John Ferraro, Longtime City Council Leader, Dies
John Ferraro, the affable Los Angeles city councilman whose quiet politicking during 3 1/2 decades at the center of city government helped bring Southern California the 1984 Olympics and removed a controversial police chief after the 1992 riots, died Tuesday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. The council’s president and grand old man was 76.
Ferraro, the longest serving council member in the city’s history, was diagnosed as having cancer of the spleen in August 1999. He disclosed the illness to his colleagues the following February, when he planned to undergo chemotherapy after other treatment failed. He rarely appeared at City Hall after surgery last June to remove his spleen and had been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks. He last presided over the council in December.
His death was announced in council chambers shortly after noon by President Pro Tem Ruth Galanter. Fighting tears, she told a reporter, “We are all sort of his children here. . . . It’s really hard to lose your dad.”
Mayor Richard Riordan was at Ferraro’s side, along with family members, when he died.
“He was a great leader of our city,” Riordan said at a news conference a few hours later. “I know of no one who represents the heart and the soul of Los Angeles more than John Ferraro did. He was a big man, he was a strong man, but he was a loving man--a person who put Los Angeles first and his own agendas last.
“John, we will miss you very, very much.”
Reelected 9 Times
Ferraro was appointed to the council in 1966, when some current members were in grade school. He was reelected nine times from the 4th Council District, which stretches from North Hollywood and Toluca Lake to Los Feliz and his neighborhood of Hancock Park, and was serving his ninth term as council president.
A politician who often was awkward under the spotlight, Ferraro was more skillful as a behind-the-scenes deal maker. Associates described him as the unsung hero, a role ascribed to him recently by key players behind Staples Center, the downtown sports complex that opened in October 1999, three years after Ferraro wooed back its frustrated developers.
Called “the voice of reason and humor” by council colleagues, he built a reputation as a peacemaker, soothing relations on and off the frequently fractious body. He was pivotal in the private negotiations that finally nudged a recalcitrant Daryl F. Gates out of the police chief’s office in 1992, two months after the riots and a year after the police beating of Rodney G. King ignited calls for the chief’s resignation.
Ferraro was born on May 14, 1924, in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Cudahy. He was the youngest son in a family of eight children whose Italian immigrant parents ran a macaroni factory before going broke during the Depression.
He attended Bell High School, where his excellence on the football field led to a scholarship at USC. In college he earned the nickname Big John: He stood 6 feet 4 1/2 inches and weighed 240 pounds. When he joined the City Council two decades later, City Hall carpenters had to remove the top drawer of his desk so he could fit his legs underneath.
He was named an All-American in 1944 and 1947 and played in three Rose Bowls. Three decades later, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
When World War II erupted, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve, serving on a tanker with Warren Christopher, later U.S. deputy secretary of state under President Carter and secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Christopher sparked Ferraro’s interest in politics during long early-morning discussions when they were stationed in the Bay Area.
After the war, Ferraro finished college and married Julia Luckey, the daughter of Democratic state Sen. E. George Luckey, later chairman of President Harry S. Truman’s Southern California campaign in 1948. The marriage produced a son, Gianni Luckey, but ended in divorce in 1972.
With a degree in business administration from USC, Ferraro established a lucrative insurance business on Wilshire Boulevard. Through shrewd real estate and stock investments, he became a millionaire, but maintained an interest in politics.
By the late 1950s Ferraro headed Democratic Associates, a moderate group that offered a more conservative alternative to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, he supported John F. Kennedy for president.
He served on the Police Commission for 13 years, starting in 1953. In 1966, he was named by Mayor Sam Yorty to fill a vacancy on the City Council created by the death of Councilman Harold A. Henry. The next year he ran for election and won his first four-year term.
Over the many ensuing elections, he never faced a strong challenge for his council seat, although the boundaries of his district would change with reapportionment. He maintained his firm grasp on the diverse district by taking care of the humble business of politics--fixing potholes, funding community centers and finding out why the garbage truck didn’t show up.
