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An Afternoon With Tom LaBonge

Laura Walsh |
March 4, 2011 | 1:17 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Tom LaBonge introduces the Whitnall Gardens Project Photo by Laura Walsh
Tom LaBonge introduces the Whitnall Gardens Project Photo by Laura Walsh

How do you turn a speech for a modest North Hollywood park and flood control project into a crowd-pleaser?

As City CouncilmanTom LaBonge would have it, you simply mention over half of your audience by name, ad lib all your lines, and incorporate a totally unnecessary number of football analogies.

The 10-year political incumbent introduced the Whitnall Gardens Project Thursday afternoon in anticipation of its innovative power and water conservation plans, and, undoubtedly, Tuesday’s election. 

Arriving late to a 30-minute ceremony, the politician’s fashionable entrance owes itself to a rigorous campaign battle this year. 

Before noon, the representative had attended a conference with Mayor Villaraigosa about public smoking, made an appearance at the Fireman’s Luncheon, prepared for the Whitnall Project, and, as he is quick to mention, walked in Griffith Park, finishished the laundry and had taken his son to school.  His tireless social ambitions and essence of a Los Angeles and family man are exactly what separate him from his opposing candidates this year.  

“Tom’s a good guy - he’s a good LA guy,” says  Cary Adams, a retired teacher and former president of the Midtown North Hollywood Neighborhood Council.  “The other two weren’t even born in the U.S.” notes Adams, of Tomas O’Grady and Stephen Box; the challengers for the council seat in District 4, which stretches from North Hollywood to Koreatown and Griffith Park.

While there are certainly political differences between the three men, LaBonge sees his lifetime presence in L.A. as the crucial qualifying factor of his campaign.

“They are people with not the same skillset that I have” says LaBonge of his competitors.  When pressed for a better explanation of the uniqueness of his political policies, he simply said, “They’re real,” and referred to his experience working with government officials like Mayor Villaraigosa and Gov. Jerry Brown.

It is exactly such formation of simple, confident and blunt response which entertained me and homeowners as he ambled up to doorsteps on the campaign trail later in the afternoon.

As he drew voters to their doorsteps calling out “Dorothy” and “Eric” like he had known the North Hollywood residents all his life, just about the only ones to chase him away were the dogs.

“I got bit once at a house,” he recalls.  

Noticing the menacing dog on the ‘No Trespassing’ sign which caught his eye, I asked, “What did you do?”

“I got the vote,” was his honest answer.

The response was not difficult to believe, as he chatted with me about his choice cereal - Special K with strawberries - and favorite lunch spot -Felipe's- in between ardent appeals to “vote Yes on L” for the libraries and tailored compliments of solar powered lights and conservational landscaping that characterized front lawns.

Going green is just one of LaBonge’s many campaign commitments, which include an emphasis on gang prevention and LAPD commissioning, improving and expanding state parks, and regulating food trucks and street vendors.

This last promise has some L.A. residents (namely food truck vendors) forwarding their vote to the opposition, but has drawn avid support from others.

Melissa and Casey Hallenbeck, proud owners of Phil’s Diner, a restaurant which LaBonge endorsed for being both energy and economic-wise, will be voting for the councilman not only because of his stance on food trucks but because,  “He’s out amongst the people.  He’s accessible and his experience is very telling.”

The remark proved to be an understatement, as LaBonge made time to take me to visit the renovated restaurant later, comment on all of its inner fixtures and diner pictures, and climb a fence to get a good photo for his website.

While the overly gregarious councilman may seem more comfortable in a track suit than a business blazer, there is no denying that his amiable nature stems from an actual concern for the people in his district.  After one homeowner greeted him with a “Nice to see you again, Tom” I commented on a compliment I had read about his knack for names.

“It’s more of a knack for problems, really,” says LaBonge, and as he promised an elderly woman smiling hesitantly beyond a screen door, “I’ll remember this moment, in this district” I couldn’t help but believe him.

Reach reporter Laura Walsh here.



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