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City council member Tom LaBonge is out of another era. To him the job is about constituent services and public cheerleading. But don’t underestimate him. Just ask Bob Barker, Lily Tomlin, and Cher
Photograph by Michael Kelley
Every morning for the last 30 years Tom LaBonge has hiked to the top of Mount Hollywood. The only exceptions have been when he’s out of town and the few months in 2006 when he strolled with his wife around their Silver Lake neighborhood while she recovered from breast cancer. He began climbing the mountain when he was just getting into politics, and now that he represents Los Angeles’s Fourth City Council District, he climbs it still. No matter what happens later that day, he likes to say, he’ll at least have had one good moment. After awakening at 4:30 and reading the L.A. Times and the Daily News, he heads out, en route picking up a buddy, Tom Mc-
Govern, the president of a records storage business whom he’s known since the ’80s. Although it had rained hard all night, the council member never considered not showing this late November morning. “It could be a real treat,” he says as he and McGovern negotiate the muddy fire road leading away from the Griffith Observatory parking lot. “It could be heaven.”
A big man dressed in New Balance running shoes, gym shorts, and a hooded gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the words LOS ANGELES, the 55-year-old LaBonge carries a football under his left arm and 25 extra pounds around his gut. He is the picture of a jock in middle age. He is also the picture of an old-time pol, something unusual in a city whose charter prohibits political parties and patronage. His silvery hair swept back from a round pink Irish mug across which his emotions dance, he looks like a ward heeler and sounds like one. He speaks in a loud, gravelly rasp that explodes up the misty trail, greeting fellow hikers in English, Spanish, and most exuberantly, Korean. “Han ya say oh,” he booms again and again, each time barely approximating the correct pronunciation, which he hears coming back: “Ahn nyoung ha seh oh.” The 5:45 regulars all know one another, and following a flurry of exchanges, LaBonge remarks, “The mayor says everyone in Los Angeles should see Crash,” Paul Haggis’s dystopian film chronicling the inability of Angelenos to connect except in automobile accidents and other violent incidents. “I say everyone should do the opposite of that movie. I say get out of your cars and come to Mount Hollywood or the Farmers Market or the Central Library and engage the city.”
Bisected by the Santa Monica Mountains, LaBonge’s district comprises only 30.2 square miles and is populated by 276,000 people. Yet it serves as Los Angeles’s geographical crossroads and historical heart. Stretching from Fairfax Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in Mid Wilshire to Oxnard Street and Irvine Avenue in the San Fernando Valley to Glendale Boulevard and Riverside Drive on the east, the Fourth takes in such emblematic neighborhoods as Hancock Park, Koreatown, and the Hollywood Hills as well as such landmarks as the La Brea Tar Pits and Griffith Park. There are more ethnically varied districts in Los Angeles, and certainly richer and poorer ones, but none so integral to the city’s mythology, and Mount Hollywood is its hub.
Some 20 minutes into the ascent, LaBonge pauses at Dante’s View, a garden started in 1964 by Dante Orgolini, a Brazilian newspaper writer. After Orgolini’s death in 1978, care for the garden fell to Charlie Turner, a retired title insurance clerk who, the council member delights in telling people, was the night-desk man in the 1950s at the Hotel Rosslyn downtown. When he died in 1996, the job ended up in LaBonge’s hands. “They gave me the rake,” he says. Dante’s View is a bittersweet spot. The fire that devastated Griffith Park in 2007 burned 90 percent of the garden. The eucalyptus and pepper trees are still black, as is a Canary Island pine LaBonge planted in 1998 in memory of his mother. As he touches its limbs he says, “Sometimes they come back. I want to give it a shot.”
Looking out from Dante’s View, LaBonge brightens. Daybreak has come, and Los Angeles is suddenly awash in light. He points toward San Pedro far to the south, then pivots to the east, all the while ticking off the names of other sights—Saddleback Peak, the Cleveland National Forest, Banning Pass—as if in the act of articulation he is celebrating both the city’s past and its promise.
Near the summit of Mount Hollywood the trail veers to the north and west, and LaBonge stops to take in the San Fernando Valley, which reveals itself by the distant thrumming of rush-hour traffic on the Golden State Freeway. “See out there in the corner,” he says, gesturing toward Sylmar. “That’s where William Mulholland made the greatest speech ever—‘There it is, take it.’ With those words he brought water to the pueblo.” When LaBonge speaks of Los Angeles, it’s usually like this: nothing but superlatives. Griffith Park is not merely a great park; it is the “world’s greatest urban park.” Of Hollywood, spread out just below him to the south, he says without irony, “I don’t think everyone realizes how special a place it is.”
