The Big Leagues: Buscaino Joins The Horseshoe
“I knew it—it’s not gonna work,” he says. Standing outside the executive elevator in the depths of the parking garage, he holds his access card up to the sensor once, twice, three times—nothing.
He’s not surprised, but Buscaino isn’t grumbling. Despite the snafu on this already hectic Tuesday morning, he maintains the good-natured attitude that’s become part of his public persona. It’s not lost on him that this is the perfect illustration of his touted status as a political outsider.
When Buscaino defeated Assemblyman Warren Furutani in January’s special election for the 15th District, it seemed to catch even the winning candidate off guard. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” he’s often said of his victory. But he follows that incredulousness with praise for the grassroots effort that put him in office, the people from his hometown who believed in his vision enough to cast their ballots in his favor.
I tagged along on Buscaino’s morning commute from San Pedro to downtown L.A. as part of a series following the new councilman in the early months of his tenure at City Hall. It’s a drive he’ll make every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as he settles into the job, splitting time with his duties in District 15.
Now if only he could get to his new office. Thankfully, Councilman Tom LaBonge arrives to save the day, music blaring from his city-issued sedan. LaBonge razzes the council’s youngest member, grabbing his shoulder and firing off gems of grandfatherly advice about the nuances of public office, all the way up to the fourth floor. There, the two men part to meet their staffs and prepare for the day.
After a quick scan of background materials, Buscaino is hustled off for his debut in the Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee. His easygoing disposition comes out again during the morning meeting when a community representative congratulates Buscaino on his recent election, before adding, “But how do you pronounce your name?”
“Like the blue sky,” he told the man. “Just think, ‘Blue-sky-ee-no.’ ”
To the people who know him from San Pedro though, it’s “Joe.” Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau is responsible for starting Buscaino’s 15-year career with the force. It was Gannon who promoted him to senior lead officer six years ago when they served together at the Harbor station.
“I’ve worked a lot of different assignments and in April, it’ll be 34 years with the police department. I’ve seen a lot of different people work as a community cop,” Gannon said. “Some have done a really good job, and others weren’t very good to be honest with you. Joe was exceptional at it.”
But Gannon met him long before that, when Buscaino was still a college kid working as an assistant at San Pedro’s Bogdanovich Recreation Center. “You know, the same thing I saw in Joe when he was a rec. assistant I saw when he was a young police officer,” Gannon said. “He was enthusiastic, and all he wanted to do was help in some way and make things better.”
According to his captain at the time, Buscaino was more grounded than most, an average-guy trait he’s brought up again and again on his way to City Council. “Sometimes in young police officers, they get this kinda like, ‘It’s me against them,’ idea. And they forget about all the other people around them,” Gannon said. “Joe never lost that perspective.”
Buscaino’s track record as a police officer seems to back up that endorsement. While at the Harbor station, he created the first Teen Community Police Advisory Board, an initiative that has since spread to police departments across the city. Based on an existing community soundboard idea, in which residents meet monthly with police captains to voice their concerns and prioritize neighborhoods’ biggest issues, Buscaino extended that same invitation for input to the Harbor area kids.
“They started anti-bullying campaigns. They did PSAs on graffiti and other issues, they held conferences where they had hundreds of kids show up to talk about these things. That was all Joe that put that stuff together,” Gannon said. “It was a huge undertaking on his part.”
From where Buscaino stood, that kind of responsibility came with the territory. “As I’ve often said, being a senior lead officer in my hometown is somewhat like being a small-town councilman,” he said while on his Tuesday morning commute from San Pedro to City Hall. “Bringing people together, improving the quality of life, just wanting to do good for others, wanting to serve—I have that passion.”
Sitting in the driver seat, he chewed furiously on sugar-free gum from a package tucked into the car’s cup-holder as he calmly navigated through traffic. Even in this mundane setting, the determination his former boss spoke of was apparent.
