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JOHN FERRARO : A Team Player, His Self-Effacing Demeanor Proves to Be a Drawback in Hard Campaign Scrimmaging

March 31, 1985|JANET CLAYTON | Times Staff Writer

The mayoral election debate between incumbent Tom Bradley and Councilman John Ferraro had just ended. The two men shook hands, although their sharp exchanges had been a touch personal.

During the sparring, Bradley had made several attacks, implying that Ferraro was not intelligent enough to read, and saying, among other things, that the councilman had accomplished nothing significant in his nearly two decades in office, and hinting that he had some kind of sweetheart real estate deal with the federal government. What had bothered Ferraro most?

"Well, I tried to control myself," Ferraro said. "But when he accused me of being against the Raiders (bringing the professional football team to Los Angeles), that was too much. . . ."

The 6-foot, 4 1/2-inch Ferraro, "Big John" to many of his friends and fans from the days when he was an All-American tackle at USC, sometimes plays into the image that many have of him. "The big part of John is his heart, not his brain," as one longtime City Hall acquaintance put it.

He further adds to the image by making self-effacing remarks, such as joking during a council meeting that a measure is so simple "even I can understand it," or, "I said to myself, 'John, tell them all you know, it'll only take two minutes.' "

Yet Ferraro was a highly successful insurance broker before he was first appointed to the City Council in 1966 and made numerous shrewd investments in stocks and real estate that he acknowledges made him a millionaire. "But a million isn't much these days," he adds.

'Never Got Any Glory'

Ferraro, 60, is uncomfortable promoting himself. When he discusses his 19 years on the City Council, he talks most about being a team player. "I was a tackle," he says, comparing his tenure on the council to his days on the playing field. "Sure, we never got any glory, no headlines, and that has been my philosophy."

That philosophy has been, he admits, a drawback in his uphill campaign to defeat three-term incumbent Bradley in the April 9 primary election. Results of a recent Los Angeles Times Poll indicate that 40% of the voters do not know who Ferraro is.

"He used to think that starting something with a big splash, the speech-making that goes with that, is grandstanding," said longtime friend and political consultant Joe Cerrell. "As an innovator, that's not his strong suit. In council, his idea of starting something is to pass off a good idea to the chairman of the appropriate committee to deal with it. He wouldn't parlay that into additional power or headlines."

"It's like in a basketball game," Cerrell continued. "People remember who made the baskets, not the assists."

'Fair, Square Guy'

Nearly everyone, it seems, comes up with a sports analogy when they talk about Ferraro. Jim Hardy, a former USC teammate and now general manager for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, calls Ferraro "the kind of fair, square guy that if he has a beef with you he's going to slug it out with you on the 50-yard line." The constant sports analogies spring from Ferraro's own self-image as being primarily an athlete, then a businessman, councilman and family man.

Those who are close to Ferraro, and even some who are not, note his devotion to his second wife, Margaret, who was stricken two years ago with an aneurysm that left her partially disabled.

Margaret Ferraro, a salty, candid woman in her late 50s, is the former Margie Hart, a well-known New York exotic dancer and stripteaser during the Gypsy Rose Lee days. Her costumes of the 1940s, she noted, "weren't as brief as some of today's bikinis--at least, most of them weren't."

But she makes no apologies about her former job, for which she was immortalized in Life magazine as a stripping Scarlett O'Hara and in a Danny Kaye song that talked about farmers who "used to utterly utter when Margie Hart churned her butter."

'Still Feels Good'

The couple met about 20 years ago at a reception in support of Democrat Pierre Salinger's unsuccessful Senate campaign. She later saw Ferraro at a luncheon at a downtown restaurant. "I bumped into him, purposely of course, in the elevator, and it felt good," she recalls, smiling. "It still feels good."

They dated for several years before marrying in 1982. In 1979, she nursed him back to health after Ferraro suffered a heart attack and had open-heart surgery. He, in turn, has had an elevator installed in their Hancock Park home to help her.

Margaret Ferraro says her husband's strongest attribute is his loyalty and she "never forgave those we feel betrayed him," referring to his losing battle to hang onto the council presidency in 1983. Even now, when she sees a councilman and former friend who voted against Ferraro in that battle, she says she smiles politely and says "Judas" under her breath.

"John is a straightforward guy," she said. "He has this old-fashioned code of ethics: You do right by him, he'll do right by you. He's strong that way. He's my Italian bull."

Depression-Era Youth

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