At 1,625 feet above sea level, Mount Hollywood offers a 360-degree view of Los Angeles, and as LaBonge had predicted, the previous night’s rain has left the city radiant. In the distance, downtown glistens, while up close the chaparral glows, its sages dewy, its russets blushing. It might not be heaven, but for the council member it’s close enough. At once the city’s most ardent advocate and its most credulous booster, he is enthralled. Placing his right hand around a tall metal pole that marks the highest point and using his arm as a brace, he throws his head back and begins to spin around it—once, twice, three times, a dozen. He moves slowly, tossing his football into the air in short, efficient spirals and watching it fall back into his left hand with an expression of boyish pleasure. “He’s offering himself up to the day,” says McGovern. “It’s his morning vespers.” That, however, is only part of it. For LaBonge, who has spent his adult life in city government and learned his trade from the late John Ferraro, the longtime council president, the ritual is an affirmation that the center of power in Los Angeles still holds. As he sees it, the city’s departments are doing noble work, its 52,000 employees are loyal public servants, and its institutions function for the good of all. His motto, “Enjoy and love the great city of Los Angeles,” is not just a slogan but a credo, a principle, sometimes even a prayer.
After a couple of minutes, LaBonge lets go of the pole and jogs to a small clearing, where he flings passes to McGovern and several strangers who happen to amble by. Then the council member gathers himself. “I have a fight on my hands at the L.A. Zoo,” he says as he starts to make his way down. “I’m not sure how it’s going to go.” But he doesn’t say more. Some garbage on the side of the trail has caught his eye. “I gotta get that,” he says, and he carries the two Heineken bottles and picnic leavings one-and-a-half miles back to the bottom.
A week earlier, at a meeting of the city council that drew an overflow crowd of more than 400, a project close to Tom LaBonge’s soul had been subjected to a withering attack. It came during an unusually long four-and-a-half hour public comment period on a motion to stop construction of a $42 million exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo called the Pachyderm Forest. The facility would house not only the zoo’s lone Asian elephant—Billy, a 23-year-old male with a penchant for bobbing his head—but eventually others as well. LaBonge believed that the project, which is in his district, should proceed, and he viewed the attempt to derail it as a blow against the kind of Los Angeles he fervently promotes. As he saw it, a great city had to have a great zoo, and a great zoo had to have a great elephant exhibit. The zoo—like Mount Hollywood—was one of L.A.’s rare gathering places, a public space in a famously private city.
Bob Barker, former host of The Price Is Right, led the charge against the Pachyderm Forest. “Let’s do get Billy out of that zoo,” he declared to loud applause. “Let’s do close the elephant exhibit at the zoo. Zoos…all over the world are closing elephant exhibits. Everybody knows that’s passé.” Barker was followed by the actresses Madeleine Stowe and Alison Sweeney. Then the appeals turned even more emotional. “If it’s illegal for us to profit from the trade in ivory,” proclaimed one speaker, “it should be illegal for us to profit from the enslavement of elephants.” Opponent after opponent mentioned Billy’s head bobbing, citing it as an example of “zoo-rotic behavior,” a neurosis they attributed to close captivity. “Elephants don’t live in zoos,” several pronounced. “Elephants die in zoos.” Many who came forward were sobbing.
The battle had begun the previous month when Tony Cardenas, the city council member from the Sixth District, offered the motion proposing that construction of the Pachyderm Forest be halted. The move was unusual. In 2006, by a 13-2 vote, the council had approved building the exhibit, and about $12 million of the work, including clearing the 3.6-acre site and erecting a barn for Billy, had been completed. The funds came from city and county bonds supported by the electorate. Cardenas’s decision to target a project in another member’s district violated long-held city hall etiquette. “We have an unwritten rule,” says council member Janice Hahn, a LaBonge ally who represents the Fifteenth District. “We respect each other’s districts, but this time it wasn’t respected or honored.”
Cardenas, however, felt no compunction about what he had done. “Information came from a Freedom of Information filing, and to me the results were unequivocal,” he says. “It was information we didn’t have when we voted in 2006. Elephants in these enclosures are suffering physically and psychologically.” Cardenas was further motivated, he says, by his belief that it was foolhardy to spend millions of dollars on the exhibit in the midst of a recession that had left Los Angeles facing a $427 million deficit. As for the breach of propriety, he was unrepentant. “I weighed going into Tom’s district for about a second,” he says. “The zoo is physically in his district, but the issue of humane practice is an issue of right and wrong.”
That Cardenas’s move constituted a power play and a direct assault on LaBonge did not escape most council members. “Tom got outhustled by Tony Cardenas,” said one. “Tony isn’t the best-liked member of council. Everyone on the council said privately, ‘Oh, my God, how did Tom let this happen?’ ” The project was not just in LaBonge’s district, it was in his purview: He is chairman of the council’s Arts, Parks, Health, and Aging Committee, which oversees the zoo. LaBonge, who has a weakness for sports metaphors, countered: “I have a football analogy. You’re running down the sidelines, confident you’re going to score, and all of a sudden someone who wasn’t even in the game comes off the bench and hits you from behind.”