After going to church Sundays he would bring his staff a pile of notes about helping a man find an apartment or fixing a light on another constituent’s street. “I return all of my phone calls and I emphasize that to my staff,” he said during a recent reelection bid. “We try to help people. And if we can’t, we let them know we can’t.”
He forged strong ties with downtown business leaders, which helped him maintain a healthy campaign war chest. But he was a strong supporter of rent control and limits on condominium conversions. In 1982, he wrote the legislation that created permanent rent controls in Los Angeles and ended a standoff between tenant and landlord groups.
He played a major role in bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles, serving on early committees that were trying to attract the Games. Working closely with Mayor Tom Bradley, he kept arguing for the viability of the 1984 Games--the first to make the host committee responsible for all costs--when most civic leaders, fearful of the financial burdens, were backing away. He held together the fragile support for the Games on the council.
He was generally popular among his council colleagues because he did not compete for the limelight or meddle in their districts’ affairs. They rewarded him by repeatedly electing him council president. Critics blamed his desire to hold on to the presidency during his last term for his flip-flop on charter reform, which was opposed by a majority of council members. Initially a supporter, he became an opposition leader toward the end of the successful pro-reform campaign.
He also played a role in bringing the Democratic National Convention to town last year and in spurring the renovation of the Los Angeles Zoo. In one of his last major roles, he helped broker the agreement among Riordan, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and the council over the federal consent decree to reform the Los Angeles Police Department. In September he returned to the council for the first time after his cancer surgery to cast a pivotal vote in support of the reform mandate.
Ran for Mayor
Ferraro was skillful at the insider’s fight.
The longtime councilman had wanted to be council president when the Olympics arrived in 1984 but was challenged by a close Bradley ally, then-Councilwoman Pat Russell. When Ferraro realized he did not have the votes to hang on to the gavel, he was determined that Russell would come up short too. In a masterful ploy, he persuaded colleagues who were going to vote for him to switch their allegiance to Joel Wachs. Wachs, who was going to support Russell, voted for himself and won.
“They were trying to do me in, so I did them in first,” Ferraro recalled with relish during a 1985 interview. “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.”
When he regained the presidency by unanimous vote a few years later, he admitted, “I did get a few tears in my eyes.”
He tried to move up from the council twice. In 1974 he ran for Los Angeles County supervisor to replace the retiring Ernest Debs but lost to Ed Edelman, who would serve five terms. The low point of the campaign came during a debate when Edelman challenged him to list his major accomplishments--normally an invitation to a monologue for an ambitious pol. But Ferraro, for whom public speaking was never a forte, was tongue-tied and couldn’t come up with an answer.
Some observers suggested that Ferraro’s bitterness about losing the council presidency in 1981 contributed to his decision to challenge Bradley in 1985. Others said Ferraro always wanted to be mayor.
An amiable politician who shied from controversy, Ferraro surprised many, Bradley included, by waging an aggressive campaign from the outset.
He charged that Bradley had allowed the Police Department to shrink. As the first local politician to denounce Metro Rail, he was critical of Bradley’s support for the multibillion-dollar transportation system, which he called “a boondoggle.” He campaigned most heavily in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside, hoping to capture the votes of disenchanted conservatives and whites.
But for the veteran councilman it was an uphill battle to spoil Bradley’s run for a fourth term. Despite his long service on the council, he had low name recognition citywide: A Times poll showed that 40% of voters did not know who he was. On election night, he conceded the race after only 24% of the vote had been counted. In the final tally, Bradley won 68% of the vote to Ferraro’s 30%.
Friends, associates and Ferraro often summed up his strengths using the language of the playing field: He was in his element as a team player.
“I was a tackle,” Ferraro once said, likening his tenure on the council to his college football days. “Sure, we never got any glory, no headlines, and that has been my philosophy.”
Self-effacing, he often joked during council meetings that a matter was so simple that “even I can understand it.” Or he would quip, “John, tell them all you know, it’ll only take two minutes.”
