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Bernardi Continues His Long Solo in City Politics : Campaign: Councilman's age and role as a naysayer have some wondering how effective he could be as mayor.

THE NEXT MAYOR. Profiles of the major L.A. candidates. One in a series.

March 22, 1993|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is older than City Hall itself.

So it was quite a surprise to most political observers when Ernani Bernardi, the crusty 81-year-old dean of the Los Angeles City Council, jumped into the fast-paced mayoral derby.

Campaigning at voter forums, Bernardi frequently anticipates--and seeks to overcome--the major doubt surrounding his candidacy.

"Want to ask about my age?" he snaps.

Then, referring to his foes in the race, he adds: "Listen, I got more guts and more gumption than all these other deadheads put together."

In a recent interview, the 32-year council veteran said his doctor has declared him physically fit for the demands of the mayor's office. And gerontologists say that many people in their 80s and 90s perform well in important jobs.

Dr. Gene Cohen, acting director of the National Institute on Aging, said: "You have to be very careful about generalizing (about the elderly) because it is a group that ranges from being in the nursing home to on the Supreme Court."

Still, reflecting on the demands of the city's top elective post, Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani said: "It's got to be tough for someone in his 80s to be contemplating this kind of job."

As it is, Bernardi has been spending less time at City Hall in recent months, often arriving after 10 a.m. and leaving before 5 p.m. to care for his ailing wife. Council President John Ferraro said his colleague--who wears headphones at meetings because of hearing problems--has "slowed down a bit."

But, Ferraro added, when an issue piques Bernardi's interest, the council's senior member jumps to his feet to speak "with the vigor he's always had."

Short, bald, bespectacled and possessing a puckish sense of humor, Bernardi is best known as the naysayer of City Hall--habitually voting against projects he considers wasteful, tinged with political cronyism or overly bureaucratic.

"I lose sleep every now and then, but it is over a 'yes' vote I cast more often than a 'no' vote," he said.

His efforts have not gone unappreciated. "He's brought a lot of things to the attention of the council" that have deserved more careful analysis, said Ferraro. "When he votes 'yes,' he's got to feel it's a 'yes' vote, not just because he's giving somebody a vote."

But this characteristic causes some to wonder how effective he could be as mayor. "Ernie is so much his own man that I think it would be difficult for him to line up the eight votes he would need to implement policies," said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter.

Bernardi has been on the short end of 14-1 roll calls on several major issues. He voted "no" on building the Metro Rail subway, "no" on establishing the downtown redevelopment project, "no" on declaring Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a city holiday. (He said that he was not opposed to recognizing the civil rights leader, but at the cost of giving city workers another day off.)

After surviving a tough reelection campaign in 1989, the Van Nuys resident announced that this would be his last council term. Then, as the filing deadline approached this year, he jumped into the mayoral race. It gave him a soapbox on which to crusade one last time for his pet causes. Indeed, he often acts as if instead of having 23 mayoral opponents, he has just one: the Community Redevelopment Agency, which he attacks every chance he gets.

Bernardi, who recently broke a kneecap after slipping on wet pavement, has been limping along with a long-shot campaign that is being run the same, unconventional way he has conducted the rest of his political life.

While his rivals stump with aides by their sides, Bernardi travels alone. He refuses to hire a professional strategist. He declines makeup for televised debates. He has yet to stage a fund-raiser. When asked about his campaign budget, he pulls out of his pocket a roll of stamps. They are used to send out his mailer--a photocopied, four-page typewritten statement.

He acknowledges the long odds against him, giving himself only "an outside chance" of being elected.

A onetime Big Band saxophonist, Bernardi was first elected to the council in 1961, before then-actor Ronald Reagan and then-police Lt. Tom Bradley began their political careers. His years on the council have set a record that is not likely to be broken in this era of term limits--a movement that Bernardi, ironically, favors.

He is contrary and unpredictable, once abruptly cutting off a news conference by loudly humming "Stars and Stripes Forever."

He is a loner given to berating his colleagues in public and unwilling to cut political deals in private. Consequently, he has rarely been a political force.

Nonetheless, he has had his share of victories.

He authored the 1985 law limiting political donations in municipal elections. He succeeded only after bypassing his colleagues--who balked at enacting campaign reforms--and enlisting the support of the League of Women Voters and a ragtag group made up mostly of retirees to qualify an initiative for the ballot.

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