Cardenas’s action triggered what amounted to a referendum on how LaBonge conducts his office. There are two ways to be a city council member. The first is to stay close to city hall, huddle with interested parties, study the issues, and implement policy. Government, in this view, is a business. LaBonge, however, is a figure from a different era. “He was shaped in a pre-term-limit political world that no longer exists,” says former Los Angeles Times political columnist Bill Boyarsky. “Years in the job, relationships, old-boy friendships, a familiarity with the way the city works. Everyone was once in the club together. That’s where Tom learned the ropes.” As LaBonge will himself concede, “I’m not a legislator. I’m a city councilman.” Details and paperwork are for staff. As he sees it, his job is to travel his district, listen to his constituents’ needs, provide services, and champion Los Angeles’s glories to all comers. In the process he’s made himself not only the city’s ex officio town crier but the most visible member of the council.
LaBonge’s old-school approach raises questions. Is he savvy or a blowhard? Astute or an innocent? Loving Los Angeles is not a vision, and LaBonge is not a visionary. One does not seek him out for analytical insights or philosophical discourse. How does this bumptious but ebullient operator straight out of The Last Hurrah play in the modern city? LaBonge is hardly central casting’s idea of a spokesman for a place as complicated as Los Angeles. He is a white Catholic in a city that in the 20th century was overwhelmingly Protestant and in the 21st is chiefly Latino. He is also given to bromides and on any given day will trot out at least one of the following at a public appearance: “You are an angel in the City of Angels.” “Life is about relationships.” “Information is knowledge is power.” Then there are the puzzling non sequiturs, such as this recent head scratcher: “Art Week is in January. There’s an a in ‘art’ and two a’s in ‘January.’ ” As his pal Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, says, “When Tom starts talking, anything might occur.” Adds a colleague: “I like spending time with him, but others think he’s a lightweight and say, ‘There goes Tom again.’ ”
Viewed another way, LaBonge’s public persona is disarming. “It’s not an uncommon experience for people to think, ‘This guy is not for real,’ ” says city council president Eric Garcetti. “But he is. He’s 100 percent genuine. He harkens back to a time when things weren’t focus grouped and micromanaged.” That, paradoxically, is what’s appealing about LaBonge’s style of politics. “Enthusiasm is his greatest weakness,” says MacAdams, “but also his greatest strength. He’s a happy warrior.” Boyarsky recalls attending a formal reception in Hancock Park for the British ambassador to the United States. “Tom got up and gave the same corny speech, singing the glories of Griffith Park and Hollywood, and I cringed. I thought, ‘God, this is the wrong speech for this occasion.’ But afterward when I told the Brits this, they said, ‘You’re wrong.’ They found it endearing, and they were right.” Adds Garcetti: “The negatives are not that Tom is corrupt, fake, or dishonest. If your worst quality is that you like to talk too much and want to do it in front of a camera, then God bless you.”
All of which explains why the battle over the Pachyderm Forest was the battle of LaBonge’s career, for implicit in it was whether a scene-stealing throwback could prevail in a high-profile conflict requiring canniness and strategic thinking. At the heated council meeting he was not without support. Zoo director John Lewis and the city’s zoo commissioners, among them such wealthy Westside denizens as Karen Winnick (wife of Global Crossing founder Gary) and Kimberly Marteau (wife of John Emerson, former deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton), were in his camp. So too were many zoo goers. One read a statement from safari-jacketed TV zoologist Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, who wrote, “I’ve seen the toll that habitat loss and poaching have taken on elephants.... Please finish what you started and complete the Pachyderm Forest.”
Near the session’s close LaBonge rose dramatically from his seat at the horseshoe-shaped council desk. Wearing a blue suit set off by a lapel pin stamped with the city seal, he urged his colleagues to reject Cardenas’s motion. The performance was classic LaBonge. He spoke of the days in Los Angeles when “we all got on school buses and went to the parks and the zoo.” He named the city’s other great attractions, tacitly linking the Pachyderm Forest to everything from the Hollywood Bowl to the Coliseum. Then he asked, “What is a city all about?”
The council did not see things LaBonge’s way. Although it refused to cancel the Pachyderm Forest outright—instead referring the project to its budget committee for continued study—the consensus was that Cardenas had dealt the exhibit a fatal blow. That view only hardened in December, when the council took up the matter again. “I think at the time this was approved in 2006 we had more money,” said Budget and Finance Committee chairman Bernard Parks, whereupon the body voted to halt construction. Yet once again the council left open a small window. The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, an influential nonprofit support group dedicated to promoting the zoo, announced that it had secured a loan and would pick up the $14.5 million remainder of the city’s tab on the Pachyderm Forest, essentially freeing taxpayers from more financial risk. As a result, the council again referred the matter to committee. This time, though, it was to LaBonge’s Arts, Parks, Health, and Aging. If the elephant exhibit was to survive, it would be largely up to the council member from the Fourth District.
At least twice, sometimes three or four times a week, Tom LaBonge bounds out of his City Hall office and says to whoever is around, “Let’s roll.” He then races down several flights of stairs to the parking garage.
