JOHN FERRARO : A Team Player, His Self-Effacing Demeanor Proves to Be a Drawback in Hard Campaign Scrimmaging

Times Staff Writer

The mayoral election debate between incumbent Tom Bradley and Councilman John Ferraro had just ended. The two men shook hands, although their sharp exchanges had been a touch personal.

During the sparring, Bradley had made several attacks, implying that Ferraro was not intelligent enough to read, and saying, among other things, that the councilman had accomplished nothing significant in his nearly two decades in office, and hinting that he had some kind of sweetheart real estate deal with the federal government. What had bothered Ferraro most?

“Well, I tried to control myself,” Ferraro said. “But when he accused me of being against the Raiders (bringing the professional football team to Los Angeles), that was too much. . . .”

The 6-foot, 4 1/2-inch Ferraro, “Big John” to many of his friends and fans from the days when he was an All-American tackle at USC, sometimes plays into the image that many have of him. “The big part of John is his heart, not his brain,” as one longtime City Hall acquaintance put it.


He further adds to the image by making self-effacing remarks, such as joking during a council meeting that a measure is so simple “even I can understand it,” or, “I said to myself, ‘John, tell them all you know, it’ll only take two minutes.’ ”

Yet Ferraro was a highly successful insurance broker before he was first appointed to the City Council in 1966 and made numerous shrewd investments in stocks and real estate that he acknowledges made him a millionaire. “But a million isn’t much these days,” he adds.

‘Never Got Any Glory’

Ferraro, 60, is uncomfortable promoting himself. When he discusses his 19 years on the City Council, he talks most about being a team player. “I was a tackle,” he says, comparing his tenure on the council to his days on the playing field. “Sure, we never got any glory, no headlines, and that has been my philosophy.”


That philosophy has been, he admits, a drawback in his uphill campaign to defeat three-term incumbent Bradley in the April 9 primary election. Results of a recent Los Angeles Times Poll indicate that 40% of the voters do not know who Ferraro is.

“He used to think that starting something with a big splash, the speech-making that goes with that, is grandstanding,” said longtime friend and political consultant Joe Cerrell. “As an innovator, that’s not his strong suit. In council, his idea of starting something is to pass off a good idea to the chairman of the appropriate committee to deal with it. He wouldn’t parlay that into additional power or headlines.”

“It’s like in a basketball game,” Cerrell continued. “People remember who made the baskets, not the assists.”

‘Fair, Square Guy’

Nearly everyone, it seems, comes up with a sports analogy when they talk about Ferraro. Jim Hardy, a former USC teammate and now general manager for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, calls Ferraro “the kind of fair, square guy that if he has a beef with you he’s going to slug it out with you on the 50-yard line.” The constant sports analogies spring from Ferraro’s own self-image as being primarily an athlete, then a businessman, councilman and family man.

Those who are close to Ferraro, and even some who are not, note his devotion to his second wife, Margaret, who was stricken two years ago with an aneurysm that left her partially disabled.

Margaret Ferraro, a salty, candid woman in her late 50s, is the former Margie Hart, a well-known New York exotic dancer and stripteaser during the Gypsy Rose Lee days. Her costumes of the 1940s, she noted, “weren’t as brief as some of today’s bikinis--at least, most of them weren’t.”

But she makes no apologies about her former job, for which she was immortalized in Life magazine as a stripping Scarlett O’Hara and in a Danny Kaye song that talked about farmers who “used to utterly utter when Margie Hart churned her butter.”


‘Still Feels Good’

The couple met about 20 years ago at a reception in support of Democrat Pierre Salinger’s unsuccessful Senate campaign. She later saw Ferraro at a luncheon at a downtown restaurant. “I bumped into him, purposely of course, in the elevator, and it felt good,” she recalls, smiling. “It still feels good.”

They dated for several years before marrying in 1982. In 1979, she nursed him back to health after Ferraro suffered a heart attack and had open-heart surgery. He, in turn, has had an elevator installed in their Hancock Park home to help her.

