Bernardi’s Iconoclasm Brings Acclaim, Enmity

Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi often stands alone. He is usually the 1 in the 14-1 council votes.

The 77-year-old former Big Band saxophonist is widely regarded as the council’s iconoclast because of his habitual “no” votes against projects he considers wasteful or tinged with political cronyism.

Bernardi, short, bald and bespectacled with a puckish sense of humor, has served on the council for 28 years, the second-longest tenure in city history. The late Council President John S. Gibson Jr. holds the record with 30 years.

Bernardi is sometimes called the conscience of the council because he raises questions that other members do not want to hear.


“He probably saved the city millions of dollars over the years with his questioning,” Gibson once said. “He has stopped the council from voting on issues it would have otherwise voted on without searching very deeply.”

However, a City Hall lobbyist, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said Bernardi’s public criticism of his colleagues has hurt his effectiveness.

“There is a reason why 12 of your colleagues would vote to significantly threaten your political career by reapportioning you out of your district,” the lobbyist said.

He was referring to the 1986 council redistricting that put Bernardi in a largely new 7th District, which encompasses the northeast San Fernando Valley.

The son of Italian immigrants, Bernardi was born Oct. 29, 1911, in the living quarters of a small grocery store his family owned in Standard, Ill. His mother died at childbirth. He was raised by his grandmother and father, a music teacher who taught him how to play the saxophone.

Performing under the name Noni Bernardi, he played for such bandleaders as Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and Bob Crosby. He wrote the arrangements for Tommy Dorsey’s recording of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and Goodman’s popular “And the Angels Sing.”

Home Builder

Bernardi came to California in 1940 with Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge band. In the late ‘40s, he turned to custom-home construction.

His first attempt to win a seat on the council, in 1957, failed. But when the incumbent, James Corman, was elected to Congress in 1961, Bernardi tried again and was successful.

Since then, he has been reelected with almost monotonous regularity. In 1981, Bernardi was No. 1 on a “hit list” of candidates targeted for defeat by the city police and fire unions because of his sponsorship of a successful 1980 measure limiting police and firefighters’ pensions. He was reelected with 76% of the vote.

Bernardi and his wife of 56 years, Lucille, live in Van Nuys. They have two daughters and two sons, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Supports Rent Control

He lists as among his most satisfying achievements his sponsorship of laws limiting campaign contributions in municipal elections and requiring all residential development of five or more units to set aside at least 15% of the units for low- and moderate-income families. He has supported rent control and opposed Metro Rail.

Since reapportionment, Bernardi has sought to reopen Mission Canyon Landfill on the city’s Westside to help Valley dumps, which he says unfairly bear the brunt of the city’s trash burden. So far, his efforts have been unsuccessful because of strong opposition from politically powerful Westside homeowners.

Last year, he provided $70,000 from his $641,978-a-year office budget for police task forces to combat burglaries and drug trafficking in the district. He sponsored a council-approved proposal to establish a hiring hall in the district to get immigrant workers off the street. He also won approval of a measure temporarily restricting construction of large, new apartment and condominium projects in a major part of the district, until permanent development controls are drafted.