In a city where many council districts seem to have been pounded together out of random bits, Los Angeles’ 4th District is right at home. It includes a smattering of the east San Fernando Valley and a bit of bohemian Silver Lake. It has a gangy smidgen of the Rampart area. It has most of opulent Hancock Park and a swath of Hollywood. It contains all of Griffith Park, the city‘s largest open space. And it has a handy stretch of the Miracle Mile — the scenic yet problematic commercial area that these days seems to be in both decline and revival.

The 4th District was compiled during the 35-year tenure of the most powerful L.A. council member of all time. It contains scarcely an inch that the late council President John Ferraro didn’t put there as he created a district that would re-elect him as long as he lived. Ferraro‘s death in April left City Hall handicappers scratching their heads. The two most plausible candidates were both associated with Ferraro: longtime aide Tom LaBonge and friend and former state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti.

But voters saw it another way. In a special election on September 11, 17 percent showed up and gave nearly one-third of the vote to LaBonge. Roberti fell by the wayside to make room for labor attorney Beth Garfield, who got 18.6 percent of the votes, to qualify for next Tuesday’s runoff.

Garfield is banking on her recent success as a community-college-district board member and president. After all, if the community-college board could be a political springboard for county Supervisor Mike Antonovich and former California governor and present Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, Garfield seems to think it can certainly pop her into a council seat. Former City Controller Rick Tuttle says she deserves part of the credit for the passage of a $1.2 billion bond measure to renovate and build new classrooms.

Her private law practice specializes in labor issues. Says Tuttle: “At a time when a lot of people were leaving the labor-law field [for greener pastures], she got into it. She got into politics for the right reasons.”

Garfield characterizes herself as an outsider: “If you think things in Los Angeles are just fine, just as they are, then vote for LaBonge. If not, vote for me.”

Garfield exaggerates the disparity. But the two candidates do flaunt beliefs as different as their schooling (she went to Stanford and the University of Michigan School of Law; LaBonge attended Cal State L.A.). LaBonge, who started working for Ferraro at 21, is virtually the city‘s foundling: He champions Los Angeles’ government as the constructive source of neighborhood well-being.

Garfield, on the other hand, demonizes “city bureaucracy” as the major source of urban woes. “It‘s basically similar to the top-heavy, downtown bureaucracy I found in the college district,” she avers.

Well, yes. But then, the government of a city of nearly 4 million probably needs to be more centralized than the administration of nine nominally independent two-year colleges. Garfield does offer strong support for a “partnership” with developing neighborhood councils. She also stresses the new city charter’s provision that makes department managers accountable to the Mayor‘s Office, instead of both the mayor and the council. Constituents should not be asking their council members, she says, for stop signs and pothole mending. Rather, Garfield contends, such services ought to be the equal right of every Los Angeles resident.

LaBonge says that he glories in helping constituents get the services due them. He says this is part of a larger duty: “I love to empower the people, help them achieve their goals. This city is a good place to be a public servant. I’m proud of what I managed to do here.”

Julie Butcher, leader of Local 347, which represents most of the city‘s #unions and supports LaBonge, says that it’s a mistake to differentiate City Hall from the city itself: “Our entire community is the city,” she says.

LaBonge asserts that a councilman must intercede on behalf of the residents — to keep an eye on things, to make sure he knows when services falter or fail and then to restore them.

In parts of the 4th District, those services look weak. Hancock Park housing prices remain high and Museum Row still shines like an urban gem, yet the densely populated areas on the district‘s eastern fringes still have too much blight and crime. LaBonge acknowledges that residents near the district’s northeast boundary complain how bad their neighborhoods look, compared to nearby Burbank. It‘s not reasonable to blame all this on LaBonge, who worked in the Mayor’s Office during Dick Riordan‘s last term.

LaBonge, with the support of key city unions — including police and firefighters — and the downtown establishment, has led Garfield in fund-raising, with nearly $220,000 by October 6, to Garfield’s less than $11,000 raised. But Garfield, who has an affluent family, has loaned herself $350,000, plus, according to the Ethics Commission, she received $41,000 from County Federation of Labor locals. (LaBonge got $5,000 from the city firefighters union.)

The self-financed Garfield obviously has the huge edge in media buys — including the recent TV ad volley in which she tried to offset the Police Protective League‘s LaBonge endorsement by flaunting her backing by the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs — whose members patrol no part of Los Angeles except community colleges.

Contrary to her first interview with this newspaper, Garfield now opposes the controversial three-day workweek proposed by the LAPD’s Police Protective League. (LaBonge supports trying out some form of a compressed workweek.) She also told me she approves the city‘s living-wage philosophy, but expressed reservations about expanding it in an earlier interview with the Weekly’s editorial board. Her endorsement by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (who, as councilwoman, championed the L.A. living wage) may moot out this ambiguity.

Garfield‘s trump-card endorsement by the County Federation of Labor (most of her professional career has been spent representing local unions) upset any hope that this runoff might help to heal the split between the Fed and the city’s “uniformed” unions, which was created by the Hahn-Villaraigosa mayoral campaign.

The latest polls show Garfield behind, but moving up, with 35 percent of prospective voters versus 39 percent for LaBonge. Garfield has nearly doubled her numbers since the primary, while LaBonge has pulled ahead only 7 percent, despite his runner-up endorsements.

Being the standard-bearer of the old guard may not be for LaBonge the asset it was for Big John Ferraro: Even some former Ferraro supporters could feel it‘s time for a serious change. LaBonge has tried to expand Ferraro’s base by cornering some major environmental endorsements: the Sierra Club and Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River, who says LaBonge even taught him things about that oppressed stream — in which LaBonge swam as a child. “He even got Tom Bradley interested in saving the river,” MacAdams recalls.

But otherwise, LaBonge is part of the old city. And being the most familiar and friendly face on the block may no longer, in an age of urban distrust and transition, be the key to winning close local elections.

LA Weekly