To his loved ones, it’s shown in the community work he’s done from an early age. “My family has told me that they're not surprised. They just knew that the love for this city has been with me since I was a kid,” Buscaino said. It was Joe back then who volunteered at church, joined student government to enact change on a small scale, signed up to feed the homeless and visit senior centers. “And I’m often reminded of that—that you know what, this is in your blood. This is your destiny to serve and give back and do good for others.”
When asked how he would want his community to remember him as he moves into local politics, Buscaino said he hoped it would be something similar to the way people saw him as a senior lead officer.
“Someone who cared about the community. Someone who was responsive, who included people in the problem-solving process. Also, someone who held people accountable for their actions,” he said. “That’s just not gonna change.”
San Pedro residents will be happy to hear that. The waterfront community feels like an ideal town to grow up in It’s little wonder why Buscaino would want to keep it that way for future generations. It’s well kept, friendly and welcoming. But there’s room for improvement.
“We have tree trimming that needs to be done. We have crosswalks for the kids that need to be restriped. We have stoplights that need to be put in,” said Leslie Jones, co-owner of the Omelette and Waffle Shop at the corner of Gaffey and 11th streets. These problems might seem minor, but to the people who live in the neighborhood, the fact that they go unresolved reflects a lack of attention and respect from L.A.’s City Hall.
Still, Jones seemed confident Buscaino would take care of it. She worked extensively with him when he was still on the police force, starting a business watch on Gaffey Street to keep an eye on the neighborhood. “Well, I know that he’s dedicated to the task that he takes at hand,” she said above the afternoon bustle of her diner. “I think quality of life—it needs to step it up a little bit. I think with Joe being from the Harbor area, he knows a lot about the communities in Wilmington, San Pedro and Harbor City. He’s going to address those issues.”
And she’s willing to wait. “I feel that he needs his fair share of time, ‘cause I know our city is very desperate right now with money,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of the services we need, so he’s got a lot on his plate. But if he makes it through these 18 months and we elect him again, I think that he’d serve our city and our district well.”
When he talks about his recent campaign success, Buscaino doesn’t take that community support for granted. He seems in awe still of the grassroots effort that landed him in his new seat. Fellow Councilman Paul Krekorian can relate.
“It reminded me very much of the way that I got elected to this office, based on the strength and support of people in neighborhoods as opposed to special interests in City Hall,” he said last week, having just stepped out of council chambers. “I think that’s going to be a terrific starting point for his service here. It gives him an ability to be an independent voice who speaks firmly and loudly and assertively on behalf of his constituents.”
The two councilmen will serve on Public Works and Public Safety together. “I’m very much looking forward to working with Joe. I think we kind of came from the same place. We’re gonna be able to work very closely together to try to bring reform to the way city government delivers services to the people.”
And like Jones, Krekorian was prepared to be patient with the new guy. “It’s a new system to try to understand, trying to get your arms around all the issues and the processes here. It’s difficult. But if he brings the same kind of energy to this job that he brought to his campaign, which I know he will, I have no doubt that he’s going to perform exceptionally well and make a real difference right from the get-go.”
And on Tuesday, as he walks quickly from his committee meeting toward the horseshoe of the John Ferraro Council Chamber, that enthusiasm comes through as an almost boy-like wonder. Staff members practically jog to keep up with his long strides as they give him breathless last-minute briefings, but he’s gazing up at the columns and chandeliers inside City Hall. The small-town guy from San Pedro still can’t believe this is his office.
Deputy Chief Gannon said that’s a character trait that has continued to serve him well. “I’ll probably always see Joe as a young guy, but that kind of youthful enthusiasm has never left,” he said of his one-time protégé. “There’s nothing that he doesn’t think could be accomplished if you just work hard enough.
“And he’s already fighting for people, he’s already fighting for his constituency—he’s trying to fight for what’s right. I think the world of him, I really do.”
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: The Morning Commute - San Pedro To City Hall