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Tom LaBonge: L.A. Confident

Hillel Aron |
October 30, 2009 | 11:54 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Councilman Tom LaBonge has both the build and the voice of a high school football coach (he played football in high school and college), slightly hoarse, so that even though it sounds like he's shouting at you, the volume of his voice is fairly normal. I interviewed him in his office, which is crammed with hundreds of nick nacks: awards, toys, baseball hats, mugs, the new book LA Noir, standing upright like a display.

When I told him I went to film school, he pulled out a stack of DVDs he'd recently bought to give out as presents, and named them off, either to get my opinion or to educate me on film history: "Cool Hand Luke," "Rebel Without a Cause," "Easy Rider," "Chinatown," "LA Confidential," "Yankee Doodle Dandee," "Grapes of Wrath," and "The Pride of the Yankees." He actually re-enacted for me a part of "The Pride of the Yankees," a film that's special for him. He proposed to his wife after he watched it.

You've lived in Silver Lake all your life, is that right?

I lived in Atwater Village for a few years, but I've lived in 90039 all my life.

What do you make of how the area has changed?

It's always been a welcoming area for all people. I think people from the Westside found it. That's what has happened in the last ten years, you know, more people have moved to the area to get real homes, because there's always been a spirit of architecture in Silver Lake Hills.

Some people complain about gentrification.

Gentrification is stabilization. Gentrification happens. It's not a negative. Let's say you're an artist, and you're a flipper. So you take a house, and you invest 80 to $100,000 to fix it up, and you flip it. It jacks the price up, but that house is gonna be there longer. I think the neighborhood lasts longer when it's gentrified.  

Who do you think represents more hipsters, you or Eric Garcetti?

(thinks for a second) I think it's probably Eric because Eric is more of a hipster than I am. Though I could talk you up if you wanted me to.  

Do you have a fixed-gear bicycle?

No, I don't, and I wonder about those guys. I think they're all gonna catch up on them.  

What do you mean?

Well to stop and start on one gear, I know it's very popular, but I don't know if it's gonna be as popular on your legs in five years. I don't know. But hipsters are OK, as long as they obey the red lights and, you know, be nice to neighbors.

You're a big L.A. booster, why do you think so many people talk bad about L.A.?

Maybe they're not from here, maybe they don't get out of their car and explore the community. You know, you didn't see "Crash" in that stack, and it's an interesting movie, but at the same time, if you live like that, you will be like that, you'll have the attitude of someone in that movie. If you hike in Griffith Park, if you take public transit, if you walk Larchmont Boulevard, if you go to Farmer's Market, you'll engage and rub shoulders with somebody and find that you have something in common with them.  

If you could fix one thing about this city, what would it be?

Mobility. Traffic, transportation, and walk-ability. If we could turn back the clock, there could have been bikeways down San Vicente, instead of coral trees. Mass transit, as well as bicycle routes. Shared space. A little like Europe. After World War II, during the reconstruction of Germany, they really thought about land use. They know how to deal with traffic and bicycles and pedestrians.  

So are you working to fix that or is it too late?

No, it's never too late. Remember the last line in "Gone With the Wind?"

Uh... tomorrow is another day?

Very good! You get to borrow a film. You gotta bring it back though. (He hands me "Yankee Doodle Dandee," which I haven't seen) You have 30 days.

How do you think the subway development is going, do you think it's made adequate progress?

It's gone a few very small baby steps It needs to be accelerated greatly. The mayor and I are in sync on this, to get the subway along Wilshire. But much more needs to be done. I believe in the Subway to the Sea, but also the subway to USC, down Vermont, to Exposition Park. Many, many things have to be done, but we have to keep pushing it.  

You used to work for Mayor Riordan, what do you think of the job Mayor Villaraigosa has done?

The mayor has tried to enlighten the city, and engage in loving the city, and being energized, which is a good value. The economic challenges have taken the wind out of his sails on that, so there's a need to push ahead. And it goes so fast here. He's already in his last term.  

But do you think he's done a good job dealing with those challenges?

It's been overwhelming in a sense. I'll use a football analogy. Ever hear of Vince Lombardi?  


He was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. They had six basic plays. Then if they put a tight end here they had 12, and if they ran a slot over here they had 24. But they basically had six plays. When the mayor got elected, he should have had three or four basic things. He got overwhelmed on education, transportation. And other government realities set in. If he had a shorter agenda he could have been much more successful. But he's successful as it is now.  

So you think he's spread himself too thin?

I think it became overwhelming. His ambition of doing a great job overwhelmed him.  Overwhelmed the city, not him. I don't want to personally blame him.  It's just very difficult. It's tough to be the quarterback.  

What about City Attorney Trutanich. What's going on with that guy?

He's from San Pedro. Big guy. SC guy. And he likes his job.  

(Long pause) There was a recent L.A. Times Opinion piece, did you read it?


Did you agree that he doesn't know what his job is?

When you get elected by the people, your job is to represent the people, so he's trying to do what he thinks is best. Now I think he's gotten a little rough on a couple of those issues. But you learn.  

So you don't support his efforts to arrest Councilmember Jan Perry?

No, I don't think he should be arresting anybody but people who are violating the law. You know, on serious crimes.  

Do you support a constitutional convention for California?

Yeah, I think that California needs a re-tooling of its governance.  

Any plans to run for anything else?

Just to the next meeting.

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