Ever since the Northridge quake, Hal Bernson has had every right to say, "I told you so."
After all, he has been the most avid proponent of seismic safety on the Los Angeles City Council for more than a decade, spearheading a slew of safety-minded ordinances, including a widely copied law requiring the retrofitting of thousands of unreinforced masonry buildings.
But Bernson has not slowed down to gloat. He has been too busy leading a city panel on earthquake recovery, representing the city on the state's Seismic Safety Commission to promote new safety laws, not to mention patching up his own quake-damaged home and field office.
Not surprisingly, the quake has turned the spotlight on this San Fernando Valley councilman who has won the respect of seismic experts statewide and the nickname "Mr. Earthquake" at City Hall.
A former business owner with 15 years on the council, Bernson has surprised some of his council colleagues by doggedly battling business interests and a reluctant city bureaucracy to enact often costly safety laws, such as a requirement that smoke detectors be installed in hotels, apartments and homes.
But he is also known by critics and supporters alike as a man with a volatile temper, a tenacious politician with little tolerance for bureaucratic delays and council members who question his efforts.
"Hal's got a short fuse," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who counts himself as a Bernson supporter. "I think he'd be better off if he were a little more patient with the staff and the public."
Last month, Bernson gave Councilman Marvin Braude a severe tongue-lashing at a council meeting after Braude spoke up against a Bernson proposal to allow a private firm to haul away quake debris by rail. "Shame on you! Shame on you!" Bernson said, leaving Braude at a loss for words.
Stocky, with dark, thinning hair and a serious gaze, Bernson concedes that he sometimes lets his frustration get the better of him. But he makes no apologies for doggedly pursuing the policies he thinks will make the city safer.
"We all get frustrated sometimes if we feel that people are not listening to us . . . about something that is very important to us," he said in an interview at his Northridge office. "But I don't think I've been abusive. . . . I'm a goal-oriented person."
With quake safety his strongest suit, it was ironic that Bernson's northwest Valley district suffered the most in the temblor. Quake damage forced Bernson to abandon his Granada Hills home for five days. At his Northridge office, photos and mementos that were thrown off the walls are still stacked along the floorboards.
The son of Romanian and Polish immigrants, Harold M. Bernson, 63, spent 30 years selling suits and custom T-shirts in the Valley before he ran for his first council term in 1979.
Bernson reluctantly entered politics, he said, when he was challenged by friends and associates to seek a seat left vacant by retiring Councilman Robert Wilkinson.
His conservative, pro-business profile fit his mostly middle-class suburban district well, and he won his first two reelection bids with comfortable margins.
But he ran into trouble during his 1991 reelection bid when he was forced into a close runoff with school board member Julie Korenstein, who harshly criticized Bernson for backing the sprawling Porter Ranch commercial-industrial project above Chatsworth.
But he shrugs off suggestions that his political hold on the district has been weakened, attributing the close race to a slew of misinformation by his opponents and a general anti-incumbency feeling pervading the state.
It's unclear whether he can transform his post-quake notoriety into votes in 1995 when he seeks reelection, probably for the last time.
Throughout the years, Bernson has toyed with the idea of running for higher office but never followed through.
(The political watchdog organization California Common Cause criticized Bernson for opening the campaign fund in 1989 for lieutenant governor, suggesting that the fund was designed to circumvent the city's campaign contribution limits--a charge Bernson has rejected.)
Bernson no longer seriously considers running for higher office. "I'm not hoping to go anywhere else," Bernson said. "This is my home. This is where I live, where my family lives and my friends, and I just want it to be a better place in the future."
Looking back on his tenure, Bernson recalls beginning his crusade almost by accident. During his first year on the council, he was assigned to chair the Building and Safety Committee, a post without prestige usually handed off to freshman lawmakers.
It was there that he came upon some seismic safety measures proposed after the 1971 Sylmar quake but never enacted. One proposed ordinance required seismic strengthening of all buildings constructed of unreinforced masonry.