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The Big Leagues: Getting To Know L.A. City Council's New Guy, Joe Buscaino

Catherine Green |
January 24, 2012 | 12:52 p.m. PST

Deputy News Editor

As a lifelong San Pedro resident, Councilman Buscaino says he plans to tackle head-on the issues facing District 15. (Campaign photo)
As a lifelong San Pedro resident, Councilman Buscaino says he plans to tackle head-on the issues facing District 15. (Campaign photo)
Joe Buscaino is ready to shake up the Los Angeles City Council after overtaking Assemblyman Warren Furutani in an election last week to represent the 15th District.

A 15-year vet of the LAPD, Buscaino has served his San Pedro community, where he grew up, as senior lead officer for the last six years. He campaigned to join the City Council as a man of the people, the political outsider who could fairly address the people of his community and the struggling neighborhoods around it.

And here’s the thing: He might actually be that guy.

The Democrat took nearly 61 percent of votes over Furutani’s 39 percent to succeed Janice Hahn, who was elected to Congress in July. He’s been backed by the Police Protective League, as well as the L.A. County Business Federation and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Public entities and businesses love him, as do the people of San Pedro. Now he just has to win over the rest of his district’s constituents—not to mention the rest of the city.

In the inaugural interview for a Neon Tommy series following “Joey B” into the realm of Los Angeles politics, we caught up with the newly anointed councilman Monday during a rare free moment. His 5-year-old daughter’s preschool had cancelled programming due to the rain, so Buscaino was spending the day with her at home.

He’s frequently brought up the importance of family in recent interviews, so it came as little surprise he would be content with the day’s change in plans. But with the community development goals he’s outlined as he prepares to be sworn in, it’s likely he’ll have his hands full soon.

Neon Tommy: So what sparked these ambitions? It’s obviously a big job to take on; coming straight off the police force, you must be exhausted.

Councilman Joe Buscaino: Let me first say, I’m not exhausted. I’m inspired. We really engaged in this district and I can’t wait to lead and serve the people. My family instilled in me the importance of faith, of family and community, of giving back, of doing good for others, of public service—that’s one of the reasons I joined the LAPD. When I joined, I said, I want to come back to my hometown and be the local cop. In a city so large, it’s rare you get to know your neighborhood police officer.

I’ve developed a lot of working relationships with the neighborhood watch groups, business watch groups, numerous community organizations. The senior lead officer is somewhat like a small-town councilman—problem solving, dealing with quality of life issues, talking with victims of crime and working with city entities.

Over the last several years, there’s been some frustration with how the city is run. I’ve often said, I think we can do better. That’s what really led me to where I’m at today. And not only that, but also having the support of my loving wife and family and other groups across the district who pushed me. And here we are, doing well, winning this campaign.

And it was tough, truly. Going into this, being up against the establishment as the political outsider—it’s normally the chosen candidate from Sacramento or City Hall that’s supposed to win an election like this. But it sent a clear message that I was the chosen candidate from the community. And we hope that it inspired others across the city that it is possible to be that chosen candidate from the community and win.

NT: It’s well documented that you’ve maintained a great relationship with the residents of San Pedro. How do you plan to reach out to members of the other communities you’ll now be representing?

Buscaino: Nearly 40 years ago, my parents immigrated here from Italy and they landed in San Pedro. Now, had they landed in Watts or Harbor City, I’d be the Harbor City or Watts candidate.

San Pedro’s my stronghold—that’s no big secret. However, what’s happened in what’s called the politics of poverty—and this is part of my frustration—is the politicians tend to serve the people who vote the most. And that’s something that’s not going to happen under my watch.

I’ve worked the streets in Watts. I’ve worked the streets in Wilmington, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway. I understand that San Pedro historically carries the vote. But I made a commitment to our neighbors that I’m going to be the councilmember for everyone. I don’t care where you live.

NT: What do you consider the biggest issues facing these neighborhoods?

Buscaino: Well obviously people want to be safe. Public safety is a critical component in government. People want to go back to work. The lack of economic development, the lack of economic justice across this district—from Watts, where you find numerous empty lots, to Harbor City and San Pedro and Wilmington.

And the Port of Los Angeles is an international gateway for cargo, but it ought to be the international gateway for people. I want to make this waterfront the L.A. Live Port of Los Angeles. I want to make it a destination, putting people back to work, weeding our way out of poverty.

I love to share this story: I did my probation in Central Division in downtown Los Angeles, where there’s a street called Francisco Street. I recall arresting gang members, drug addicts and prostitutes on that street. What’s on Francisco Street today? L.A. Live. That’s the type of economic development we need in my district and I’m going to fight for it.