LaBonge drives a beat-up gray city-issue 2005 Crown Victoria with a police radio under the dash. Of the 14 other city council members, only Bernard Parks opts for such a retrograde vehicle. Many of the rest drive hybrid SUVs, while Eric Garcetti has gone greener still with a Toyota RAV4 EV. For LaBonge, nothing but the Crown Vic will do. When he’s on the streets of Los Angeles, he wants to be ready for any eventuality, and it takes a big American trunk to hold his gear, which includes fire boots and helmet, a fireman’s jacket with his name stitched across the back, four orange traffic cones, a shovel to remove clogged drain covers, a rake to clean out backed-up sewers, clippers for cutting overgrowth from street signs, work gloves, a flashlight, a first aid kit, trash bags, jumper cables, and a Community Emergency Response Team package stuffed with disaster preparedness materials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In addition, the trunk of the Crown Vic invariably contains a box overflowing with loaves of pumpkin bread baked at the Monastery of the Angels, which is in the Fourth District. The bread is a LaBonge calling card. He distributes so much of it that the nuns run a tab for him (he’s presently $190 in arrears). Then there’s the carton of 2009 wall calendars, “Photography by Tom LaBonge.” The council member, who in his twenties worked as a spotter for film crews covering NFL games in Southern California, loves to take pictures of Los Angeles. They are the visual equivalents of his verbal effusions—earnest and laudatory shots of everything from sunset at the 6th Street Bridge to a portrait of the late “honorary mayor of Hollywood,” Johnny Grant. He has been handing out his calendars for eight years.
One January morning LaBonge, who’s always at the Crown Vic’s wheel, rolls north into the Cahuenga Pass with his press aide, Carolyn Ramsay. Near the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, he spots a concrete lamp post that had been knocked over by a car. “We gotta call that in, Carolyn,” he barks as he drives past. “Call 847-2020 and tell them there should be a barricade. Tell them it’s a 927,” he adds, citing the number for the tall modern fixtures that on busy streets have replaced the lollipop-globed lights long associated with Los Angeles. When Ramsay reaches someone on her cell phone, LaBonge demands, “Is that Ed?” She nods. Ed Ebrahimian, director of the Bureau of Street Lighting, is an old friend.
LaBonge’s first stop is a house in the Lake-ridge area where Claire Huchel lives. In the record-breaking rains of 2005, her backyard, along with the backyards of several neighbors, collapsed onto a path around Lake Hollywood far below. Because the landslide involved private property falling onto a public walkway, cleaning it up entailed a bureaucratic tangle. Only now, four years later, has LaBonge’s office secured a federal grant to fund the work that will stabilize the property owners’ lots and reopen the bucolic lakeside. Although he hasn’t made an appointment, LaBonge marches right up Huchel’s steps and rings the bell. She’s still in her bathrobe, but she leads him through her living room to the back porch so he can reassess the damage. “How’s it look?” she asks, hoping to learn what’s being done. “We’re working on it,” responds LaBonge. “I was just at DWP yesterday talking to people.” The money, he adds, is in place, and the materials are stockpiled. All that remains is the construction of an access road for the heavy equipment needed to do the job. That’s what Huchel wanted to hear, and the council member is gone as quickly as he appeared.
Crossing into the Valley, LaBonge heads for North Hollywood, where he had spent the previous morning with theater owners and restaurateurs angry at a recent decision by the city to extend the hours for parking enforcement to 8 p.m. People now had to leave plays and dinners to pump coins into meters. “I’m working to get a new public lot and change the hours back to 6 p.m.,” he says. Stopping at Fire Station 60, LaBonge lowers his window to speak to two college students interning there. “You gonna join the department?” he asks. “Yes, sir,” both answer. “Upper-body strength,” he advises and drives on. At the offices of the weekly Tolucan Times, he screeches to a halt when he sees a pile of Del Taco cups and other refuse on the sidewalk. Jumping out, he scoops up the trash and bursts into the newspaper’s lobby. “Is Mardi here?” he asks, hoping that publisher Mardi Rustam is in his office. “No,” the receptionist replies. “Well, tell him Tom LaBonge stopped by and is cleaning up the streets.” Back in the Crown Vic, the council member steers toward Hollywood. Barreling south through the Cahuenga Pass, he’s delighted to see that a city truck has already arrived at the downed lamp post and a crew is at work.
To ride with LaBonge is to be privy to a continuous monologue on all things Los Angeles. The city’s story and his are intertwined. One day while driving on Main Street, he points to where his great-grandfather, Alexander LaBonge, lived in 1880. After proceeding north on the Hollywood Freeway, he turns onto Santa Monica Boulevard. “Here’s the Cahuenga branch of the L.A. Library, where I used to go as a kid,” he offers. “My favorite book was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” He adds, “It’s about a guy in a steam shovel being replaced by a diesel. He was obsoleted.” How self-aware LaBonge is about the implications of this remark isn’t clear. It just hangs there as he pulls up to his destination.
