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Two for the Money 

Top spenders will vie to replace the late John Ferraro

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
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Tom LaBonge and Beth Garfield smashed fund-raising records on their way to claiming the top two spots in Tuesday’s primary in the 4th City Council District. LaBonge, a longtime City Council field deputy, cruised in with more than 32 percent of the vote. Garfield, a community college trustee, just edged out former state Senate President David Roberti in a crowded field.

Garfield got 18.7 percent of the vote to Roberti’s 17.5 percent — a difference of 233 votes. Although a number of ballots remained to be counted on Wednesday, it would be virtually impossible for Roberti to make up that entire gap. So Garfield looks like the foe LaBonge will face in an October 23 runoff. A bit more than 17 percent of registered voters turned out for the special election, which was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as the shutdown of the L.A. airport and much of downtown.

LaBonge, 47, appealed to a wide range of supporters, from environmentalists who consider him a champion of Griffith Park and the L.A. River to developers who view him as the logical successor to John Ferraro, the pro-business councilman who virtually ruled the 4th District from 1966 until his death in April. LaBonge spent most of his 27-year stint in city government as an aide to Ferraro or former Mayor Richard Riordan. The 4th District includes Griffith Park, as well as a slice of the San Fernando Valley, much of Los Feliz and Silver Lake, and portions of Hollywood, Koreatown, the Wilshire district and the Fairfax/Farmers Market area.

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“Tom is a local,” commented one voter, a Silver Lake homeowner who described herself as a liberal Democrat. “It makes sense to have someone who knows the local issues.”

Paul Bronkar, a Hancock Park–area voter who considers himself a Libertarian, said that LaBonge “has the most experience and has worked in the administration before.”

LaBonge lawn signs papered many properties. He was endorsed by the L.A. Times and the city’s firefighter and police unions in a campaign that avoided taking a stand on anything controversial, though he could tell voters from memory if their streets need paving.

LaBonge quickly laid claim to the financial base that had kept Ferraro in power longer than any other L.A. council member. But that was not enough to overpower Garfield’s spending capacity, to put it mildly. The latest figures, which don’t include the campaign’s final six days, show that both Garfield and LaBonge spent almost $500,000, nearly $200,000 more than any other City Council candidate spent on a primary this year. Two candidates had never before unleashed a dollar derby like this. The record spending level for a single candidate, however, remains with Richard Alatorre, who managed to burn up more than $600,000 during a 1991 primary election in which he had no well-funded opponent.

Garfield, a prominent 49-year-old labor attorney from a wealthy family, shattered the record with her own checkbook, setting aside $350,000 of personal assets to vie for the $133,000-a-year job. By comparison, this year’s previous high was established by Jack Weiss, who spent $314,000. In April, Weiss was the only candidate to cross the $300,000 threshold in seven City Council primaries, though several others were close. Weiss did it with a $100,000 boost from city matching funds; Garfield opted out of the voluntary city-funding program entirely, which would have limited her self-financing. “We made a decision that we weren’t going to be outspent in this thing,” Garfield told the Weekly, adding that she wanted to make sure her message got out.

The message that emerged was not particularly original or deep, one that seemed crafted more by political consultants than by a sharp attorney who asserted in interviews that she would carry a progressive, pro-labor message into City Hall. In fact, the thrust of her campaign — helping schools and neighborhoods — aped the themes of recently elected City Attorney Rocky Delga-dillo, a Democratic centrist identified more with business interests than labor.

“She’s going to do things for the neighborhood and for schools,” said a Silver Lake voter who obviously got the advertised message. “I heard about Roberti too, but I think it’s time for a woman to do the job.”

It was left to labor to convey that Garfield was labor’s candidate — after Garfield outmaneuvered Roberti for support from the influential county Federation of Labor. Its mailers made a bald-faced appeal to union members’ financial self-interest. “Vote for Abe,” said one, referring to the flier’s enlarged picture of Abe Lincoln, taken from his portrait on the $5 bill. Similar treatments of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin appeared in other mailers.

Garfield’s message also included a negative campaign against Roberti, whom she correctly perceived as a challenge to her claim on left-leaning voters. Garfield wanted voters to remember that Roberti, who is Catholic, opposes abortion rights. During the last campaign forum, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, she brought up the issue as soon as she had an opening, a tactic that prompted the most vigorous boos and hisses of the evening — some in the crowd, apparently, were turned off by the tone of her anti-Roberti fliers. Still, when she’d finished making her case, she also got some applause. Her point was that Roberti, if elected, could cut off funds to health clinics and undermine the current practice of providing police protection, when needed, for women seeking to enter health clinics.

Roberti responded that he would not go after funding, and that he would enforce the law against those who impeded access to health clinics.

As a civic matter, the issue was a non sequitur: The city doesn’t operate health clinics; nor would Roberti have any authority over police deployment. Nonetheless, in liberal L.A., some voters would not elect an anti-choice candidate to the job of dogcatcher. And Garfield wanted those votes.

For his part, Roberti, 61, ran a positive, but sometimes directionless, campaign. He didn’t know whether to tout his record or run from it. His ballot designation listed him as “attorney/university instructor,” modest words for someone who wielded power effectively in the state Legislature for 20 years. Legislators haven’t proved downwardly mobile in recent times. Losers of recent council bids — to less well-known opponents — include Tom Hayden, Carl Washington and Scott Wildman.

Roberti’s mailers never fired back at Garfield, perhaps because he didn’t want to call further attention to his anti-choice views. But when apartment owners launched an independent campaign against him, he passionately defended his stalwart record on renters’ rights. The landlords urged a vote for Garfield or candidate Ferris Wehbe, who finished fourth. Despite a slow start, Roberti ended up spending $241,000.

That’s a lot, but it’s a fair chunk behind Garfield and LaBonge, whose campaign coffer was boosted by $100,000 in city matching funds.

Fourth-place finisher Wehbe clocked in with 12.9 percent of the vote. Wehbe’s mailers ran at LaBonge from the right, accusing LaBonge, in various fliers, of wanting to make residents drink toilet water and of allowing cigarette makers to corrupt the city’s youth. The message got so silly that it obscured a legitimate point — that LaBonge’s campaign depended heavily on downtown business interests, lobbyists and developers.

In the end, LaBonge didn’t want to be outspent by Garfield any more than she was willing to be outspent by LaBonge. All of which ought to make for a very expensive runoff — which is the price voters pay for spendthrift campaigns modeled after telemarketing and bulk-mail solicitations, right down to the merciless phone banking and slick mailings. LaBonge got out nearly a dozen pieces of mail to registered voters. Garfield sent just as many, with the union mixing in about half a dozen more on her behalf.

Fifth-place finisher Denise Robb tried to capitalize on voter burnout by pointing out that she would send only one flier, in part because she refused to accept money from developers and lobbyists. Her principled stands earned the Weekly’s endorsement and also won favor at campaign forums, but she claimed just 7.7 percent of the vote, finishing fifth in the field of 10. Which means that two standard dicta continue to apply in L.A. politics: For the candidates — you get what you pay for; for the voters — caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

Researcher Sara Clinehens contributed to this story.

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