Margaret Ferraro says her husband’s strongest attribute is his loyalty and she “never forgave those we feel betrayed him,” referring to his losing battle to hang onto the council presidency in 1983. Even now, when she sees a councilman and former friend who voted against Ferraro in that battle, she says she smiles politely and says “Judas” under her breath.

“John is a straightforward guy,” she said. “He has this old-fashioned code of ethics: You do right by him, he’ll do right by you. He’s strong that way. He’s my Italian bull.”

Depression-Era Youth

Ferraro was born May 14, 1924, in the Los Angeles suburb of Cudahy, the son of Italian immigrants who ran a macaroni factory before it went broke during the Depression. He was the youngest son in a family of eight children, most of whom still live in the Los Angeles area.

His only way to afford college was through football, the game in which he excelled at Bell High School. He received a scholarship to USC and was chosen an All-American in 1944 and again in 1947, and was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1974.


World War II interrupted his gridiron activities and he enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1943. He served on a tanker with Warren Christopher, later to become U.S. deputy secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter. Christopher got Ferraro interested in politics during long, early morning discussions when they were stationed in the Bay Area.

After the war, he finished college and married Julia Luckey, daughter of Democratic state Sen. E. George Luckey, who later became chairman of President Harry S. Truman’s Southern California campaign in 1948.

Supporter of Kennedy

By that time, the political seed had been firmly planted in Ferraro. He began to get involved in Democratic politics, including heading a group called Democratic Associates, a middle-of-the road group that advocated a more conservative alternative to liberal Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, Ferraro was an avid supporter of John F. Kennedy for President.

In the meantime, Ferraro, who had earned a degree in business administration, had been working as an insurance broker. His various contacts, between eager-to-help USC alumni and associates of his then-father-in-law “helped him get a lot of important clients; he did well quickly,” Jim Hardy said.

His many investments included buying some Woodland Hills property that he later leased to the federal government for a post office. It still brings him more than $100,000 a year. Bradley referred to the transaction during their debate, although Ferraro has consistently and properly disclosed the deal in public documents.

Ferraro was appointed to the Police Commission in 1953, serving on it until 1966. During that period, he advocated more-stringent gun laws and backed John Roseboro, former Los Angeles Dodgers star, to do community relations work for the Police Department after the 1965 Watts riots.

Last of Appointments

When City Councilman Harold A. Henry died in 1966, Ferraro, allied with then-Mayor Sam Yorty and his supporters on the council, was named as the replacement. No one has been appointed to a council seat since then. That appointment was fought by some, including Bradley, who was then a councilman. Ferraro was elected the following year and every term since, representing the 4th District, which now includes the Wilshire District and Echo Park, Westlake and Elysian Park areas.

The Ferraros, by now the parents of a son, were divorced in 1972.

Ferraro ran for Los Angeles County supervisor in 1974 against another city councilman, Ed Edelman. Ferraro says now that he was unprepared for that campaign, and Edelman was elected to the post he still holds.

Ferraro once jokingly challenged Edelman to arm wrestle for the job. During one Edelman-Ferraro debate, Edelman asked Ferraro to name a single achievement he had accomplished as a councilman. Ferraro gave no response. When someone from the audience pressed the matter, Ferraro said he was preparing a “white paper” on his record. He has for years resisted suggestions from his family and friends to take speech lessons to improve his often stilted, laconic speaking style.

Takes Moderate Approach

As a councilman, he has favored a moderate approach, usually supporting the wishes of other council members about matters that affect their own districts. The good working relationships he established with his colleagues along the way enabled him to succeed an ailing John Gibson as leader of the council in 1977. As council president, a high-visibility position whose actual power lies largely in the making of committee assignments and setting a general direction for the city’s governing body, Ferraro restructured the council’s committee system to reflect concerns about the environment and city finances.

In making decisions, “John compares them against his own experience. It either is or it isn’t,” said one of Ferraro’s longtime City Hall acquaintances, who asked not to be identified. “He doesn’t deal in shadings; his views are somewhat simplistic. He deals in terms of friendships and associations. You’re on his team or you’re not on his team.”