A hundred or so local shop owners and neighborhood activists have gathered for a ribbon cutting at brand-new Vermont Triangle, a tiny park at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. Funded by an $800,000 grant from the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency, the freshly planted green space replaces what for a decade had been a derelict vacant lot. Vermont Triangle sits on the border of the Fourth District and Eric Garcetti’s Thirteenth District, and LaBonge’s main task is to introduce the council president, which he graciously does. To Garcetti falls the duty—and the political benefit—of acknowledging the constituencies and agencies that expect recognition at events like these. When the council president finishes, an aide hands LaBonge a pair of ceremonial scissors, and cameras flash. The official business is done, but the Fourth District council member isn’t. Reclaiming the mic, he conducts an impromptu quiz:
“How many of you remember when the 95 bus would have its layover right over there?”
“How many remember when the entrance to Barnsdall Art Center was over there?”
Implicit in such questions is LaBonge’s desire to connect Angelenos to the city’s past, to maintain continuity in a place that often seems to conspire against it. There is also this: For the council member, who was born several blocks away at Queen of Angels Hospital and grew up on these streets, representing the Fourth District is more than a job. It’s his life.
They called the house by the name of its street: Panorama. Robert LaBonge, managing editor of The Tidings, the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and his wife, Mary Louise, daughter of an Irish Catholic LAPD officer, bought it in 1950. With its two roomy floors and views of John Marshall High School in the near distance and Griffith Park in the far, the Silver Lake home provided an ideal spot for raising eight boys. “Dad worked his butt off to keep us going,” recalls Tom’s older brother Chris, a former advertising executive who recently launched a brand marketing firm. “He was gone early every morning. So Mom really had her hands full. When people saw her driving all of us in the station wagon, they could only shake their heads.”
The LaBonges’ neighborhood was solid and supportive, reflecting the optimism of Los Angeles in the 1950s. Their church, Our Mother of Good Counsel, was also an anchor, positioning them firmly in the orbit of a tight-knit Catholic world. “I remember playing baseball in Griffith Park,” says Tom. “The Golden State Freeway had just been built, and one of us hit the ball onto the freeway. My brother Denis went onto the freeway to retrieve it. Before we got home my mother had already gotten the call—‘The LaBonge boys are playing on the Golden State Freeway.’ ”
Still, being one of eight sons born over a 20-year span was not easy. “We had a pretty efficient judicial system,” says Chris. “If you wore my jeans and I couldn’t find them, you were accused and punishment was meted out. I beat you up and it was over. There was no lingering resentment.” As the next to youngest, Tom was the baby for a long time, so he was on the receiving end of a lot of the punishment. Chris believes the constant jockeying toughened Tom up. “We’d all eat at a bar in the kitchen,” he says. “All the brothers would try to steal one another’s food. It was a coup to steal your piece of chicken. You had to eat with your left arm wrapped around your plate.”
Robert LaBonge, who died of a heart attack when Tom was 17, saw his sons as a labor force, posting lists of chores and schedules for them inside a kitchen cupboard. “I swept up not just in front of our house but down to the Hansens and the Wongs,” says Tom. “My father knew that having eight boys in a household created havoc in the neighborhood. This was a way to make up for it.” As Chris views it, Tom expressed the same diligence on the football field at John Marshall High, where he was an all-league center. “Tommy was very steady,” he says. “He’d pound away and get the job done. He was the quintessential lineman.”
By the time Tom reached his junior year at Marshall, he was lead singer in a garage band called Joe Bush and the Hubcaps. Appearing shirtless in an unbuttoned denim jacket and jeans and wearing wraparound sunglasses, Tom would channel Elvis at block parties and openings at local stores. “Tommy wasn’t afraid to let go,” says his younger brother, Mark, a cinematographer. “The girls would just scream.”
Following graduation, LaBonge attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he made the football team as a walk-on. After two years, he transferred to Cal State Los Angeles. Although he earned a degree in sociology, he left school with no clear idea of what to do. Part of him wanted to teach. Part wanted to be a printer. Part wanted to be a fireman. It was not to be—he failed the Los Angeles Fire Department test.
LaBonge might have drifted had it not been for the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, which nearly destroyed Marshall High. A debate ensued over whether to rebuild from scratch or salvage the school’s 1930s Gothic facade. The school district supported starting over, but four women from the neighborhood mounted a campaign to save the structure, and LaBonge joined their ultimately successful effort. “That was the first community meeting I ever went to,” he says, adding that it awakened in him a curiosity about how Los Angeles worked.
LaBonge began his career in city government at the bottom in 1974 with Mayor Tom Bradley’s Summer Youth Cleanup program. Working from a Truckster, a three-wheel motorcycle equipped with shovels and brooms, he swept up refuse throughout Hollywood. The next year he was leading a team of workers charged with collecting abandoned furniture. “He’d drive in front in a city car,” says Daryl Arbuthnott, one of LaBonge’s charges and now an assistant chief with the LAFD. “I was in a team of guys following along behind in a dump truck. Tom would spot a sofa, and he’d crook his arm out the window in a very distinctive gesture, then look back at us with this smirk.”
