Lagomarsino Remains a Force in Retirement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this season of political beginnings, as newly elected officials are sworn in, former Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino still feels a twinge of eagerness and regret six years after leaving public office.

"It's easier now for me to say that I don't miss it," the lean 72-year-old said as he strolled the sun-splashed deck of his oceanfront home with wife Norma and his two Labrador retrievers. "But I do miss the action and the people and being able to get things done."

Lagomarsino held elected office for 34 years in a row--as Ojai mayor, state senator and congressman before being abruptly bounced from office by a young, oil-rich Republican who spent $3 million to defeat a member of his own party. That loss to Michael Huffington, who was later defeated in a race for the U. S. Senate, left Ventura County's most venerable public official with a lingering feeling of unfinished business--and a hint of bitterness.

"My wife says he did us a favor," Lagomarsino said last week, savoring the bright sun and warm breezes. "But my feelings about him are no less intense today. Last I heard, he was making movies somewhere in L. A. His wife divorced him. He probably wouldn't have run without her pushing him."

As much as Lagomarsino reveled in his public role, he has come to enjoy his own form of active retirement.

"He could take to anything," his wife said. "He's just the easiest man in the world. He never procrastinates. He just does what he's supposed to do."

He hunts with his dogs at the Ventura County Duck Club near Point Mugu. He breaks away to catch salmon in Alaska. When the sea is calm, he kayaks out from the blue, two-story house he built behind gates at the water's edge to drop a fishing line.

The grandson of an 1890s Ventura pioneer from Italy, Lagomarsino is active in his family's vast farming operations in Monterey County and helps run the fast-growing Ventura bank that his father, Emilio, helped found 25 years ago.

And he is still a forceful presence in local public life.

He is a strong backer of the new Cal State campus in Ventura County, which he first proposed in a state Senate bill in 1961. He is a member of a lobbying group trying to save the Point Mugu and Port Hueneme Navy stations as the Pentagon closes costly military bases.

Director of Ventura CSUN Campus

He is a director of the National Park Trust, the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, Friends of the Channel Islands, the World Affairs Council and the Ventura Campus of Cal State Northridge.

In the fall election, he spoke out against SOAR ballot measures preventing cities from developing farmland outside their boundaries without voter approval. His side lost.

"We're going to have a university so our kids won't have to go away to a four-year college," he said. "But when they graduate, there won't be jobs for them here and they won't be able to afford a home. And that's thanks to SOAR."

Lagomarsino also spent $5,000 to host a $500-a-plate fund-raiser for unsuccessful Republican Assembly candidate Chris Mitchum. He labels eventual winner Hannah-Beth Jackson "very liberal and a trial lawyer and supported by unions, a lot of things I don't like."

Despite a reputation as a moderate because of his environmental work, Lagomarsino said he has always been a conservative. He opposes abortion and never saw a gun-control law he liked except for the Brady Bill, passed after a would-be assassin wounded then-President Ronald Reagan.

He considers former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to be a brilliant revolutionary. But he thinks that Gingrich was wise to step down after Republicans lost several congressional seats this month.

In his first months in Congress, Lagomarsino suffered through the final days of President Richard Nixon's presidency. So he says part of him would like to see the Clinton scandal go away.

"But I probably would vote for impeachment to go forward," he said. "To do otherwise is to condone lying under oath. Either way, I think it will be over by the end of the year."

Lagomarsino's passions today are not centered on national politics or his former life as a lawmaker.

He works 10 to 15 hours a week on his various businesses and directorships. He is vice chairman at Ventura-based American Commercial Bank, the largest locally owned financial institution. Its pending merger with Oxnard-based Channel Islands National Bank is of particular interest to him.

Lagomarsino, whose family owns about 15% of American Commercial, says the new bank will have at least six branches and assets of about $240 million.

But he still has plenty of time to enjoy life away from work. And outside of Norma, his wife of 38 years, he may take his greatest pleasure in his two yellow retrievers.

He got Missy Miller Lowenbrau--named for beer his distributorship then sold--from staff members the night they said goodbye to the man they referred to affectionately as "Lago."

"I said, 'Norma, what are we going to do with a dog?' " he recalled. "She said, 'You know, we can do anything we want to do.' "

Norma Lagomarsino Organizing Archives

Lagomarsino fell for the mutt. "I got so attached, I thought, 'God, what if something happens to this dog; I don't know what I'm going to do.' "

So a couple of years ago, he bought a second yellow Labrador and named him Samuel Adams, after the American revolutionary, not the beer.

Norma Lagomarsino, meanwhile, works on the board of directors at Interface Children Family Services, a local social service agency. While in Washington, she served on the advisory council of the National Institute of Mental Health, citing her own family as one reason why more funding is needed for research.

Her 47-year-old son is afflicted with schizophrenia.

"He was so sweet and dear and absolutely the best," she said. "Now he wants to be homeless. We rent him a motel room, but he can't see spending $1,000 a month."

Norma also busies herself with organizing her husband's archives.

A wing at the Cal State Channel Islands campus near Camarillo, adjacent to the planned college library, has been reserved for the congressman's memorabilia. A director has been hired with private funds to direct the work.

"It's really nice to get all of this going while he's still alive," she said.

As a congressman, Lagomarsino held high-ranking posts on the House Foreign Affairs and Interior committees. His colleagues elected him secretary of the House Republican Conference, a job that earned him a place as an advisor to Reagan.

But he may be remembered most for helping create Channel Islands National Park in 1980 and pushing for formation of the Sespe Wilderness in 1992. That was the same year he pushed legislation to secure $16 million to purchase the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island and complete the island national park.

Now, on a clear day, the Lagomarsinos can glance straight across an ocean channel to Santa Cruz Island. "It feels so close I can touch it," Norma said.

Life is generally good for the Lagomarsinos. Gone are the days of jet lag from Washington-Ventura commutes that eventually added up to 3.5 million air miles for the congressman and 2 million miles for his wife.

In conversation, the couple play off one another, telling their favorite stories, pointing to photos of presidents and noting the deeds of days past.

The bill creating the Channel Islands park is framed. It is displayed prominently among the stuffed swordfish, ducks, pheasant and wild boar mounted on the walls of Lagomarsino's office.

In one photo, Lagomarsino is leaning toward newly inaugurated President Reagan, who is laughingly speaking to him. "Can I get the back road to my ranch fixed now?" said Reagan, whose mountaintop ranch was in Lagomarsino's district. "You know," Lagomarsino added, "I don't think we ever did get that road fixed either."

One story, dating back to the 1960s, stands out in particular. It's about Phil Burton, the late liberal Bay Area Democrat.

"You started it, you danced with him," Lagomarsino kids his beaming wife.

Lagomarsino--very big on law enforcement--had passed seven anti-crime bills out of the state Senate only to see them killed in an Assembly committee by the forceful Burton. One evening, the Lagomarsinos and the Burtons attended the same social event. Lagomarsino hated to dance, as did Burton's wife.

"So he asked me to dance," Norma said. "And whatever else he was, he was a good dancer."

Later that evening, Burton told Lagomarsino to come back to his committee the next morning and he would pass two of the bills.

But the next day, Burton killed the bills again, only to be called on it by Lagomarsino. "Then he said, 'But the wrong member of your family is the author of these bills,' " recalled Lagomarsino. "And I said, 'The right member is at the back of the room.' "

All heads turned to Norma Lagomarsino. "Well, I had two dances, and I'll move two bills out," Burton replied. And he did.

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