ERNANI BERNARDI : Council's Gadfly Relentlessly Pursues Lost Causes but Reform Measure Gives Him His Day in the Sun

Times Staff Writer

Ernani Bernardi is known as the gadfly of the Los Angeles City Council because of his pesky pursuit of lost causes.

So it came as no surprise that when he launched a drive to qualify an election campaign reform measure for the ballot, his colleagues dismissed it as just another one of Bernardi's one-man crusades. They doubted whether Bernardi had either the funds or the organization needed to get enough signatures on initiative petitions.

But 128,000 voters did not doubt. They signed Bernardi's petitions.

Prodded into action by the possibility that Bernardi's tough measure would qualify for the ballot, the City Council overcame its reluctance to tighten campaign laws, wrote a measure patterned after Bernardi's and put it on the April 9 ballot. Bernardi dropped his proposal, but the point was made.

Now, he is enjoying one of his few days in the sun during a 24-year political career, longest on the council.

It was Bernardi, the crusty, 73-year-old former big band saxophonist, who, in the words of Councilman David Cunningham, "put a gun to our heads" by getting the council to put Charter Amendment 1 on the ballot.

Bernardi's initiative had called for tougher restrictions on campaign fund raising than the ones the council begrudgingly put on the ballot. Bernardi, the council's most ardent cost-cutter, agreed to the weaker version to save the $100,000 cost of verifying the signatures on his petitions.

Charter Amendment 1 would, among other things, prohibit contributions of more than $500 per election to a council candidate and $1,000 per election to a candidate for citywide office. Currently, there is no limit.

The short, bald and bespectacled Bernardi represents a predominantly white working-class district in the mid-San Fernando Valley. He brings the anti-government ideology of tax fighter Howard Jarvis to the council. His backers include many of the Valley tax opponents who made up the initial force behind Proposition 13, Jarvis' 1978 tax-cutting measure. These activists also circulated the petitions for Bernardi's campaign law initiative.

Like Jarvis, he seeks, with a fiery passion, to cut what he perceives as government waste. He takes particular pleasure in voting against pay raises for city employees. A number of his colleagues call him a "nit-picker" and an "obstructionist."

'Philosophy of Misery'

"I think he reflects a philosophy of misery," Cunningham said, contending that Bernardi's budget-cutting efforts would, if successful, lead to drastic cuts in human services.

Yet, there is a compassionate side to Bernardi.

After visiting Tent City, a shelter for the homeless set up across from City Hall during the 1984 Christmas season, Bernardi returned to his office and began calling food stores and restaurants to solicit food donations.

When a grocery store donated a box of uncooked beans, Bernardi opened up the City Hall kitchen and cooked the beans himself.

Word of his efforts spread only after a reporter stumbled across what he was doing during an unrelated visit to his office.

He Fights Hard

He is a man who fights hard for what he believes in--no matter how unpopular the cause. He recently was the only council member to defend leaders of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in a council chamber packed with critics of the church's decision to close Cathedral High School.

He does not give up easily, pursuing issues he first raised 24 years ago. For example, he has been trying for years to eliminate bus fares and have transit financed with money now set aside for construction of rail systems.

Bernardi wants to be mayor. But he recently turned down a request from No Oil, the opponents of Pacific Palisades oil drilling, that he run against Mayor Tom Bradley, who approved the controversial Occidental Petroleum Corp. oil development. Bernardi said he did not run because he does not have enough campaign money and dislikes soliciting funds.

A loner on the 15-member council, he is not a major political force, although he has had his victories. He led successful campaigns for Charter amendments that limited police and firefighter pensions and did away with a requirement that the city pay its workers wages comparable to those paid by private employers for similar work.

Makes Few Concessions

But ordinarily, according to Council President Pat Russell, Bernardi does not make the concessions needed to win votes for his proposals. "It's not his style to compromise," she said.

Colleagues say that his value should not be measured in terms of volume of legislation, but by the fact that he raises questions--even if they are politically embarrassing--that other members will not. In doing so, he brings issues to public attention.

