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Lagomarsino Remains a Force in Retirement

Politics: Despite some regret, former mayor, state senator and congressman has come to enjoy life outside public service.

November 29, 1998|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOLIMAR BEACH — In this season of political beginnings, as newly elected officials are sworn in, former Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino still feels a twinge of eagerness and regret six years after leaving public office.

"It's easier now for me to say that I don't miss it," the lean 72-year-old said as he strolled the sun-splashed deck of his oceanfront home with wife Norma and his two Labrador retrievers. "But I do miss the action and the people and being able to get things done."

Lagomarsino held elected office for 34 years in a row--as Ojai mayor, state senator and congressman before being abruptly bounced from office by a young, oil-rich Republican who spent $3 million to defeat a member of his own party. That loss to Michael Huffington, who was later defeated in a race for the U. S. Senate, left Ventura County's most venerable public official with a lingering feeling of unfinished business--and a hint of bitterness.

"My wife says he did us a favor," Lagomarsino said last week, savoring the bright sun and warm breezes. "But my feelings about him are no less intense today. Last I heard, he was making movies somewhere in L. A. His wife divorced him. He probably wouldn't have run without her pushing him."

As much as Lagomarsino reveled in his public role, he has come to enjoy his own form of active retirement.

"He could take to anything," his wife said. "He's just the easiest man in the world. He never procrastinates. He just does what he's supposed to do."

He hunts with his dogs at the Ventura County Duck Club near Point Mugu. He breaks away to catch salmon in Alaska. When the sea is calm, he kayaks out from the blue, two-story house he built behind gates at the water's edge to drop a fishing line.

The grandson of an 1890s Ventura pioneer from Italy, Lagomarsino is active in his family's vast farming operations in Monterey County and helps run the fast-growing Ventura bank that his father, Emilio, helped found 25 years ago.

And he is still a forceful presence in local public life.

He is a strong backer of the new Cal State campus in Ventura County, which he first proposed in a state Senate bill in 1961. He is a member of a lobbying group trying to save the Point Mugu and Port Hueneme Navy stations as the Pentagon closes costly military bases.

Director of Ventura CSUN Campus

He is a director of the National Park Trust, the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, Friends of the Channel Islands, the World Affairs Council and the Ventura Campus of Cal State Northridge.

In the fall election, he spoke out against SOAR ballot measures preventing cities from developing farmland outside their boundaries without voter approval. His side lost.

"We're going to have a university so our kids won't have to go away to a four-year college," he said. "But when they graduate, there won't be jobs for them here and they won't be able to afford a home. And that's thanks to SOAR."

Lagomarsino also spent $5,000 to host a $500-a-plate fund-raiser for unsuccessful Republican Assembly candidate Chris Mitchum. He labels eventual winner Hannah-Beth Jackson "very liberal and a trial lawyer and supported by unions, a lot of things I don't like."

Despite a reputation as a moderate because of his environmental work, Lagomarsino said he has always been a conservative. He opposes abortion and never saw a gun-control law he liked except for the Brady Bill, passed after a would-be assassin wounded then-President Ronald Reagan.

He considers former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to be a brilliant revolutionary. But he thinks that Gingrich was wise to step down after Republicans lost several congressional seats this month.

In his first months in Congress, Lagomarsino suffered through the final days of President Richard Nixon's presidency. So he says part of him would like to see the Clinton scandal go away.

"But I probably would vote for impeachment to go forward," he said. "To do otherwise is to condone lying under oath. Either way, I think it will be over by the end of the year."

Lagomarsino's passions today are not centered on national politics or his former life as a lawmaker.

He works 10 to 15 hours a week on his various businesses and directorships. He is vice chairman at Ventura-based American Commercial Bank, the largest locally owned financial institution. Its pending merger with Oxnard-based Channel Islands National Bank is of particular interest to him.

Lagomarsino, whose family owns about 15% of American Commercial, says the new bank will have at least six branches and assets of about $240 million.

But he still has plenty of time to enjoy life away from work. And outside of Norma, his wife of 38 years, he may take his greatest pleasure in his two yellow retrievers.

He got Missy Miller Lowenbrau--named for beer his distributorship then sold--from staff members the night they said goodbye to the man they referred to affectionately as "Lago."

"I said, 'Norma, what are we going to do with a dog?' " he recalled. "She said, 'You know, we can do anything we want to do.' "

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