In 1978, when he joined the staff of Fourth District council member John Ferraro, LaBonge found his calling. LaBonge revered the council president. In turn Ferraro, who’d been an all-American lineman on the University of Southern California football team, saw something of himself in the former Marshall High center. LaBonge was with Ferraro seven days a week. He accompanied him to council meetings and civic events and drove him everywhere. Ferraro, although no stranger to frivolity (he married a burlesque dancer), was a commanding figure who represented L.A.’s post-WWII establishment (Hancock Park, USC). If he had any ideology, it was rooted in the belief that the public’s trust was earned through good works. To a 24-year-old who’d lost his father during his teens, Ferraro seemed a giant. “The relationship was more than political,” says former city council member Jackie Goldberg. “It was familial. John Ferraro loved Tom like a son. They were much alike: loyal to friends and loyal to institutions they cared about. They were Democrats but not progressives.”
It was under Ferraro that LaBonge became friends with city department heads and laborers alike, forming bonds that enabled him to cut through the bureaucracy. “Tom was still with Ferraro when I went to him and said I wanted to revive the Los Angeles River,” says Lewis MacAdams. “Tom replied, ‘Before you can save it, you have to let people know it’s there. People don’t know.’ Tom then went to the city sign shop and gave them a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. He’ll tell you it was pumpkin bread, but it was Jack. Anyway, they fabricated simple blue signs that said ‘Los Angeles River.’ Next Tom went to the department that puts up signs and gave them a fifth. Within weeks the signs were on every bridge. That was the start of Friends of the River.”
It was also while he was with Ferraro that LaBonge met Brigid Manning on a date to hear country singer Hoyt Axton at the Palomino Club in the Valley. Even though her future husband still lived with his mother, Brigid saw this as a recommendation. “You always want to date a guy who loves his mom,” she says. “If he treats her like a queen, chances are he’ll treat you the same way.” They would have two children, Mary Cate and Charles, who, like their mother, would become accustomed to their father’s frenetic life. “We lose him 20 minutes after he gets home at night,” says Brigid.
In 1993, after 15 years with Ferraro, LaBonge decided to seek office himself, running against Goldberg, among others, for the then-open Thirteenth District seat. The contest was fierce. “Tommy was a lamb going into battle with a pretty tough broad,” says Chris LaBonge. Goldberg, who was serving on the Los Angeles Unified School District board, feels LaBonge chose the wrong tack. “He walked the precincts,” she says, “but I built the organization.” The race was close, with LaBonge leading until late on election night, when the tally came in from Echo Park, where Goldberg was particularly strong. She won by 680 votes. “We all cried,” recalls Chris, “but Tom shook it off and came back with more knowledge.”
Later that year, when LaBonge went to work as chief of field operations for Mayor Richard Riordan, he got the chance to see Los Angeles in its entirety. “He’d go to a lot of public appearances on my schedule, and he’d do a better job than I’d do,” says the former mayor. “He had much more charisma. He was important in representing me to different Los Angeles communities.” He would start a day in San Pedro and end it 12 hours later at a community function 50 miles to the north in Chatsworth. Riordan used LaBonge as more than just his stand-in. He also depended on his ability to figure things out. He assigned him to oversee the city’s transition to automated garbage collection, and he asked him to look into more efficient ways to repair streets. “Filling a pothole was among the most complicated tasks ever created by mankind,” Riordan says. “A truck had to come out three hours early to boil the tar. Then you had to jackhammer the street. I called Tom and said, ‘Let’s find a simpler way.’ He went all over the country and returned with a cold process that works.”
After Ferraro died in 2001, LaBonge decided to seek his seat. The special election was held on September 11. As the rest of the city reeled from the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, LaBonge trudged up and down the streets of the Fourth District, encouraging voters to go to the polls. He won and served the remainder of Ferraro’s term. In 2003, he was elected outright.
LaBonge’s eight-year tenure has been marked by both boisterous undertakings to publicize Los Angeles’s attractions and reflexive efforts to protect the city’s cohesiveness from the depredations of developers. Beyond crime, development is what a city council member spends most of his time addressing. There’s either too much of it or too little. The verdict has yet to be rendered on LaBonge’s efforts, because the Fourth District’s most controversial projects are still pending. One involves a 138-acre piece of property atop Cahuenga Peak just west of the Hollywood sign where a Chicago investment group envisions estates. LaBonge believes the homes would ruin the view of “the most famous sign in the world.” He is trying to put together the owner’s $22 million asking price and buy the land for the city. “We’ve so far raised $5 million,” he says, “so we need a lot more.” The other battle concerns the $800 million MetroStudio@Lankershim planned for the intersection of Lankershim Boulevard and the Hollywood Freeway. LaBonge thinks that the complex—which will include film studios, office towers, and a hotel and serve as the western headquarters for NBC News—is too big for the site and insensitive to the surrounding neighborhoods. “The developer sees it as a New York-style project,” he says, “but this isn’t New York.”
