The political one-two punch of Beth Garfield looked unstoppable in the 4th City Council District: First, she earned the influential endorsement of the County Federation of Labor; then she spent enough of her family fortune to swamp opponents. It was like combining the wealth of Richard Riordan with the union clout of Antonio Villaraigosa.
But on Tuesday, this powerful alchemy got soundly trounced, as Tom LaBonge, a longtime field deputy for local elected officials, won a surprisingly easy victory over Garfield, 62 percent to 38 percent, with 15.9 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
Critics will interpret LaBonge’s victory as a triumph of the downtown special interests — from billboard companies to city contractors, from lobbyists to law firms — who footed the bill for LaBonge’s campaign. Analysts will also see it as a notable setback in a year of mixed results for the powerful County Fed, which commands the city’s only standing army of political foot soldiers. But LaBonge was a stronger candidate than many expected, and Garfield a weaker one.
There are two reasons that LaBonge, 48, essentially inherited the political network that had sustained 4th District Councilman John Ferraro, who died in April after 35 years in office. For one, LaBonge is not expected to make waves at City Hall, and entrenched interests love the inherent profitability of stability. Secondly, LaBonge is genuinely liked for good deeds rendered in a district that stretches from Los Feliz to Fairfax.
When LaBonge talks about how much he loves firefighters — not to mention fire trucks — he really means it, and this affection for the rank-and-file city worker is not lost on the rank and file. For many voters, something sincere came through from LaBonge, despite the almost embarrassing simplicity of his enthusiasm and his often tortured rhetoric.
“Firefighters have always been kind to me,” said LaBonge in a typical excerpt from an August interview with the Weekly editorial board. “And in my early days, too, in Los Angeles used to have its own hospitals and Hollywood its own hospital right before [where] the police station is now. They tore it down, and they tore the old Hollywood station down. And whenever I cut myself up, as a family we’d go to the Hollywood receiving hospital, and I never cried because behind that hospital was the greatest firehouse in the world in my mind — Firehouse 27. And it’s still there today. It’s a museum, and I helped made it a museum, and it was always a part of my life. Growing up in this city, [it] had an impact on me.”
Such passages almost make sense when LaBonge delivers them in person. More importantly, supporters took cues from these ramblings — notably, that LaBonge is truly of the community and, in the example above, that he helped make Firehouse 27 into a museum. Many area residents can recall LaBonge taking up numerous local causes as a council staffer, first for Ferraro and then for Mayor Richard Riordan. LaBonge also gets good notice from progressives impressed by his daily hikes in Griffith Park and his pride in the L.A. River.
Compared to LaBonge’s folksiness, Garfield seemed remote and combative — especially given her relentless negative campaigning, which eventually obscured her record as a successful local labor attorney and well-regarded community-college trustee. On the positive side, Garfield attended neighborhood gatherings block by block and schooled herself in local concerns. But too often she was playing catch-up with LaBonge. It ended up being a telling detail that his lawn signs vastly outnumbered hers.
“I didn’t like the tone of Garfield’s campaign,” said one Silver Lake voter. As for LaBonge: “I know him. He lives in the neighborhood.”
Said a voter in Hollywood: “I didn’t appreciate some of the mailings from Garfield.” LaBonge “knows the workings of City Hall from being an aide to Ferraro. I had some questions for him, and he returned my phone calls.”
Garfield, 49, had hoped to join Riordan and school-board member Marlene Canter as candidates who used personal wealth to win office. The script held through the September 11 primary, when Garfield survived a crowded field to finish second behind LaBonge, earning one of two spots in the runoff. Finally, however, she joined the select company of failed big spenders that includes Al Checchi (governor), Michael Huffington (senator) and Steve Soboroff (mayor). In all, Garfield spent $700,000 of her family fortune, more dollars per capita than either Riordan or Canter, who this year waged the most expensive school-board campaign in the country’s history.
Ultimately, the mailbox-stuffing war became mind-numbing. At one point, LaBonge sent out a thick keepsake ä calendar of his own snapshots. Garfield treated voters to photo-essays on her parents and a charming shot from her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. LaBonge, who inevitably joined Garfield in the mudslinging, sent out the single most inaccurate attack, linking Garfield with community-college missteps that had nothing to do with her. But LaBonge also had the cleverest hit piece, which identified the actor dressed as a police officer in a Garfield mailer. Real L.A. police support LaBonge, the mailer asserted, trumpeting his police-union endorsement.
Garfield tried to make money an issue in her favor, attacking LaBonge as captive to special interests, but it was her self-financing that pressured LaBonge to accept virtually any proffered donation. And as a career field deputy, LaBonge was simply not in position to be the conduit for lobbyists that Garfield tried to portray him as. At times, Garfield seemed to be arguing that only the rich should run for office, because they aren’t beholden to anybody.
In fact, LaBonge has given few clues as to what kind of councilman he’ll be — assiduously avoiding policy discussions. Why should a folksy guy who likes fire trucks expose himself to debate with a sharp labor attorney?
Progressive observers concede that LaBonge is likely to be a pothole-filler par excellence. Still, they worry that downtown power brokers could easily manipulate him toward their ends, although they are encouraged by LaBonge’s openness to some progressive concepts, such as extending the living wage to more low-wage workers. LaBonge describes his style as inclusive, someone who resolves disputes by bringing all parties to the table. That could work out okay — as long as LaBonge understands that his role at the table is often to represent the voiceless, who can’t buy their way in.
Sara Clinehens contributed to this story.