Custodian of His District
On a bright autumn morning in the great city of Los Angeles, a well-traveled Ford Crown Victoria bangs up against a curb on Normandie Avenue near the border of Koreatown and Wilshire Center.
The driver’s door blows open and out explodes Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who straightens his jacket and gives a Dirty Harry-esque squint at a heap of battered furniture piled on the curb.
LaBonge just happens to be in the neighborhood for a news conference with fellow Councilman Eric Garcetti on a new city program to quickly clear bulky items dumped on Los Angeles curbsides.
The small mountain of furniture, they say, was there by coincidence.
A lectern arrives and is plunked down on the sidewalk. Behind the microphone -- one of his favorite places -- LaBonge begins the media event like it’s a pep rally.
“It’s a great day in L.A. because we’re going to get our city cleaner,” he begins, and then adds, “When I started with the city in 1974, it was all about bulky items -- and it still is!”
A few minutes later, LaBonge pulls off his jacket and with a few city workers begins hoisting the couch and other furniture onto a city truck, sweating through his shirt. Garcetti -- who can more than hold his own with the press -- has no choice but to join him.
It doesn’t end there. Having noticed that the street gutters are filled with garbage, LaBonge wanders down the street and returns a few minutes later with both fists full of it.
In his four-plus years on the council, LaBonge has emerged as its most colorful member and an antithesis to those with more lofty policy-oriented ambitions. He has returned the job to its caretaker roots -- and beyond, to its janitorial beginnings.
“I’m not a statesman, I’m a councilman,” he’ll sometimes say, “and a councilman picks up garbage.”
LaBonge is the only member of the 15-member council who can also be regularly seen directing traffic, walking old ladies across the street, fetching errant balls for children, giving unsuspecting residents loaves of pumpkin bread from a local monastery, holding forth on L.A. history or handing out calendars featuring his snapshots of Los Angeles, including high-tension wires set against clouds.
In City Hall, LaBonge has become a sort of one-man show, particularly when granted access to a microphone. During a discussion on low-flow toilets, he hit his “request to speak” button and then proclaimed: “There are two things one needs to survive in life: water and relationships. It’s all so simple.”
The trunk of LaBonge’s Crown Vic is a pol’s version of Batman’s utility belt. Among the items inside are an orange cone (in case he happens across a traffic accident), trash bag, hard hat, yellow vest and rakes.
LaBonge is certainly the only council member who will say that the mayor of Munchkin City helped teach him to govern. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the mayor warmly welcomes Dorothy and Toto to his burg, providing LaBonge with a template for how all city officials should greet constituents or visitors.
Ask Australians Carolyn and Brian Nealon. The couple were poking around the downtown Central Library in November when they were spotted by LaBonge. “He came up to us and said, ‘Do you have any plans today?’ ” said Brian Nealon, standing with his suitcase in LaBonge’s office.
The Nealons were soon being ferried to a downtown film shoot, where LaBonge snapped photos of them with the crew. He then drove them to City Hall, where a LaBonge employee was deputized to give the Nealons a full-blown Tom LaBonge-sanctioned tour of the building.
It has been suggested that Los Angeles is not the easiest city to love or govern. It is a big, messy, sprawling place, plagued and forged by natural disasters, race riots and traffic.
The question is, what do LaBonge’s efforts add up to? LaBonge clearly wants everyone -- from residents to foreign diplomats he invites to his home on Thanksgiving -- to love L.A. as much as he does. But can civic pride save the city he adores?
On the morning of Oct. 6, 1953, Mary Louise LaBonge was not feeling well. After she had a neighbor, come over to watch her sons Dennis, Chris, Tim and Bob, LaBonge drove her other two boys, Steve and Brian, to school.
Only then did she motor up Sunset Boulevard to Queen of Angels Hospital, where at 8:45 a.m. she gave birth to her seventh son, Thomas.
Then she got around to calling her husband.
Fifty-two years later, telling the story again in a booth at Musso & Frank Grill, Councilman Tom LaBonge says, “Some people say how you were born gives you a personality trait. I do move kind of fast.”
For all the kinetic energy, though, LaBonge has in some ways stayed still. He has resided virtually his entire life in the 90039 ZIP Code. He lives with his wife, Brigid, and their two children in a Silver Lake home perched on a hill, two streets over from the one where he lived until he was 32. His 7-year-old son goes to Ivanhoe Elementary School, the same public school he attended.
LaBonge often refers to his childhood as an idyllic time during L.A.'s postwar boom. He walked to every school he attended. At John Marshall High School, he played football and had a garage band, Joe Bush and the Hubcaps.
“He was the lead singer. Maybe he would grab a guitar and play three chords, but he had a physical presence -- he was handsome and trim and cut,” recalls his one younger brother, Mark. “He knew how to rock, and the girls loved it.”
His father, Robert, a police reporter for The Times and later an editor at the Tidings, the Catholic archdiocese’s newspaper, died shortly before LaBonge graduated from high school.
LaBonge spent the next several years trying to figure out what to do with his life.
Teaching and coaching football were options he considered. He took the Los Angeles firefighting test but failed the written part, scotching his chance to join his favorite city institution. He began a longtime part-time job as an assistant cameraman for NFL Films, and in 1975 earned a sociology degree from Cal State L.A.
The turning point, perhaps, was when LaBonge took a part-time job with a city volunteer program in 1974 driving a truck that picked up bulky items.