Before Ferraro launched his mayoral campaign, there were jokes among some council members and the City Hall press corps about him being more concerned about the scores in the sports pages, which he often reads during meetings, than the tallies of council votes.

One businessman who has known Ferraro for several years said: “While Ferraro doesn’t always listen, when he does he’s very compassionate. I remember watching him during a council Planning Committee meeting. This one little old lady was talking about how a council action was going to jeopardize her property, her life savings. The Planning Department staff was cold. (Councilman Howard) Finn said: ‘Sorry, the law demands it.’ Ferraro started asking questions about how they could help her.”

Known for Helping

Ferraro and his staff are known for their attempts to take care of problems of the district. Henrietta Hardy, Ferraro’s administrative assistant in his field office, said Ferraro often comes back with “a dozen notes of things to take care of after he goes to Mass on Sunday. I mean, things like ‘find this woman an apartment. She’s a nice little old lady and she just got evicted.’ Sometimes it seems like ‘Mission Impossible,’ but we try to get it all done.”

Ferraro is a pro-development vote on the council, and he can usually be counted on to support most of the things that building industry leaders want. The exception is rent control, which Ferraro supports because of the large number of elderly renters in his district.

“I wanted so bad not to have rent control,” said Richard Wirth, a building industry lobbyist. “But John, he’s so personable, he said no to me, but I was still smiling.”

Carrying over his Police Department support from his days as a commissioner, Ferraro as a councilman has been a staunch supporter of the department. He has consistently supported the annual budgets requested by the police chief, but, in the long run, voted to support a pared-down police budget all but once in the last 11 years. He never established himself as a leading voice for the department’s concerns.

Helped Get Olympics

Ferraro’s biggest citywide leadership role was in helping bring the Olympics to Los Angeles, serving on early committees trying to attract the Games. He and Bradley, contrary to their rhetoric now, actually worked closely together in that effort.

At a time when most of the council members got cold feet over the prospect of a debt-ridden Games, both Bradley and Ferraro kept the hopes alive. Although on occasion he expressed doubt about progress of the negotiations to get the Games, Ferraro, long before it was popular, was the primary council mover to hold together fragile support for the Olympics.

As an ex-athlete, Ferraro had looked forward to being council president when the Games arrived in 1984. But his dream was thwarted in 1983 when Councilwoman Pat Russell, closely allied with Bradley, ran for the post. Ferraro saw that he did not have the support he needed to retain the job, but he made sure that Russell did not, either. He persuaded council members who were going to vote for him to switch to Councilman Joel Wachs. Wachs switched his vote from Russell to himself, and Wachs was elected president.

“They were trying to do me in, so I did them in first,” Ferraro said with relish later. “It’s one thing not to be president and another thing to be taken out in a coup like I was. I salvaged a little by changing the course of it at the last minute.”

Could Have Kept Post

“If John had sunk the same determination and direction into his presidency that he used in denying it to Pat, he’d probably still be president,” one council member said.

Ferraro “was a fair president, but he’s never been the same with me since I supported Pat,” said another member, Joy Picus. “He’s made nasty comments about how I only did it because she was a woman. He didn’t understand that it served my own interests to rotate the presidency. I regretted that he took it so personally.”

Some suggest that lingering bitterness over the presidency battle was a major motivation for Ferraro to run for mayor. It caused him to drop his former reluctance to run against Bradley, whom he blames in part for the presidency fight outcome.

But Hardy, echoing the sentiments of others close to Ferraro, said: “He’s always wanted to be mayor, from the moment he became a councilman. He was just biding his time.

“John can only win even if he loses, because he’s brought his name before people who didn’t know him before. He’ll be that much better prepared next time around.”


‘The big part of John is his heart, not his brain.'----A city Hall acquaintance

‘He used to think that starting something with a splash, the speech-making that goes with that, is grandstanding....In council, his idea of starting something is to pass off a good idea to the chairman of the appropriate committee to deal with it.'----John Cerrell, A political consultant and longtime friend of the councilman

‘He’s always wanted to be mayor, from the moment he became a councilman. He was just bidings his biding his time.'----Jim Hardy, A former USC teammate, now general manager for L.A. Memorial Coliseum