Issue: Spring 2015
By Shauna McClure.
It's hard to find anyone in Los Angeles-especially within the boundaries of City Council District 4-that does not have a story about Councilman Tom LaBonge. It's harder still to find someone who doesn't whip out their cell phone to show a photograph of Tom when he led a nature hike in Griffith Park, paid a visit to their sick grandpa, belted out an Elvis tune on stage at the Avalon, showed up to rally support and kick off a community block party. If someone was truly capable of being in two or more places at the same time-that someone would be Tom LaBonge.
In a town known for celebrity and mega box-office blockbusters, LaBonge comes with his own tagline-"Let's continue to enjoy and love the great City of Los Angeles!" LaBonge is a Los Angeles native son, and his history in Los Angeles is as deep as his love of the city. He is the seventh of eight boys, and family is a touchstone for him. His Irish grandfather was a Los Angeles police officer; another set of German grandparents lived downtown where City Hall now stands. A resident of Silver Lake whose family first came to Los Angeles in the late 1880s, he graduated from Ivanhoe Elementary School in 1965, Thomas Starr King Middle School in 1968 and John Marshall High School in 1971-all in Silver Lake.
At Marshall, LaBonge played football, eventually going on to captain the varsity team and later playing for Los Angeles City College and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. LaBonge's energy and enthusiasm on the field helped win him a job with NFL Films where he spent 24 seasons as an assistant cameraman.
Anyone who meets LaBonge will be asked two questions: Where do you live, and where'd you go to high school? Although the borders of LaBonge's district were redrawn in 2011, it's not just the sprawling 4th (which stretches from Miracle Mile, Hancock Park, Hollywood, Silver Lake, Griffith Park, Laurel Canyon and the southern part of Coldwater Canyon Drive to Toluca Lake and Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley) that he knows or cares passionately about. He has an encyclopedic knowledge about neighborhoods throughout all of Los Angeles. He's a born storyteller, and he seems to have been born to tell the story of Los Angeles.
Chris Laib, who has known LaBonge for fifteen years, remarked that LaBonge has been an omnipresent public servant during his tenure at City Hall. "He is on the job 24/7 and a consummate public servant." Laib, president of the Los Feliz Improvement Association and Friends Of The Observatory board member, has high hopes that LaBonge will continue to represent Los Angeles in some capacity. "Nobody in Los Angeles is a better ambassador for this city."
LaBonge is an assiduous student of history-particularly the history of Los Angeles, and he makes an exceptionally good tour guide. On his sunrise hikes through Griffith Park his conversation flows easily from the local flora and fauna to stories of old Hollywood glamour and the stars and starlets who used to sneak away to the park for a bit of privacy. His energy and unbridled enthusiasm are infectious. How could anyone resist a guy who hands out calendars filled with his own photographs of Los Angeles, and shows up at a celebration with a gift of a loaf of pumpkin bread he buys from the Dominican nuns at the Monastery of the Angels in Hollywood?
LaBonge credits his family as his inspiration and sense of civic responsibility. He believes passionately in helping people, building coalitions with community activists and developing programs and policies to improve the lives of constituents. His advocacy on behalf of residents goes back to his teen years serving on Mayor Tom Bradley's Youth Advisory Council. Indeed, LaBonge has often spoken about his civic spirit being ignited as a teenager when he served on Mayor Tom Bradley's Youth Council, and said he knew from the beginning that his life's work would involve serving the people of the Los Angeles.
Isaac Burks, LaBonge's Deputy of Arts and Culture, believes that Tom's character and loyalty have been key elements in his success. Burks met LaBonge in 1986, when Burks was a firefighter in Silver Lake. In 2008, when Burks retired, LaBonge asked him to join his staff. Burks recalls being reluctant at first, but LaBonge wouldn't take no for an answer. Burks has never looked back. "It has been a great experience working for the Councilman and being part of his staff. His office and staff are like no other because of his devotion to serve the people." Burks feels LaBonge's persistence and energy will leave a lasting impression on the city.
"I have been able to see the man's tenacity for being a servant of the people of Los Angeles," Burks remarked, "He has worn his colors on his sleeve so all could see. When he exits his seat at City Council, the next elected member of CD-4 should have a great template to follow."
Tom's wife, Brigid Manning LaBonge, is excited about what the future holds. They have spent a lifetime of public service together, having met years ago listening to the late great Hoyt Axton at the Palomino Club in the Valley. "I am very proud of Tom's accomplishments in Los Angeles for the last 14 years -he has worked with great integrity, loyalty, and joy. His time in office has provided teaching moments for all four of us. Our children grew up learning everything there is to know about volunteerism, service, and civic pride. "
LaBonge has not made a public announcement of what comes next for him, although there has been no shortage of public speculation. He leaves office July 1. Voters will be choosing between candidates David Ryu and Carolyn Ramsay, LaBonge's former chief of staff, who is no stranger to City Hall and the art of constituent services.
It is certainly the end of an era, but it not farewell. LaBonge will stay in our hearts and our hills and we know we'll be seeing him in all the old familiar places. DH
Images Courtesy of Isaac Burks and CD4