Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, an 81-year-old fiscal conservative who has represented the San Fernando Valley for three decades, announced Friday that he intends to run for mayor--bringing the crowded field of candidates to 26.
In a surprise announcement, Bernardi--nicknamed Mr. No because of his tendency to oppose spending programs--said he is entering the race because other candidates have failed to address issues that are important to him, most of which deal with slashing the size and cost of government.
"This city has been so wonderful to me that I feel obligated to help out," Bernardi said, maintaining that his maturity is needed to guide the city through a "municipal storm" of budget deficits and urban turmoil.
Bernardi's entry was unexpected. His previous announcement that he is retiring from his 7th District council seat this year had been interpreted as signaling the end of a City Hall career that began in 1961. Before going into politics, he had been a saxophonist in Big Band era orchestras and a home builder.
Bernardi's health has been an issue in recent months. In October, the councilman, who wears special headphones in council meetings because of a hearing disability, underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his intestines.
But he said Friday that he has been given a clean bill of health by his doctor and is ready to run. "I don't feel any different than I did before the operation," Bernardi said.
"I'm 81 years of age and people of that age have been able to serve long and well in the past. Age depends on what's upstairs and what's in your gut--and on those accounts I'm a lot younger than most of the other candidates."
But Bernardi has been criticized as out of touch because of his age.
In August, 1989, Bernardi called Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, an African-American, "curly" during an emotionally charged discussion of police racism in a committee meeting. The remark was interpreted as condescending and racist by Ridley-Thomas, who rebuked Bernardi.
Bernardi apologized, saying he had no racist intent. But some critics contended that the remark showed that as an aging white man, he lacks modern-day sensitivity.
Bernardi said he will run a low-budget campaign. "I think all the high-priced political consultants have already been hired by the other candidates," Bernardi chuckled. "So I won't have any of those.
"I don't need $2 million to run for election," Bernardi said, referring to a city law that tries to limit mayoral candidates to spending $2 million each. "I'm going to run this campaign like I have all my others--with volunteers."
Bernardi said he will campaign to have the City Council take over the city's powerful Community Redevelopment Agency, now governed by a seven-member board largely answerable to the mayor.
But Bernardi said he would also seek to eliminate many of the CRA's projects, particularly in downtown Los Angeles. By doing so, millions of dollars in property tax revenues that go to the agency could be channeled to the city of Los Angeles to pay for police and fire services, he said.
In a familiar refrain, Bernardi said he will campaign to block enactment of a measure on the April ballot to raise taxes to pay for hiring 1,000 police officers. Such a measure is "way premature," Bernardi said. A cheaper alternative would be to set aside additional money to pay overtime to current officers, he said.
Paying for extra police services, he said, can be accomplished now by eliminating useless city operations, including the city's Board of Public Works, and by privatizing the city's rubbish collection service.