John Ferraro had many friends. This was his strength and his weakness. He stuck up for people he liked, even when it turned out they did not have the city’s best interests at heart. In his more than 35 years on the City Council, however, it‘s fair to say Ferraro did more to keep Los Angeles together than anyone but longtime rival Tom Bradley.
What Ferraro mostly did for the past 14 years was steer the City Council from the president’s chair. He saw the city through rough times into half-a-dozen years of fiscal decline, followed by recovery, through a devastating riot and a major earthquake. He did this for the most part with decorum and fairness, even when the discussion was heading in directions he opposed — Councilman Marvin Braude‘s early-1990s anti-smoking ordinances, for instance, about which Ferraro left his chair to comment spitefully. The ordinance passed, and mid-city restaurateurs, who counted themselves among Ferraro’s close friends, survived the smoking ban they claimed would destroy them. Braude and Ferraro, however, seemed less close afterward. Sometimes Ferraro showed antipathy toward the self-righteous.
Unless, of course, the person happened to be a close friend. Ferraro, who may have taken notice of Officer Daryl Gates when serving on the Police Commission through the 1950s, became Chief Gates‘ last-ditch defender after the Rodney King beating of 1991. Gates’ initial survival of attempts to oust him — by the mayor, the council and the Police Commission — can be traced to Ferraro. But when Gates finally agreed to step down, it was because Ferraro himself had persuaded him the game was over.
This showed us a couple of things about the man: First, that the council president had great persuasive powers, but also that he could move with — if not ahead of — the times. In 1992, Ferraro was nearly 70. He had become virtually a career police commissioner when that panel had barely the authority of a rubber stamp for autocratic Chief William Parker. As Ferraro said to LAPD historian Joe Domanick, “We relied on Parker an awful lot, and that‘s why we got the rubber-stamp image. But you know, Parker was usually right.”
Ferraro lived long enough to realize that the post-Parker LAPD had to change; this he confirmed last December, when he made his final appearance at City Hall to urge the City Council and the mayor to accept a federal consent decree to bring about the changes the LAPD had so long resisted.
It was a big reversal, a change many people of his age and experience might not have managed. In 1985, Ferraro had run against Tom Bradley for mayor on the campaign claim that former LAPD lieutenant Bradley was anti-cop. Ferraro was a career Democrat, but he ran as a para-Republican and got beaten thoroughly. One of the more lurid moments of the campaign offered an insight into Ferraro’s ex-USC tackle‘s temperament and physicality: He almost took a swing at Bradley campaign manager Mike Gage after the latter commented on the council president’s alleged drinking. We eager reporters kept hoping the two might actually slug it out in the City Hall rotunda.
Usually, though, Ferraro considered himself an exemplary regular Democrat of the old school. “It‘s the party that’s left me behind,” he commented before the 1993 mayoral election, in the course of which he seemed to favor Dick Riordan over fellow councilman Mike Woo. But Ferraro said that his highest political ideals were embodied by Governor Pat Brown: “If he‘d got more time in office, we’d have been spared a lot of problems,” he said to me — including, perhaps, President Ronald Reagan.
Ferraro administered the council meetings with style, wit and an occasional whiff of arrogance.
His true power was behind the scenes: Committee assignments and chairmanships are what make or break council members, and every two years Ferraro got to make those prized or dreaded assignments, ostensibly on the basis of merit or a council member‘s personal preference. In the process, though, he settled some personal scores. After he dumped one council veteran from his high-flying committee chair into a fairly lowly one, I asked him if he weren’t being vindictive. He didn‘t exactly answer when he remarked, “You have no idea how hard it is to balance what these people want with what they can actually do.”
Council President Pro Tem Ruth Galanter may have had this in mind when she made her memorial tribute to Ferraro: “He kept a good grip on us.”