Oral Histories

Interview of Thomas J. LaBonge

4th District Los Angeles City Council member from 2001 to 2015.
Politics and Government
Biographical Note:
4th District Los Angeles City Council member from 2001 to 2015.
Nicolaides, Becky
LaBonge, Thomas J.
Persons Present:
LaBonge and Nicolaides.
Place Conducted:
LaBonge’s home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Becky Nicolaides, UCLA Center for Oral History Research; Ph.D., U.S. History, Columbia University. Nicolaides has published a book and articles on the history of Los Angeles, has taught L.A. history courses at UC San Diego and UCLA, and has consulted on numerous cultural resources projects on Los Angeles history.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. LaBonge did not review the transcript, and therefore some proper names may remain unverified.
10.75 hrs.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Irish and German ancestral roots and family roots in Los Angeles--Childhood in Los Angeles and Silver Lake--Large extended, Catholic family lives across Los Angeles County--Father, a newspaper reporter, takes kids around Los Angeles--Works in print shop as a teenager--Mother’s roots in Lincoln Heights--Father’s death in 1971 affects the family--Grows up in Silver Lake with eight brothers and large extended family--Importance of Catholic church in family’s life--Nuns, including LaBonge’s aunt, at Immaculate Heart Convent in Los Feliz play key part in community life--Grows up in a non-partisan household, though parents embraced John F. Kennedy--Religious diversity in Silver Lake during teenage years--Attends concerts around Los Angeles as a teen--Hippies congregate at the Griffith Park merry-go-round--Parents teach kids value of helping neighbors--Silver Lake as a haven for gay people--Ethnic and racial diversity of Silver Lake is reflected in the public schools LaBonge attends--Finishes high school early because of a school fight--Challenges and positive experiences in high school--Recalls day his father died of a heart attack--Plays football at Marshall High with some personal success--Camaraderie of football team, a diverse group--Avoids being drafted for Vietnam War because draft ends--Busing does not affect Marshall High School because it is already diverse--Holds odd jobs as a teenager--In 1972 attends first community meeting, which sparks his civic interest--Coaches football and runs gym at Marshall High, leading to job in Los Angeles Councilmember Peggy Stevenson’s office--Plays football at Los Angeles City College and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo--Former NFL player and Marshall High teacher Milt Davis mentors him--Works in summer youth employment program for Los Angeles cleaning up streets--Works 2.5 years as staffer for Councilmember Peggy Stevenson (13th district)--After traveling for 11 weeks, joins staff of Los Angeles Councilman John Ferraro (4th district)--Serves on Mayor Tom Bradley’s Youth Council for two years.
Neighborhood life in Silver Lake as a youngster--Develops interest in photography in early 1970s--Diverse student body at Ivanhoe Elementary School--Some race intermingling at schools growing up--Important role of Griffith Park since childhood--Photography becomes a passion--Participates in Mayor Tom Bradley’s Youth Council in 1974, a training ground for future Los Angeles politicians--Works for John Ferraro, serving constituent needs--Admires and learns from John Ferraro, a fellow football player--Redistricting of 4th District makes for easy transition because of LaBonge’s familiarity with remaining district, especially Silver Lake, Hollywood, and North Hollywood--Importance of proportionality for fostering responsive government--As a staffer for Ferraro, works on parks, libraries, and fire stations--Importance of personal relations in getting things done--Proposition 13 puts strain on services--Attends 1984 Olympics alongside Ferraro--Rodney King video and 1992 uprising--Tensions exacerbated by rift between Mayor Tom Bradley and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Daryl Gates--Works in the field during the 1992 uprising--Meets President George H.W. Bush--Joins staff of Mayor Richard Riordan in 1993--1994 earthquake helps Los Angeles come together--Importance of “elevated demand” of community members--Importance of keeping neighborhoods functioning well--Public-facing city workers, especially police and fire recruits, should get to know Los Angeles more thoroughly--Forces that fed into the 1992 riots--Development and housing issues in 4th district--Public-private partnerships in developments--Differs with Ferraro on building Wilshire Boulevard metro--After working for Mayor Richard Riordan, lands a job at the Department of Water and Power.
