spoken.”
Although open slots on the council have been filled by appointment in the past, she has never heard of a vacancy so close to an election.
City races are nonpartisan, but “Torrance City Council” blogger Clint Paulson has suggested that Furey, a Democrat, might favor someone from his own party, which would put Kimmel-Dagostino, a Republican, at a disadvantage.
Born in Honolulu in 1949 and raised and educated in Chicago by her father and grandmother, Kimmel-Dagostino was told that her mother had died, but after her father’s death she learned that her mother and half-brother might still be alive in Hawaii. In 1970, as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, she was inspired by Steve McGarrett, Jack Lord’s character on “Hawaii Five-0,” to go to Honolulu and conduct her own investigation.
After two weeks of searching through city records and visiting old addresses, Kimmel-Dagostino finally found her mother, who worked as a cleaning lady at the State Capitol, along with her mother’s husband, two half-brothers, and other relatives.
“My mother said that she and my father had never married and she already had another baby out of wedlock to raise,” she wrote in an article titled “Finding My Mother.” “My father wanted to marry her and take everyone back to Chicago. Because my mother was Hawaiian/Japanese, she was afraid of the prejudice that she would face in the Mainland. She told my father to take me back to Chicago because she believed that I would have a better chance in life there. She said she would follow later, sent a trunk ahead with some of her things, and then disappeared from sight. She always knew, however, that one day I would find her.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she joined the airline industry so that she could visit her family in Hawaii often. She lived all over the U.S. and met her husband, John, in Houston, where he was a search-and-rescue pilot for the Coast Guard.
The couple moved to Torrance 15 years ago “because we loved the cultural diversity and the hometown feel,” Kimmel-Dagostino said. She retired from the airline industry 10 years ago and became a financial consultant. “It was during that period that I became aware of the financial fraud and scams that were being perpetrated on senior citizens. I knew I could make a difference, so I geared my business towards helping senior citizens make better financial decisions.”
In addition to the Commission on Aging, she has been a member of the Torrance Strategic Plan Committee for Transit, Torrance 2010 Census Complete Count Committee, Torrance Sister City Association, and Torrance Historical Society. She has also been a volunteer with South Bay JACL, Los Angeles Airport Association, Torrance Chamber of Commerce, Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, and Go For Broke National Education Center, among other organizations.