LaBonge, however, doesn’t consider every development bad. He favors, for example, a new sports complex at Griffith Park. “I’m a naturalist, but I’m also a sports enthusiast,” he says. “I want some recreation.” Not everyone views it that way. Last fall activists leafleted the 4,200-acre treasure with flyers declaring STOP DEVELOPMENT PLANS ENDORSED BY TOM LABONGE.
By January 28, when the motion that could spell the end of the Pachyderm Forest came before the council for a final vote, the battle over the exhibit had grown nastier. Opponents had put up billboards across Los Angeles that begged, “Help Billy. Fourteen elephants have died at the L.A. Zoo. Don’t make it 15.” Proponents, meanwhile, had taken out full-page newspaper ads that asserted, “This is a fiscally responsible project. You as citizens voted overwhelmingly to approve two bond measures…funding this habitat. Pachyderm Forest will be a global conservation center for the critically endangered Asian elephant.” The two sides also had launched competing Web sites. When the council meeting convened at 10 a.m., the chamber was as crowded as it had been back in November. The celebrity contingent opposing the exhibit now included not just Bob Barker but Lily Tomlin, Tippi Hedren, Robert Culp, Kevin Nealon, and Cher. As in November, the public comment period was heated. “Elephant experts from around the world have testified that this rinky-dink elephant habitat…is going to be completely inadequate,” warned Barker. “They’re going to die an early death…. Vote ‘Free Billy.’ ” Cher was more accusatory. “The L.A. Zoo,” she said, “has systematically concealed its use of electric shocks and bull hooks to control its elephants.”
Something, however, had changed. Unlike before, there were as many if not more exhibit proponents. They wore bright green T-shirts urging save pachyderm forest, and their number included most of the institution’s senior scientists and animal keepers. Moreover, the advocates were well organized. They had hired the crisis public relations firm Sitrick and Company. Students from North Hollywood High School’s Zoo Magnet Center marched to the front of the room to deliver bags containing 12,800 signed cards supporting the project. In addition, the advocates were calm, in contrast to the opponents, who aggressively pressed the attack. At one point Tomlin tried to speak out of order. When council president Garcetti gently silenced her, she punched a microphone, breaking part of it off. The histrionics played into the advocates’ hands. “If you want to know how to spin a wheel,” senior primate keeper Joshua Sisk told the council, “talk to Bob Barker. No disrespect—Cher, I love you to death—but if you want to know how to do an amazing concert, talk to Cher. Let’s talk to the professionals at the zoo that care for these animals…. Billy has never seen an electrical shock.”
As Tom LaBonge looked around the chamber, he could sense the shift in dynamics. He typically enters the room through a back door reserved for council members and staff, but today—as he does whenever he’s facing a big vote—he had come through the main entrance with the public. “It’s from my football experience,” he says. “I always liked to get a feel for the stadium and the crowd.” During the seven weeks since the matter had been bounced to his committee, LaBonge had kept an important old lesson in mind. “The biggest thing I learned from John Ferraro,” he says, “was this: React appropriately to a challenging situation. If you lash out at someone, you’ll feel good for a second, but that’s all. Let the dust settle so you can see the whole landscape, then go to work.”
In a city without political parties, only labor can deliver big chunks of precinct workers and votes. Thus, rather than say anything critical about Tony Cardenas or the Pachyderm Forest’s celebrity opponents, LaBonge had delayed the vote on the exhibit and phoned María Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who oversees 300 unions with a total of 800,000 members. He also had talked frequently with Richard Slawson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council. Now both were in attendance. At every opportunity Durazo, who almost never appears at council meetings, leaned across a barrier separating the body from the packed house and lobbied members. “My reasoning is simple,” she said. “Nearly 30 percent of my members are unemployed. With this project come 300 good union jobs.” Slawson also worked the room. Pushing against the barrier, he told council member José Huizar, “The president is looking for stimulus. Here’s one ready to go.” Labor wasn’t the only force flexing its muscles. Representatives of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (among them Laura Wasserman, granddaughter-in-law of the late MCA/Universal kingpin Lew) and the influential zoo commissioners were also buttonholing council members. This was a raw display of power, and as LaBonge absorbed its impact he made a decision. He had prepared a five-minute PowerPoint presentation in favor of the Pachyderm Forest. He did not give it.
Renee Weitzer, LaBonge’s longtime chief of staff, paced in front of her boss’s council desk clutching a small notebook in which she kept a tally in red ink. After an hour and a half of debate, she had the Pachyderm Forest losing 8-7. The opponents were working hard. Cardenas held up a black-and-white photograph of one of Billy’s hooves, which he said showed a troubling blemish caused by confinement in the elephant enclosure. His staff distributed articles on zoo-related pachyderm health problems and copies of a letter from Barker offering to pay the $1.5 million to relocate Billy to a wildlife sanctuary. The exhibit’s chances seemed to dim further when Bernard Parks, reiterating his previous assessment, told the room, “It appears to me to be prudent that we should step back. It’s not in my judgment an appropriate time to make this expenditure.”