LaBonge compiled a timeline of his life for The Times. It reads, in part, like this:
1972: Bought my first car, 1965 Chevy Nova ($273).
1974: Passion for photography and chronicling the city of Los Angeles began in earnest.
1976: First city job as field deputy to Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, 13th District.
More city jobs followed. He was a deputy to Councilman John Ferraro, a special assistant to Mayor Richard Riordan -- he was known as the guy who took a lot of pictures -- and was the chief of community relations at the Department of Water and Power.
He ran for the council in 1993 and lost narrowly to Jackie Goldberg. Eight years later, LaBonge was elected to the City Council over a crowded field. He plans to run for reelection in March of next year.
Once he took his seat on the council, people began compiling their favorite Tom LaBonge stories.
“Jellybean him!” he once thundered to his staff when he needed to get ahold of Eric Garcetti. Was this some secret council code? No, it was LaBonge referring to a Blackberry.
Upon meeting people, LaBonge will often ask what high school they attended to provide him with a reference point for their Angeleno roots. When he saw a young woman in City Hall wearing pants with the word “Juicy” sewn on the rear, he somehow saw an acronym and asked what junior college she attended.
Is it shtick? Janice Hahn, LaBonge’s best friend on the council, said: “I don’t think you can have shtick that good. I think the greatest compliment anyone ever gave Tom came from my mother, who said, ‘Tom, you remind me of my Kenny,’ ” the late county supervisor. “She’s never said that about me or my brother,” former Mayor James K. Hahn.
On a drive one day with a reporter, LaBonge spied a ball in the gutter in front of Ivanhoe Elementary. Here’s what happened next:
Car bounces against curb, he almost gets hit by another car leaping out of the Crown Vic. He throws ball, it bounces off the fence and he jumps into the landscaping after it.
In the backseat of his car, watching the spectacle that is her boss, sat communications deputy Jane Galbraith.
“He’s going to split his pants,” she muttered in a tone suggesting a woman haunted by the sounds of ripping stitches.
Among his colleagues, no one will say anything nasty about LaBonge. Judging from their faces at meetings, however, most seem envious of his show-stealing -- or in wonder of how he got elected.
“Some [council members] are interested in policy and legislation,” LaBonge said. “I’m more interested in action. I don’t think people remember a politician because they brought back a good policy paper. I think they remember you for making their neighborhood better.”
His chief of field operations, Rory Fitzpatrick, who grew up across the street from the LaBonge family, put it this way:
“What our constituents care about is from their front door to the middle of the street. And when you get in the car and you get to work, what does local government do to make that a pleasant experience? That’s what Tom focuses on.”
LaBonge’s district has roughly 253,000 residents and includes parts of Silver Lake, Toluca Lake, Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills, Hancock Park, the Miracle Mile, Park La Brea, North Hollywood and Griffith Park.
It is also one of the wealthier districts in the city. With that affluence, and all those neighborhoods of single-family homes, comes a high degree of activism.
One of the most active residents is Bernadette Soter of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council, who gives LaBonge mixed grades.
Soter praises him for listening to constituents and for often heeding their concerns about growth and development. She is also in the midst of a long-running battle with LaBonge over Griffith Park. She wants it protected from nearly all development; LaBonge wants to see parts of it refurbished and is willing to consider some new facilities.
Soter also wonders if his approach is too shallow.
“Tom isn’t a policy wonk, but there are times when a deeper understanding of an issue is really vital to making a decision,” she said, adding that for all of LaBonge’s garbage-picking, many neighborhoods take care of themselves.
In City Hall, there are occasional grumbles that LaBonge is too protective of his district while ignoring the city as a whole.
For example, he recently pushed for stricter zoning to protect homeowners from denser development in Silver Lake.
Just across the street, in Garcetti’s district, the zoning is designed to allow greater density.
But there is also evidence that LaBonge is thinking about the rest of the city. He has been one of the most ardent supporters of extending the subway west.
One of the most contentious issues has been the Runyon Canyon dog park, a popular off-leash area. Most of the parking is on tiny residential streets, where some discourteous owners allow their visiting dogs to poop.
LaBonge proposes to solve the problem by converting a small grassy area into a parking area to accommodate visitors from across town, and creating a new grassy patch farther up the canyon.
It is a hugely unpopular solution. Some residents see the lot attracting even more visitors, while others see another patch of paved-over paradise.
“Not everyone is going to love you,” LaBonge said.
At 6 a.m. on a hot summer morning, LaBonge pulls up to the Griffith Observatory in his Crown Vic.
He is dressed in a gray sweatsuit, ready for a hike, and carrying a football. The ball usually resides in the backseat of his car, as if he and the Crown Vic were plowing toward some imaginary goal line.
He is on the trail for less than a minute before another hiker greets him, “Hey Tommy!” A few hundred yards up the trail, LaBonge shouts, “an nyung ha se yo,” or hello, to Korean hikers.
When LaBonge encounters someone special or someone he knows well, he tosses them the football. LaBonge has been making this hike for years, and it’s easy to picture ravines filled with footballs that missed their mark.
At one juncture, LaBonge veers off the trail to Dante’s View, a terraced and shady patch of trees and gardens.
“People came here from all over, and there were houses for everyone,” said LaBonge, taking in the view. “Everyone had a shot.”
Left unsaid is whether that Los Angeles, if it ever really existed, can rise again and what role Councilman Tom LaBonge will play in building it.