"I'M COMING AT YOU LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN!" a smiling Billy Tsangares warned James Hahn last Saturday. The mayor appeared even more discomfited than usual as he shook hands with the owner of Los Feliz's Y-Que Trading Post. The 41-year-old Tsangares, who on this day sported a newsboy cap, cargo pants and goatee, is running for a City Council seat in a Hollywood whose independence Hahn vigorously opposes. The two men found themselves together at the opening of the anti-secessionists' I Love L.A. headquarters in the old First National Bank building at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where members of the two sides clashed in a fairly civil war of chants and posters.
The two-hour morning had begun with anti-secessionists given free access to muffins, Starbucks coffee and Johnny Grant, Hollywood's ubiquitous unofficial mayor, who emceed the event along with L.A. City Councilmen Tom LaBonge and Eric Garcetti. The hiss of helium filling purple and gold balloons could be heard inside, while on the sidewalk some 35 secessionists mounted a spirited counter-rally. The picketers included a sprinkling of Tsangares' fellow candidates, including AIDS activist Richard Eastman; journalist Joe Shea; Tad Davis, a filmmaker with tangerine-blond hair; and the sleek nightclub owner Gene La Pietra, whose personal fortune has bankrolled much of the breakaway campaign. It was a fervent and colorful display of California politics, with just a touch of Nathanael West -- secessionists darkly muttered about "the unions" providing much of their opponents' muscle, while the anti-secessionists sent out a small army of Latino kids wearing soccer jerseys and carrying "We Love L.A." signs to bury the secessionists' media presence.
If anyone can keep a level head and a sense of humor about the whole debate, it's probably the maverick Tsangares, more familiarly known as Billy T. and the creator of the "Free Winona" T-shirts. He spent Saturday morning alternating between taping streetlight poles with canvas signs screened with images of Lincoln, Washington, Frederick Douglass and pro-secession slogans, and cheering on anti-secession speeches as his 3-year-old daughter, Gigi, passed out dollar-bill-replica fliers saying, "Free Hollywood."
"I like to hear what they have to say," he said outside the anti-secessionists' headquarters, while giving a needy-looking man a real dollar. Afterward, at Y-Que, he talked strategy. Supercharged on coffee and ideas, Tsangares talks a mile a minute while his right fist hammers the air. Despite his infectious enthusiasm, Tsangares is aware of L.A.'s legendary voter apathy: "I can talk to 10 people, and five or six don't know or care about the election."
He's also wary of money corroding the independence dream and of millionaire La Pietra in particular, whom he suspects of using the movement to further his goal of becoming Hollywood's first elected mayor in 92 years. (In 1986, La Pietra was soundly defeated in his bid to win a West Hollywood council seat, despite spending more than $330,000 on the election.)
ON NOVEMBER 5, ALONG WITH THE CHOICE TO let Hollywood and the Valley break away or not, voters will choose five candidates from a list of 21 contenders for Hollywood's protean City Council (including the billboard icon Angelyne), should it win cityhood. Tsangares' campaign is a mixture of bohemian attitude and hard-nosed pragmatism. His imaginative and funny blog features a near-daily diary of his campaign activities and musings ("I hope to create a combination of candidates that I can support for a new Hollywood, and it may not be Angelyne. For as much as I want to buy one of her bras and have her help decorate the monorail, I just can't do it.") It also contains a thoughtful list of proposals under the deceptively glib heading "Top 10 Lies To Get Me Elected"; among other things, Tsangares favors making all parking fines a flat $10 and having the tickets include things like discount coupons for local events.
Tsangares' biography reflects the collision of consciousness and lifestyle that can still give California politics a Mark Twainish quality. In 1982, the North Carolinian was set to study naval engineering at UC Berkeley until a summer detour filled with freight-car hopping, raft making and canoeing along the Ohio River eventually brought him to L.A. and a stint in a punk rock band. Tsangares hung out at the storied CASH after-hours club space, and eventually learned screen printing. Later, while living in Northern California as part of Sausalito's boat community, he ran an aborted campaign for City Council there, and later, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
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Perhaps one factor that set him on the path of running his campaign was the indifference shown by the LAPD one day when someone shot up his store window with BBs. "They didn't even get out of their car," he recalled, "but just told me to call them if it happened again." The incident may also explain why he favors the Sheriff's Department taking over Hollywood policing for a while if the city becomes independent, and why he advocates the presence of "an unarmed security force on a Barney Fife level."
Tsangares often brings his three children, ages 3, 7 and 9, along on his activities. "I tell my kids, 'We're going out to fight.' I want them to see what conflict and struggle are and how you can change things with dialogue. Being an antagonist will make the system a better system."
Tsangares sees the daily arrival of youthful seekers and tourists alike as Hollywood's biggest resource. "This is a place where you can start off at the bottom and work your way up the hill. We have a constant influx of young people, and it's important to have nurturing cultural environments for them, and to help them find jobs and living spaces."
At the end of the day he remains a populist whose worst enemy may be his own idealism. "I'm just a T-shirt man," he said. "I don't like politics that have to be based on the amount of money you have."