On the next to last day of his historic, 32-year career as a Los Angeles city councilman, Ernani Bernardi read the front-page news describing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the racially motivated creation of North Carolina's serpentine 12th Congressional District, and he fired out his last news release.
For a man who was notorious for voting no, this was a resounding "yes."
"Thank God for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on redistricting. Now, we can go back to making the United States of America what the founding fathers intended it to be, 'One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.' We still have a long way to go, but one almost insurmountable block to our ever achieving that goal has been eliminated."
Retirement was just a day away for the 81-year-old councilman, but Bernardi was still pushing one of his pet projects: a proposed City Charter amendment that would strip elected officials of the power to gerrymander. Under Bernardi's plan, a special commission of retired Municipal Court judges would handle this sensitive, important chore.
The proposal is vintage Bernardi. If his 32 years of no votes mean anything, it's this: Whenever possible, don't trust the politicians.
Politicians don't often inspire genuine sentimentality. In a city as troubled as Los Angeles, the accolades accorded Mayor Tom Bradley and his 20-year tenure seem a bit out of tune. But it's hard not to have a soft spot for Bernardi.
Maybe I'm biased. It seems longer ago than it is, but I covered the City Council in that bygone era when Zev Yaroslavsky was the rising star, Mike Woo was a rookie, and Dick Riordan was some rich guy on the Coliseum Commission. My two favorite characters were the blustery old-timers--the late Gilbert Lindsay and Bernardi. The consummate pol from downtown whose influence-peddling was the stuff of legend, and the anti-councilman from the Valley who couldn't be bought.
Whenever Lindsay would rant and rave and remind the whippersnappers around him how long he'd been on the council, it obviously chafed him that one member had been there longer. "I've been here longer than any of you!" he'd roar. Then he'd acknowledge, softly and quickly, " 'cept Bernardi."
Then Gil would rant some more as Ernie turned and gave me a grin.
When Bernardi addressed the council, it was to rail against the Community Redevelopment Agency and lobbyists and politics as usual. He voted against the grain so often that some people called him "the conscience of the council." That label became a cliche. To critics, being a naysayer gave him the rap of an curmudgeonly, ineffectual representative.
That latter description does wonders for percolating Bernardi's blood. Recently, he issued a three-page list of legislative accomplishments. His theme was populist: pro-rent control, anti-lobbyist, pro-election reform. He was the first to support a number of ideas that, in time, won wide approval. He says he tried to defend the little guy, to level the playing field.
The rights of the individual are foremost, he says, which is why he wants politicians out of the redistricting business. It is, as Bernardi suggests, an obvious conflict of interest. Just look at how the Democrats and Republicans always succeed in creating a large number of "safe" seats for themselves or their party. Only a few incumbents, often those out of favor, are placed in jeopardy. The principle of self-preservation also prevails in such nonpartisan bodies as the City Council.
In applauding the Supreme Court's decision in the North Carolina case, Bernardi doesn't hesitate to step into the minefield of racial politics. The court essentially ruled that North Carolina went too far in creating a bizarrely shaped district to address complaints that African-Americans, who comprise 20% of the state's population, have little chance of representing the state in Congress.
Bernardi argues that if districts are established on simple terms--such as population size and simply understood boundaries--issues of diversity will resolve themselves. The anti-politician expresses the faith that the citizenry, regardless of hue, is not particularly racist in casting ballots. He notes that Los Angeles, a city that since 1970 has never been more than 17.3% black, chose an African-American as mayor in five consecutive elections.
Disgust in his voice, Bernardi rails against the way race shapes redistricting. He mutters about "this idea that you can turn people into sheep and corral them into an area and dictate them how to vote.
"They're just like anybody else," he adds. "They make up their own minds."
It's fitting, then, that the Valley's first Latino council representative, Richard Alarcon, would be Bernardi's successor in the blue-collar 7th District. This area, stretching from Van Nuys to Sylmar, is 70% Latino, but its registered voters are 39% Anglo, 30% Latino and 19% African-American.
So the key to Alarcon's narrow victory over Fire Department Capt. Lyle Hall, who is white, wasn't just his strong get-out-the-vote drive in the Latino community, but his appeal to whites, blacks and Asians as well.
Bernardi, who withstood a strong challenge from Hall four years ago, didn't endorse either candidate. He got angry with an Alarcon mailer quoting Bernardi's criticism of Hall four years ago.
But now Bernardi says he's impressed with the new 7th District councilman.
"After watching him campaign, I think the people made the right choice. He's young, he's aggressive, he's smart."
The ex-anti-politician offers a parting bit of advice.
"He's got to treat everybody alike."