That philosophy helped him carve out a role as peacemaker and behind-the-scenes deal maker. But it meant he wasn’t in the limelight as much as he might have deserved.
A prime example of his quietly effective politicking came during one of the city’s most painful times: during the months after the King beating and riots, when ridding the LAPD of its longtime symbol, Chief Gates, came to be seen by many as the balm for the city’s tensions.
The mood in the city grew even more intense in the wake of findings by the independent Christopher Commission, named after the distinguished attorney and old Ferraro friend, Warren Christopher.
Seeing the civic uproar over the Police Department, capped by the commission’s unprecedented 100-day review of the LAPD that included a call for Gates to step down, Ferraro knew that drastic measures were needed. As a longtime supporter of the department and friend of its beleaguered but stubborn chief, he thought he might be the best man to get the job done.
In April 1991 he brought Bradley and Gates together for a private fence-mending meeting in the councilman’s office and then in a public show of unity at a City Hall news conference the next day.
But the truce was short-lived. As calls for the chief’s resignation mounted, Ferraro tried to clear some “running room” for the chief to leave. He appealed to the mayor to cease hostilities toward Gates and urged council colleagues to tone down their criticisms. He asked prominent critics in the black community to “lower the rhetoric.” When then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters notified council members that she planned a scathing diatribe about Gates at a council meeting, Ferraro, flexing his muscle as council president, adjourned early. Waters arrived to find the council chambers locked.
In a swirl of meetings and phone calls engineered by Ferraro and Wachs, Gates finally agreed to a retirement date of April 1992. Ferraro was widely praised for engineering the deal. “The real hero in this is Ferraro,” Riordan, then a wealthy downtown businessman and Gates confidant, said at the time. “He just kept at it in a very low-key and nonthreatening way. He convinced Gates that he was his friend and his total ally. He was very persuasive.”
But when June rolled around with Willie Williams waiting in the wings, Gates was sending mixed signals about whether he would depart. Ferraro stepped in again.
Unable to reach Gates to remind him of his promise to leave, Ferraro placed a call to the chief’s attorney. “I just got wind of what Daryl said and I don’t think he should do that,” he told the attorney, Jay Grodin. He added that “a lot of people on the council were upset.”
Gates got the message. A few days later, he submitted his retirement papers.
Ferraro was considered pro-development but moderately so. In the 1990s he worked with developers of a planned retail complex for the Farmers Market area and residents of the surrounding Fairfax neighborhood to produce a scaled-back plan that now includes a Nordstrom department store.
Toward the end of the decade, he joined the movement for a new sports complex to revitalize downtown. He wrote a series of memos nudging the complicated process forward. He assembled a team of administrators from various city agencies to eliminate as much red tape as possible. When questions of financing and other details threatened the deal with collapse, Ferraro the diplomat focused on salvaging the project for Los Angeles.
“John Ferraro is the unsung hero in this thing,” George Mihlsten, an attorney for Staples Center developers Ed Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz, said as the completed center prepared for its opening. “He made the deal happen in L.A.”
In late 1992 he discussed with supporters the possibility of running as a one-term caretaker mayor who could make tough decisions and help sooth tensions brought on by the riots and recession. “The city is in desperate need of strong leadership,” he said.
But by that time he had undergone open-heart surgery twice: He had a heart attack and a double bypass in 1979, and had a heart defibrillator installed after a quadruple bypass in 1992.
He was devoted to his second wife, the former Margaret Hart, a well-known New York exotic dancer and stripteaser during the Gypsy Rose Lee days, who nursed him back to health after his first heart attack before marrying him in 1982. She died in January 2000 after a long illness.
He is survived by his son.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Times staff writers Tina Daunt and Douglas Shuit contributed to this story.
Video from Tuesday’s City Hall news conference, with reaction from Riordan and council members to Ferraro’s death, is available on The Times’ Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/ferraro
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