Trading places with a councilman
Times columnist Steve Lopez trades jobs for a day with L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge.
One day not long ago I was sitting in the audience at a Los Angeles City Council meeting when Tom LaBonge approached me.
I’d been hammering city officials for the long-running budget mess, and about how, thanks in part to exorbitant labor contracts, the city has scaled back on the most basic services. Councilman LaBonge had taken note of my columns on broken sidewalks. And he’d seen my column on a sensible proposal — to allow people to plant edible curbside gardens — that had languished in the City Hall grinder for more than two years.
LaBonge offered me a deal.
“We should trade places for a day,” he said, suggesting I might develop a greater appreciation for what public officials deal with on a daily basis. “You be me and I’ll be you.”
Could I fix City Hall in a day? Probably not quite. But I liked the idea of shaking things up, even if only for a day.
Of course, I wouldn’t have the authority to do anything, really, so I lost interest until a thought occurred.
LaBonge is going to be termed out in a year and a half. And I live in his district, which covers parts of Silver Lake, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
Was it time for me to jump to the dark side?
A council member brings home a good paycheck. The pension and benefits are virtually unheard of in the private sector. I’d love to have the keys to LaBonge’s Crown Vic, and I’ve got plenty of time to declare my candidacy.
“I’ll pick you up at 5:45 tomorrow,” LaBonge told me last Wednesday night by phone, saying he’d be my driver for a day and show me what I’d be in for as a local politician.
He was talking a.m. That’s when LaBonge begins his days, with a three-mile hike in Griffith Park.
“You start up there above the city,” he said, “so first thing in the morning, you’ve already accomplished something.”
The parking lot at the Griffith Observatory was almost full when we arrived. Dozens of hikers take to the trails every morning in the dark, and LaBonge knew almost all of them. He exchanged greetings in Korean and Spanish while charging up the mountain, picking up trash and clearing rocks from paths. When we got to Dante’s View, he moved the sprinklers that had been turned on by an earlier hiker.
I didn’t realize he’d been carrying a football the whole time until he threw a pass to someone atop Mt. Hollywood, just as the sun was coming up.
“Touchdown!” he yelled.
As a politician, though, LaBonge is more of a lineman than a quarterback. He’s happier in the neighborhoods than in City Hall, grinding away on constituent service rather than debating the big-picture stuff.
“People want to see their councilman out there,” he said, telling me that trouble-shooting and schmoozing are his favorite parts of the job.
After the hike, LaBonge spotted a trash truck in Los Feliz and hit the brakes to help sanitation worker Herb Gomez throw a sofa and a television into the truck. It was the first of many sudden stops. LaBonge brakes for trash and tipped traffic cones. If he spots someone he knows, he swerves, brakes and bolts out of the car like it’s a jailbreak. At one point he backed into a curb and blew out a tire.
“You gotta know your history,” he told me on Los Feliz Boulevard, pointing out that the deodar cedars drop lots of needles that clog the sewer drains, but they’re 100 years old and you can’t mess with them.
At 8 a.m. we headed up Beachwood Canyon, where residents have been screaming about tourists using GPS devices to get close to the Hollywood sign. LaBonge wants to allow preferential parking for residents, but in return he wants them to support his plan to shuttle tourists up Beachwood.
“No Shuttle,” said a sign at one house. “LaBonge continues to endanger lives in our canyon.”
The councilman looked at me and said, “OK, Mr. Councilman. That could say Lopez.”
Hey, I’ve got critics as a columnist. Would it be any worse if I were a councilman?
“Pop question,” LaBonge chirped. “What just closed in Pomona?”
The correct answer, which eluded me, was the L.A. County Fair. And the point? LaBonge wants to put a Ferris wheel on Hollywood Boulevard, so at the top of the arc, riders can get pictures of the Hollywood sign without driving up and bothering residents.
“I’m thinking outside the box,” he said.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of Wattles Gardens Park in Hollywood, LaBonge gave me some inside advice. If you see someone with a camera, be sure to get your hand on the scissors.
“So you don’t get cut out” of the picture. “That’s a tip for you.”
He had more sage advice as we were leaving.
“Turn around and wave at everybody,” he said. “You gotta wave.”
Apparently I didn’t do it emphatically enough, because LaBonge grabbed my hand and waved it for me.
The councilman pushed me to the podium three times to make speeches during a 10-event, 14-hour day. I don’t like those hours, but hey, the public hates both journalists and politicians, so it would be like a lateral move. And council members have up to 25 people working for them full time, which is 25 more than I have.
I found myself thinking up campaign slogans.
Believe in Steve.
I’ll cut sloth, not ribbons.
But would LaBonge endorse me?
“No,” he said without hesitation. He’s endorsing Carolyn Ramsay, his chief of staff.
It’s for the best, I think. Why try to solve problems when I’ve got the luxury of merely pointing them out?
I’ll let you know when LaBonge turns his column in, but I’m hoping it’s a snooze.
If I’m not taking his job, I don’t want him taking mine.
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