The death of City Council President John Ferraro--who often brought the fractious council together with humor and a firm hand--marks the end of an era in Los Angeles government and politics.
Ferraro was a big-hearted leader who was known and respected for his strength, integrity and political longevity. Many observers said Tuesday that it is unlikely such a dominant figure will again emerge, if only because term limits now dictate seemingly constant turnover at City Hall.
“In the wake of term limits, the council has not only lost its institutional memory, but it has also lost its single most important institution,” said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sat on the council 19 years with Ferraro.
Ferraro was the longest-serving council member in Los Angeles history, holding office for more than 30 years, 18 of them as president. Under a new law that would have forced Ferraro out of office in two years, council members are limited to two four-year terms.
“He was the kind of person who could bridge the competing interests and competing egos,” Yaroslavsky said. “He lived by example. He never asked anyone to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself.”
Ferraro, who died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, was known for setting the tone for debates that otherwise might have grown more acrimonious. With a wry sense of humor--and sometimes outright impatience--he could tell the members of the council and public to quit grandstanding and put the interests of the city first.
“John has been, for 30 years now, the voice of reason and good humor,” said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who has been filling in as council president during Ferraro’s illness. “Yet he kept a firm hand on things at the same time. That’s why this feels like losing a parent, a good parent.”
Councilman Hal Bernson, who served with Ferraro for 22 years, described his colleague as “the glue that kept the city together.”
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Ferraro worked as part of a powerful trio within the 15-member council, alongside then-Councilmen Yaroslavsky and Richard Alatorre. The three set the agenda, and the rest of the council followed. Yaroslavsky and Alatorre have been off the council for several years. And now with Ferraro’s death, coupled with the recent impact of term limits, some fear that the council will labor without a strong leader.
“Who have we got that can fill his big shoes in terms of providing leadership?” asked a concerned Joan Luchs, president of the Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Assn.
Like many in Ferraro’s 4th District--which stretched from Hancock Park to North Hollywood--Luchs said the city should call a special election as soon as possible to fill the seat.
City Clerk Mike Carey said he will probably recommend to the council that the election be held in mid-August. The council also has the option of appointing someone to fill the remainder of the term, Carey said, but added, “Historically we do that with a special election.”
There is not enough time to put Ferraro’s potential successors on the ballot for the June 5 election and allow them to adequately campaign for the seat, Carey said.
Even before Ferraro’s death, there was widespread talk about possible successors. Some of the names mentioned include Deputy Mayor Kelly Martin, former Deputy Mayor Robin Kramer, Studio City Residents Assn. President Tony Lucente, former Assemblyman Wally Knox, former state Senate Pro Tem David Roberti, Ferraro aide Susan Yackley and former Ferraro aide Tom LaBonge.
Benjamin Lucas, a developer who received 27% of the vote when he challenged Ferraro in the 1999 election, announced Tuesday that he would run for the open seat.
Steve Afriat, a political consultant for Ferraro campaigns in the past, predicted that the race would attract a large field of candidates.
The city lawmakers must also vote on which of their colleagues should be appointed to fill Ferraro’s position as president of the council. In the past, a number have expressed interest in the presidency, including Galanter and Councilman Nick Pacheco.
Pacheco said Tuesday that city officials should wait until the new council is seated in July before holding an election for president.
As acting president, Galanter is judged by many to have an advantage in being elected council president.
“Possession is 90% of ownership,” Councilman Nate Holden said.
Holden noted that Ferraro’s death occurred as the city is about to elect a new mayor, new city attorney, new city controller and six new council members.
“It’s a new day, a new council, a new world,” he said.
Beyond City Hall, tributes to Ferraro poured in.
Warren Christopher, who met Ferraro in 1944 while serving in the Navy program at USC, said the councilman “possessed the two indispensable qualities for a public official: common sense and character.”
At Farmers Market in the Fairfax district, regulars Jack Celnik, 83, and Joseph Aaronson, 80, had a passionate discussion about Ferraro’s legacy.
“He was a good man,” Aaronson said. “I don’t think anyone can say anything bad about the man.”
“I met him once,” Celnik said. “He was a big man. He stood 6-2 or 6-5, but he was very polite.”
Studio City association chief Lucente, a resident of the 4th District, said Ferraro “was a rock.”
“He was able to balance community issues with citywide issues,” Lucente said. “When we needed him, he was there for us.”
Holden, who often sparred verbally with Ferraro on the council floor, visited his colleague Saturday in the hospital and said the council president was not very responsive verbally as he fought against the debilitating effects of the medicine he was taking.
“He was laboring under the medication,” Holden said. “I said, ‘Mr. president, I’ve got your back,’ and he gave me the thumbs-up.”
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this story.