Meets and marries Brigid Manning, then has two children--Civic engagement in Silver Lake on Marshall High, Griffith Park, and reservoirs--Children attend Catholic school--Receives phone calls to John Ferraro from Los Angeles power elite--Learns from Ferraro--Manages homelessness in 4th council district as staffer for Ferraro--Runs for Los Angeles City Council (13th district) in 1993--In runoff against Jackie Goldberg, emphasizes basic services; loses narrowly--Joins Mayor Richard Riordan’s staff as director of field operations--Implements “City at Work” program to familiarize Riordan with on-the-ground operations in Los Angeles--Role of partisan politics in decision to join Republican Riordan’s staff--President Bill Clinton uses Riordan’s office as a staging area for a Kathleen Brown campaign event in 1994--Hires field deputies for the mayor’s office--Response to 1994 earthquake by mayor’s staff restores public faith in Los Angeles and brings unity--Appointed to be special assistant to the mayor--Importance of philanthropists like Pam Mullen--Deals with disagreements with Riordan--Embraces “broken windows” concept of law enforcement--Learns from and assesses Richard Riordan--Works for Department of Water and Power (DWP) as director of community relations--Death of John Ferraro in 2001--Decides to run for Los Angeles City Council (4th district) in 2001--Campaign for city council emphasizes personally connecting with voters in the district.
Heads up community relations at the Department of Water and Power--Wins city council seat for 4th district in 2001--Diversity within the district--Fights secession movement--Describes his idea for decentralized “city halls” across Los Angeles--Establishes his goals and staff for city council--Shortcomings of neighborhood council system in practice--Thoughts on LAPD and its challenges--Continues to support “broken windows” approach--Early embrace of Griffith Park and involvement on Griffith Park Action Council--Works to expand and improve Griffith Park--Disappointment over his staff’s failure to secure land near Lake Hollywood--Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ failure to promote nature zones in Los Angeles, especially in Griffith Park--Beachwood Canyon conflict over access to public areas--Challenges of balancing needs of homeowners versus the public’s desire for access to pathways to the Hollywood sign--Importance of Griffith Park as an experiential site for all people--Future improvements needed in Griffith Park--Griffith Park as a site that promotes emotional and physical health--Leads “Hike for Health” for Los Angeles school children.
Challenges of economic and community development in the built-up 4th district--Importance of protecting neighborhoods and local control--Improvement of one neighborhood has an effect on surrounding areas--Top priority as city councilman is to provide excellent municipal services in his district--Supports development projects of Jerry Snyder along Wilshire Boulevard and in North Hollywood--Admires developments that provide large setbacks, ample public space, and adaptive re-use--Supports film studios and their expansion in order to strengthen that economic sector in Los Angeles--Helps with expansion of Paramount and Universal Studios--LaBonge’s idea for a Universal Studios ride on L.A. River does not materialize--Challenges of housing development in Cahuenga Pass/Lake Hollywood area--Incestuous relationship between land owners, architect, builder, and building department--Discussions over possible breakup up of West Hollywood precede its incorporation--Takes various approaches to homelessness in 4th district--City needs better direction on the homelessness issue--Potential role of religious institutions in tackling homelessness crisis--Supports LAPD by finding land for Olympic Station--Recognizes strengths and weaknesses of LAPD--Poverty changes in 4th district over time, but need for good services remains--Sees both sides on the “sanctuary city” issue--In pushing for Metro expansion through Wilshire, deals with community and political resistance--Conflicts over Los Angeles River--Focuses on securing suitable infrastructure around LA River--Facilitates “Urban Light” installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by permanently closing Ogden Street--Secures power distribution station for Wilshire Boulevard--Career goal to enhance experience of Los Angeles for residents and tourists--Regrets not documenting his work more effectively, given his emphasis on face-to-face meetings--Promotes sister city program of Los Angeles--Delivers greetings from Los Angeles to 40,000 at 50th anniversary of Berlin Airlift--Changes to the Los Angeles City Council over 40 years, including more council members coming from Sacramento rather than city council staffs--Life after city council service--Challenges around the retention of his office records--Lacked proper direction from city officials at the time--LaBonge’s biggest accomplishments in public service.