Since he was a teen volunteer for Mayor Tom Bradley, LaBonge has been a City Hall habitué, a staffer to two City Council members, an aide to Mayor Richard Riordan, and for the last dozen years, a city councilman himself.
Now he is termed out; two finalists, one of them a LaBonge deputy, will duke it out in a May runoff to replace him.
As if anyone could truly replace LaBonge.
He hates it when people call him a "cheerleader," but OK, then, there are other descriptions: he is an exuberant fan of his hometown, a booster of what he loves to call this "great city," a buoyant flesh-presser in the Hubert Humphrey happy warrior mode, and a fervent practitioner of get-'er-done retail city services.
"I am not a statesman," he has said more than once. "I'm a councilman, and a councilman picks up garbage." Or directs traffic or gives tourists a lift or leads a sing-along.
In a City Hall populated by hefty policy wonks and civic legal scholars, LaBonge stands out as the guy who fills the potholes, and fills the trunk of his car with pumpkin bread baked by local nuns, calendars made of his own photographs, pamphlets and information about L.A., all of which he hands out lavishly. There is no encomium grand enough for his beloved burg. His favorite day of the week, he has said, is trash day, because of those "beautiful city trucks."
He can be as endearing as a golden retriever, and sometimes as goofy.
Years ago, I was stopped at a traffic light on Sunset in Echo Park, and a man ran up to my car window. It was LaBonge. He had extra Dodger tickets and did I want to come along? Right now? A few years later, I was deep in conversation with friends at Musso & Frank's and a rather pesky waiter kept hovering, putting more and more bread on the table and more and more water in my glass. When I finally turned to say something, there was LaBonge, wearing a waiter's jacket and laughing to beat the band.
When his wife, Brigid, lost her hair to chemotherapy, he shaved his own pate in solidarity. When he once wanted to reach fellow council member
This is not to say he is without political canniness and ambition, but not of the type of some of his council colleagues, who would ponder a boycott of city business with Arizona over its immigration laws when LaBonge is likelier to be contemplating traffic around the Hollywood sign.
His critics say he fixes small problems, and does it inconsistently -- whoever can get his ear can get a problem attended to – rather than systematically anticipating problems and crafting solutions to large and important matters that come with running the nation's second largest city. He's been dinged for supporting some less-than-popular developments, for spending six figures on festive lights at the zoo instead of on constituent problems.
What no critic could posit is that LaBonge lacks bonhomie or civic knowledge. Next to L.A.'s mayors, LaBonge -- who gives good value on camera and on microphone -- is probably the city's best-known politician, and a municipal resource who shouldn't be wasted because of a trifling matter like term limits.
So I ask again – what's the right job for LaBonge?
Don't let him wind up stuck in an office somewhere. The city should find a way to get him out and about.
Maybe as a goodwill ambassador of sorts. He loves Griffith Park and already leads hikes and give tours at the drop of a Dodgers cap.
Perhaps he could be the official greeter at LAX, welcoming visitors as they arrive and debriefing them as they depart on what they think L.A. should do better.
He might be the face and voice of recordings of city walking tours.
He could succeed the late Johnny Grant as "honorary mayor" of Hollywood. (The able Leron Gubler is the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, but LaBonge can add a showman's flash to Walk of Fame proceedings -- and you know he's probably going to show up anyway.)
As for the future City Hall – it's true that we couldn't and shouldn't have an entire City Council made up of 15 Tom LaBonges, but it's a shame to have an entire City Council without one Tom LaBonge.