Former Council President John S. Gibson Jr. once said that Bernardi "probably saved the city millions of dollars over the years with his questioning. He has stopped the council from voting on issues it would have otherwise voted on without searching very deeply."

Bernardi is quick to attack anything he sees as wasteful.

"Any time some potential waste is brought up, he'll make it so public that either the sponsor will back down or the public will put up a hue and cry," said Councilman Howard Finn. "That's where he is extremely effective."

Bernardi has, by his own admission, cast more "no" votes than his colleagues combined.

"There's an old joke at City Hall that Bernardi's 'yes' (voting) button is still under warranty," said a City Hall aide who requested anonymity. At a budget session a few years ago, Bernardi got so tired of pressing his "no" button that he tied it down.

Critics Are Fervent

This is due, his fervent critics say, to inflexible, narrow-minded and just plain petty opposition to spending programs, especially those that increase benefits to what he contends are overpaid city workers.

In a single week recently, Bernardi cast the council's only dissenting vote on:

- A special pay raise for the city's scroll maker who prepares the certificates doled out by council members--including Bernardi--to constituents for all kinds of reasons, from performing a public service to running a marathon.

- Spending a $100,000 federal grant to help businesses deal with any hardship caused by construction of Metro Rail. Bernardi argued that it made no sense to spend the money when the federal government may not provide money needed to build the subway. "No wonder the (federal) deficit keeps growing," he groaned. But Councilman Hal Bernson, expressing the majority view, argued that if Los Angeles did not take the money, it would go elsewhere.

- A proposal to make it easier for judges to get in and out of a parking lot at the U.S. District Court by allowing them to drive in a traffic lane previously restricted to buses. Bernardi said the action would invite requests by others for special privileges.

Often Ignore Him

His colleagues admit privately that they often ignore Bernardi's suggestions because they are, in their view, unworkable.

While Bernardi relishes playing the role of political maverick, he accepts campaign contributions from many of the special interests whose influence he finds so distasteful.

"If you're prepared to vote no, I don't see anything wrong with it," he said. He added that a check of his colleagues' votes showed that they do not share his attitude of accepting contributions and then voting against the contributors' interests.

Saxophone Player

Bernardi's mother died during his birth in the small coal-mining town of Stanford, Ill. Following in the footsteps of his musician father, Bernardi dropped out of college during the Depression to take a job as a saxophone player.

Performing under the name "Noni," he played with the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey bands. In the late 1940s, he turned to the custom home construction business, a job he held until his election to the council in 1961.

Tenacity has been his trademark ever since, and there is no better example than the campaign reform issue.

After seeing his proposals languish in a council committee for 10 years, Bernardi decided to take his case to the voters.

Last May, he announced plans to collect signatures to qualify a campaign reform measure for the ballot.

At the time, his chances did not look good. Nobody had qualified a city initiative since 1939.

Bernardi had the support of the League of Women Voters and Taxpayers Watchdog, a conservative group of mostly retirees from his Van Nuys-based district which had circulated petitions for Proposition 13.

Other groups such as Common Cause sat on the sidelines, claiming that Bernardi's plan was too restrictive and would favor incumbents. No other council members joined the effort.

Bernardi dug deeply into his own sparse campaign treasury to pay for the signature drive.

Using a list of Proposition 13 supporters, Bernardi mailed petitions to 100,000 voters.

Along the way, Bernardi got help from an unexpected source.

He got a call from Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theatres and a major contributor to city campaigns. Corwin invited 25 political donors to breakfast and "passed the hat," collecting $10,000, which was used to hire professional petition circulators.

Agrees to Council Move

By Dec. 1, Bernardi had gathered 128,000 signatures. He could have filed them immediately to put his plan before voters. Instead, he agreed to allow the council to put its own measure on the ballot, thus saving the $100,000 cost to verify the signatures.

Bernardi, meanwhile, bristles at suggestions that he is tilting at windmills.

"I don't call them lost causes," he said. "I call them unfinished business.

"My philosophy is that the only time you lose is when you quit."

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