DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Many people like Los Angeles. A lesser but still consequential number of individuals love the city. Still, few have ever loved Los Angeles in quite the same way that Tom LaBonge does.
LaBonge’s affinity for the city won’t be diminished on June 30, but the way he demonstrates that love will necessarily shift. That’s because, after 14 years, LaBonge will be termed out of his Fourth District City Council seat.
It will mark a big change for the man who has spent most of his 61 years living in Silver Lake, and whose family settled in Los Angeles about 140 years ago. LaBonge has had a role in city government for nearly four decades, going back to the administration of Tom Bradley (“the best mayor of my lifetime. Period,” he says).
When I first met LaBonge, in the mid-’90s, while he was a special assistant to Mayor Richard Riordan, his voicemail message exhorted callers to “love Los Angeles.” The one-page bio on his council website includes the lines, “My love for Los Angeles knows no limits…” “Tom’s deep-felt love for the City of Angels was imparted to him by his parents…” and “Let’s continue to enjoy and love the great city of Los Angeles.”
As anyone who knows him can attest, it’s no act. Rather, it’s a mindset that has evolved into a skill set and found its calling in public service. Even before he won office he was often front and center. His special assistant role with Riordan (which followed a couple years as the mayor’s director of field operations) frequently had him showing up at places when Riordan wasn’t available.
When LaBonge grabs a microphone you never know what will come out, but you can safely bet that it will be effusive and will include multiple uses of “love,” “great city” and “Los Angeles.” The words will pour forth quickly and the tone will be warm, and he may spin off on a tangent depending on who or what he sees in the crowd. LaBonge will celebrate the modern accomplishment, but he will also probably weave in allusions to people who shaped the city such as William Mulholland or Isaac Lankershim. The overall effect may be less a speech than a verbal rollercoaster. Describing him as “exuberant” is an undersell.
Given this boundless adoration of Los Angeles, and his long role in its politics, I’m surprised when, eight days before his departure, LaBonge tells me that, as a young man, what he really wanted to do was coach football.
“I got a position with the late, great John Ferraro,” LaBonge says in an office that is about three-quarters packed up, with many bare shelves and just a few photos and books remaining. The reference is to the longtime City Council president whose seat LaBonge now holds.
“I remember when I negotiated the job, I asked John if I could work 32 hours a week on the payroll, and I’d work more if he needed it at night, but I got to coach high school football for three years.”
The gig came at his alma mater, Marshall High School in Los Feliz. LaBonge was head coach of the junior varsity team and worked with the offensive and defensive lines of the varsity squad. Decades later, the pride in his voice is still apparent.
I remark that where he wound up is a different world. He disagrees.
“But it is coaching in a way,” LaBonge avers of his City Hall job. “A good coach is a great teacher, and hopefully I’ve been able to teach everyone to love Los Angeles. I think that’s the big thing, because there are some people who make a living out of not loving this place.”
Planes, Ships and Sweeping
Tom LaBonge was the seventh of eight brothers born to Mary Louise Learnihan LaBonge (born in Lincoln Heights in 1915) and Robert LaBonge (who grew up near 22nd and Hoover streets). The family was immersed in the fabric of the city, with frequent excursions to places like Griffith Park or Elysian Park. An afternoon’s entertainment could involve watching the longshoremen work in San Pedro or seeing planes land at LAX from Aviation Boulevard. Back home, LaBonge said, his father made him sweep his Silver Lake street, “from the Fitzpatricks’ down to the Wongs’.”
He served on Bradley’s Youth Council and later spent 16 years as an aide to Ferraro. He ran for a City Council seat in 1993, narrowly lost to Jackie Goldberg, then worked for Riordan for seven years.
The close alliance with Ferraro and Riordan gave him 23 years of training with two of the most influential Angelenos of the past half century (he didn’t work as tightly with Bradley). It also, he said, taught him that serving the city means looking beyond his district.
That sounds like fluff, but LaBonge lives it, and the Fourth District, which following the 2011 city redistricting process runs from Silver Lake through Hollywood, past Laurel Canyon and then over to Sherman Oaks, has never contained him. He’s led bike tours across Los Angeles, annually hands out calendars with photographs of the city that he took, and championed an annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Downtown. He has pushed his beloved Sister Cities project tying Los Angeles to cities around the globe, proposed an Arts District light rail spur several years before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority formally began exploring the idea, and in January suggested the city buy the site of developer Geoff Palmer’s burned-down Da Vinci building (it didn’t happen, and Palmer is rebuilding). Not surprisingly, he was close friends with the late public television host Huell Howser, and there probably aren’t enough exclamation points to transcribe one of their conversations.
Nor does LaBonge stick to the passive style of leadership one might expect from an elected official. He once called me, saying that a Downtown News news rack in Los Feliz had been knocked over, and that he had carried it out of the street, but we should send someone to repair it. Last year he was seen on a rainy day in the Arts District, unclogging a blocked drain with the shovel he carries in his trunk. He told an observer it was the 11th drain he had cleared that day.
LaBonge’s style of leadership isn’t for everyone. Constituents could sniff at his bombastic approach, questioning if there was enough substance behind it. Although LaBonge won four city council elections, some observers say his former chief of staff Carolyn Ramsay’s recent loss to David Ryu in the contest to replace him was partly a referendum on the councilman’s record (others attribute the result to redistricting; the new Sherman Oaks voters didn’t know LaBonge well).
LaBonge acknowledges that he doesn’t operate the same way as some other politicians.
“Everybody’s different,” he says. “I’m sure other people will be known for the greater policy they write, or the laws they implement. I was always a physical individual. Coming from a big family, you all did that kind of work. There’s no, ‘You don’t get your hands dirty.’”
He leaves with plenty of accomplishments, and says he is most proud of securing $12.5 million in 2010 for the acquisition of the 138 acres of Cahuenga Peak, keeping the area next to the Hollywood sign as open land.
LaBonge is uncertain about what comes next. Teaching is a possibility, he says, but lobbying at City Hall isn’t. He’ll keep hiking in Griffith Park and might like to write “about people and their stories,” such as the woman he met in 1976 (he recalls her exact address) worried that the beeps she kept hearing were a Martian invasion. LaBonge went to her home and informed her that the culprit was the new law requiring large trucks to make noise when they shift into reverse.
He also wants to spend more time with his wife Brigid.
“Now I’m 61 and I want to live a long life and enjoy Los Angeles to the fullest before they call me to the angels, the real city of the angels,” he says.
Whatever comes next, one can bet that Tom LaBonge will be loving Los Angeles.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015