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Decision '93 / A Look at the Elections in Los Angeles County : Los Angeles Mayor : Separated from the pack by their public service, 11 candidates are given a fighting chance to win a runoff spot. : Ernani Bernardi : Council's Dean Targets the CRA

April 11, 1993|RICHARD SIMON

Ernani Bernardi, the dean of the Los Angeles City Council, isn't letting his age get in the way of his long-shot bid to be mayor.

Although some question whether Bernardi, at 81, could handle the demands of the office, the candidate bristles at such concerns.

"Listen, I got more guts and more gumption than all those other deadheads put together," he said.

Bernardi's late entry into the 24-candidate race was a surprise. After surviving a tough reelection campaign in 1989, the San Fernando Valley lawmaker said this would be his last council term.

He has curtailed his daily schedule because his wife of 59 years, Lucille, has been ill. And last fall, Bernardi--who wears headphones during council meetings because of a hearing disability--underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his intestines.

But the mayoral campaign offered the ex-Big-Band saxophonist a last opportunity to crusade for his pet causes--most notably halting the diversion of tax money for downtown redevelopment.

First elected to the City Council in 1961, Bernardi is regarded as the naysayer of City Hall because of his habitual "no" votes, usually against spending proposals. He is a contrary and unpredictable loner given to berating his colleagues in public and unwilling to cut political deals. Consequently, he has rarely been a political force.

Nonetheless, he has had his victories. The biggest was probably his sponsorship of a 1985 voter-approved law limiting city campaign contributions.

After working unsuccessfully for a decade to curb the flow of money from special interests into campaigns, Bernardi joined with the League of Women Voters and other citizens--mostly retirees living in his district--to qualify a contribution-limit measure for the ballot. It was approved overwhelmingly.

Along with Councilman Joel Wachs, Bernardi championed city rent control. And he sponsored the first law of its kind in a big city requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities at City Hall.

As the council's leading critic of the Community Redevelopment Agency, he successfully sued to place a cap on spending for downtown renewal.

The agency has been at the center of his campaign. In fact he has had little to say on other issues, specifically refusing to give prescriptions for Los Angeles's many problems on the grounds that he does not want to tie his hands.

He hammers at the CRA, saying it is wasteful, keeps property off the tax rolls too long, subsidizes unworthy projects and is mainly interested in perpetuating itself.

Bernardi is not without critics. A union leader said, "He can sometimes be a shrill, cantankerous little guy . . . a knee-jerk negative vote for no good reason at all."

But this is the same man who one Christmas cooked beans for the homeless in the City Hall kitchen.

The son of Italian immigrants, Bernardi was born in the living quarters of a small grocery store his family owned in Standard, Ill. His mother died giving birth to him, and he was raised by his father and grandmother.

He began playing saxophone as a boy, and as a young man he performed with Benny Goodman and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. He wrote the arrangements for Tommy Dorsey's "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" and Goodman's "And the Angels Sing." He came to California in 1940 with Kay Kyser's "Kollege of Musical Knowledge," a group that entertained audiences with music and gags.

Bernardi gave up the Big Bands in the late 1940s for a career as a custom-home builder.

Ernani Bernardi Born: Oct. 29, 1911. Residence: Van Nuys. Education: Attended University of Detroit. Career Highlights: Jazz musician, 1927-1947; building contractor, 1947-1961; city councilman, 1961 to present. Interests: City government, music. Family: Married, four children.

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