Also, city services—people want them. You talk to the council office, and 80 percent of the calls they field are related to city services. I plan to really fight for our fair share down here.

NT: It’s ultimately up to Council President Wesson to assign you to a committee, but which ones are you eyeing?

I told Wesson I’m going to work my tail off no matter which committee you’re going to give me. But, you know, obviously the Public Safety Committee is a great fit.

The Tourism, Commerce and Trade Committee is a great fit as well, based on the fact that the Port of Los Angeles is in our backyard. Arts and Parks, Public Works—but I’m just honored and humbled to serve. I’m ready to lead. Whichever committee the Council President will assign me to, I’m ready to go.

NT: In its recent endorsement, the L.A. Times had some questions about your approach to the city budget. How do you think Los Angeles should tackle its $250 million deficit in the next fiscal year?

Buscaino: Well, I made it clear that public safety won’t be touched. We’ve seen a reduction in crime in the last nine years, and that will be my commitment going into these budget talks. It’s going to be tough. These are tough financial times for the city.

But we have to think outside the box. I’m looking at other things that are going to be put on the table, and surrounding myself with some key folks to look into what exactly we need to do.

For example, did you know in every major city, the zoo is run by a nonprofit? That’s something we need to look at. We need to look at Ontario Airport. My question is, why isn’t Ontario, which is a city in itself, managing its own airport? We need to get people the city services they deserve and that they paid for.

I think the budget is more of a revenue issue. Trying to find businesses to come into the city—I’ve committed to have a small-business liaison. So if somebody wants to start a business in my district, they’re going to have a go-to person. They’ll be there to see through the red tape, and to fight for businesses that come into my district and invest and help with the revenue source.

NT: Shifting gears, as you’ve started to explore your new position and get involved with a whole new office culture, what’s struck you about the other council members?

Buscaino: Very receptive. They’ve kind of taken me in. These 14 council members, they all want to do what’s right for their constituents. They have a love for the city—public service is important to them.

Do I agree with everything they say and do? No. But we need to put our heads together to do what’s right for the city of Los Angeles, and do what’s right for our respective districts.

In the last few days, they have all reached out to me. They’ve offered congratulations, they’ve offered their guidance—including Council President Wesson. He’s just been a champion for me.

Obviously I’m going to be the youngest guy sitting in that horseshoe. But you know what? I think my colleagues have come to realize that I’m not one of them. I’m not a political insider. But they respect the fact that the voters of this district want one of their own. I’m going to be the independent voice for the people in my district.

The people who put me in this position are the people who live and work here. The L.A. Times reported nearly 70 percent of my contributions came from my district.

Not only that, but we ran an honorable campaign. We stuck to the issues, and we just hope to rub off on the others that are running for office in Sacramento and D.C. I’m so proud of this campaign and my team, and I’ll continue to serve as the next council member in that same way.

NT: And did I read the other council members are already calling you Joey B? Is that right?

Buscaino: [laughing] I don’t know where Herb Wesson got that. In fact, growing up, that was one of my nicknames. Maybe one of my buddies called him.

NT: What aren’t you looking forward to about your new job?

Buscaino: Well, budget talks. It’s just going to be tough. And I’ve been part of the city family for 15 years. To me, it’s not only the employees—it’s our residents as well. To balance both interests—I mean, obviously we’re going to make sure that we keep our city employees employed and provide the adequate city services that we need.

But at the same time, I’m here to represent the residents of my district and be a voice and a champion for them when it comes to fighting for city services.

Some politicians just want the name, the seat, the title. The old adage is, I want to do something—I don’t want to be somebody. I want to get there, and do some work. Because that’s what people voted me in to do.

NT: And when you picture that ideal leader, who are you thinking of? Who have been your role models in the city?

Buscaino: [Former Councilman] John Ferraro has just been a political giant in the city. Growing up, I actually enjoyed watching Channel 35 and the City Council meetings on TV. My dad pointed out that John Ferraro ran those meetings—he’s Italian and he made the Italian-American community proud. He was a faithful man, a family man. The fact that I’ll be serving in council chambers named for him—he’s one that really stands out in my mind, in my heart.

I’m also looking at, of course, the great Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy—individuals who really fought for the underprivileged, the underdog. They had to work to get their message out, and were for the people who do the right things for the right reasons. And that’s what I’ve been campaigning on: being the voice for the people, and making my decisions for the right reasons.

NT: One trajectory past city council would be running for mayor. Any of those ambitions in the near future?

Buscaino: Oh my goodness, I just want to get sworn in and be the next city council member [laughing]. My supporters say, Yeah we want you to run for mayor in 18 months. I go, Come on, just let me get sworn in.

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