City finance officials were called to testify. They reminded the council that the zoo association’s $14.5 million offer all but inoculated taxpayers against added financial exposure. The director of regional parks for Los Angeles County then warned the body, “The city has a $12 million grant from the county, $4.8 million of which is specified for this project. If the city was to terminate, it would have to return $5 million.” This prompted council member Greig Smith to remark, “If you’re concerned, Mr. Parks, the cheaper way is to actually proceed.” With that, council member Bill Rosen-dahl, who had seconded the motion to halt the exhibit, leaped to his feet and proclaimed, “If it’s going to cost us more to shut it down, I’m switching my vote.”
Council member Herb Wesson moved to end the debate, and Garcetti called for a vote. The Pachyderm Forest won, 11-4.
LaBonge was delirious, hugging and kissing exhibit supporters, slapping backs, and shouting congratulations. The most voluble member of council had held himself in check for three hours, demonstrating that while he may consider himself only a city councilman, he wasn’t a bad legislator. He had proved that he was capable of being cunning. His instincts had told him to keep his mouth shut, and his instincts had been right. “Tom deserves a great deal of the credit for this,” Garcetti said afterward. Added Hahn: “I think what just happened is that Tom LaBonge not only saved the Pachyderm Forest, but he saved the zoo. Who knows what would have happened if they’d stopped the exhibit, and what I love is that it wasn’t close. It was overwhelming. It was a validation of Tom’s view of the zoo and of the city.”
After the council chamber cleared, LaBonge and Brigid, who had arrived to celebrate her husband’s triumph, piled into the Crown Vic and drove to a Smart & Final in Lincoln Heights, where LaBonge bought $40 worth of ice cream sandwiches, popsicles, and chocolate-covered drumsticks. He then headed to the zoo, where for the next hour he handed out the treats to executives, zoologists, and maintenance workers. Afterward the couple went to dinner at Musso & Frank.
LaBonge is a creature of habit. Whether it’s his hike up Mount Hollywood or his clothes (he buys his suits every year at the same store, G.B. Harb & Son downtown, during its winter sale), he never deviates, and he is this way with food. He patronizes only old Los Angeles standbys—Tam O’Shanter, Lucy’s El Adobe Café, and most frequently, Musso & Frank, where he always sits at a booth in Sergio’s section. The waiter knows the council member’s tastes so well, he rarely shows him the menu. He simply brings a house salad and a New York steak, medium rare.
It all sounds pedestrian. Yet even here, LaBonge can’t help expressing his flamboyance, especially on a night like this. When Sergio asks, “Can I bring your special?” the council member nods, and his cocktail of choice appears. Kahlúa, on the rocks.
There are a few who think Tom LaBonge might one day seek higher office. Democratic Party operative Bill Carrick, who ran Dianne Feinstein’s Senate campaign and lives in the Fourth District, says, “Tom would be a great congressman. The smarty-pants crowd may not think so, but when it comes to constituent services, when it comes to listening to the people, he’s exactly right.” This, however, is the minority view. The consensus is that the council member, who will be termed out following the 2011 elections, has gone as high as he’ll go. LaBonge largely concurs. “You never know where you’re gonna end up in life,” he says one afternoon as he steers the Crown Vic through downtown, “but I think I’m having a positive impact by helping people enjoy and love the great city of Los Angeles.”
LaBonge and a couple of his staffers are headed to Philippe’s, home of the French dip sandwich, where 78-year-old Rudy Cervantes, the proprietor of a necktie manufacturing operation at 25th and Main, is waiting. The council member had scheduled a lunch with Cervantes ostensibly to discuss a request to trim some ficus trees in front of his business. “I used to call on Monday,” the elderly man reminds LaBonge after they shake hands, “and by Tuesday morning they’d have someone there trimming those trees.” Cervantes Neckwear is in the Ninth District, so the issue falls outside LaBonge’s bailiwick, but he had agreed to meet because Cervantes was a friend of John Ferraro. “He’s reaching out,” the council member says as he stands in line at the crowded counter to place his party’s order. “He still wants to feel he knows someone at city hall.”
At the table LaBonge assures his guest that the trees will be trimmed. The news delights Cervantes, who once made ties for Elvis and wears a white, yellow, and blue seersucker jacket set off by an American-flag lapel pin. In appreciation he hands LaBonge a piece of neckwear boasting Chicago White Sox logos. “You wear this when Obama comes to town, and he’ll kiss you,” he says. LaBonge smiles warmly. Then Cervantes pulls out a thick bundle. “I’ve brought you a dozen ties,” he says. For a second LaBonge, wary of an ethical lapse, doesn’t respond. “I can’t take ’em, Rudy,” he says finally. “I’d just have to give them away.” At this, Cervantes’s shoulders sag. In his day no one worried about petty regulations and appearances of impropriety. Sensing his distress, LaBonge reaches across the table and touches his arm.
On the way out the door, LaBonge says of the luncheon, which had no political utility, “It just fell into place. It was an opening in my schedule.” As with so much else about LaBonge, it was also something more. Rudy Cervantes reminded him of Los Angeles’s history and his own past. He was proof that the center still held.
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