Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge says the same thing to all he meets: “Where'd you go to high school?” He follows this up, without fail, with some remark about the school's football team. LaBonge has always had the curious ability to make the second-largest city in America seem like a small town.
This summer, when a new crop of City Council members takes office, will be the first time in nearly 40 years that Hollywood-area Councilman LaBonge won't be working at one desk or another in Los Angeles City Hall. In that time, he's won over our hearts if not our minds as a boisterous oddball, a manic, folksy L.A. booster.
When the 22-year-old LaBonge began as an aide to Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson in 1976, the 15-member L.A. City Council was dominated by out-of-towners with idiosyncratic backgrounds: powerful Council President John Ferraro (whom LaBonge later served as chief of staff and succeeded as councilman), was an insurance broker and real estate millionaire from Cudahy; old-school pol Gilbert Lindsay moved here from Pittsburgh in 1923 and got a job in City Hall – as a janitor; outspoken fiscal watchdog Ernani Bernardi was a big band saxophone player from Stanford, Illinois. First-term Mayor Tom Bradley was from Calvert, Texas, the grandson of a slave, who'd joined the LAPD as a beat cop in 1940 when DTLA restaurants still wouldn't serve black customers.
LaBonge, elected to the City Council in 2001*, was something altogether different: an L.A. native practically raised at the teet of John Ferraro, the insider's insider.
LaBonge may be among the last of his kind in L.A. politics – a football-loving, long-winded, loud-laughing, cheese ball civic cheerleader. He feels like he's from the Midwest, he acts like he's down to earth.
His speaking style can be generously described as non-linear. Here's LaBonge, in the ornate City Council chambers, talking about the council's now-dead Hollywood Community Plan, which would have tossed out many height restrictions and allowed numerous tall towers—a judge later ruled the plan illegal and “fatally flawed.” Footage captured by former Daily News editor, political blogger and City Hall critic Ron Kaye:
Note how the clip ends with City Council President Wesson taking a swipes at LaBonge, effectively saying he just wasted everyone's time on whatever the hell he was going on about?
Wesson (who, by the way, spends much of each Friday's Los Angeles City Council meeting handing out scrolls to favored citizens and community groups) is very much the model of a modern-day L.A. council member, a former state assemblyman and shrewd back-room dealer. Most of them are wonky ex-legislators who fiddle about with technocratic proposals for addressing this or that issue.
LaBonge has always been much more about “constituent services” — shorthand for handling queries from residents who want more stop signs, less dog-barking, more police patrols, less movie-filming, and want somebody with pull to call up the city department in charge of doing something about it.
Jeremy Oberstein, a former aide to City Councilman Paul Kerkorian who lived in Los Feliz, an area represented by LaBonge, recalls seeing LaBonge pull over in his silver Crown Victoria early one Saturday morning, get out, open the trunk, pull out a pair of garden sheers — and start trimming a Los Feliz tree whose branches were blocking the sidewalk.
“Councilman, what are you doing? Can't you get someone on your staff to do that?” (Answer: Yes, each of L.A.'s $178,789 salaried city council members has a hefty office budget allowing them to hire between 15 and 22 personal aides.)
“Oh, I can just do it myself,” LaBonge replied, not looking up from his work.
LaBonge is a history buff and madcap tour guide who regularly leads sunrise hikes of Griffith Park, who gives out calendars adorned with his own postcard-esque photos of Los Angeles, who's known for handing any and all visitors a loaf of pumpkin bread he buys from the Dominican nuns at the Monastery of the Angels in Hollywood.
He persuaded the City Council to ban silly string on Halloween. When the council was about to debate the merits of allowing AEG to build an NFL football stadium smack dab in the middle of Downtown L.A., he could be seen throwing a football with ex-cop and councilman Joe Buscaino (the closest thing we'll have to a yokel once LaBonge departs).
Last month, LaBonge spent $25,000 of his office's discretionary money (taxpayer dollars that each council member essentially has carte blanche to spend) on an 80th “birthday party” for Elvis Presley. Who is dead. In 2013, he used $100,000 of it to string Christmas lights all over the L.A. Zoo. For comparison, his colleague Bernard Parks in 2012 used $350,000 from discretionary funds he controlled to fix streets and sidewalks in his South Los Angeles District 8.
When LaBonge leaves office in July, voters might choose his chief of staff, Carolyn Ramsay, surely no stranger to the art of constituent services. But she won't be like LaBonge. No one will.
That era is over, and maybe that's a good thing. But part of us will always miss LaBonge, the kind of guy who'd get sworn in on top of Mount Hollywood and, instead of giving an inauguration speech promising to fix this or that longtime municipal problem, simply got up and belted out Elvis Presley's, “If I Can Dream.”
*An earlier version of this post said LaBonge was first elected in 1993