City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who has been on the council 10 years, faces… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The last time City Councilman Tom LaBonge ran for office, he won 100% of the vote. That was 2007, and LaBonge ran unopposed.
This time, he faces challenges from two political newcomers who have amassed nearly $94,000 to his $174,000 in their effort to oust him.
LaBonge, who has been on the council 10 years, sat between his opponents at a packed candidate forum on a recent night in Silver Lake. He stared straight ahead, unblinking, as they took turns slamming him as an insider politician who has spent too long at City Hall.
On his left was Tomas O'Grady, a businessman and community garden volunteer who has promised to cut his salary and staff in half if elected. On his right was Stephen Box, a producer and bicycle activist who has pledged to rein in developers.
LaBonge said his career in politics — launched in 1976 in the office of Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson — is what qualifies him for the job. "I hope you realize it takes experience," he told the audience.
But some in the crowd said political experience may be a hard sell, given the city's budget crisis and frustration over cuts.
Kurt Wisner, a Silver Lake real estate broker, said he thinks a lot of voters feel distrust, especially with such news as the salary scandal in Bell. "There's such a crisis going on," Wisner said. "Everybody's looking at the council closer."
Wisner said he voted for LaBonge four years ago and thought the councilman had done a good job of delivering services in District 4, which includes parts of Koreatown, Silver Lake, Hollywood and North Hollywood. But he said he was leaning toward voting for O'Grady in the March 8 election "because sometimes new blood is good."
During the forum, held Tuesday at John Marshall High School, LaBonge's alma mater, O'Grady embraced his position as a political outsider. He described himself as naive and said the city needed a fresh perspective.
"Were the city of Los Angeles as naive as I, I think we'd have a much better city," O'Grady said.
Born in Ireland, O'Grady speaks with a lilt. He moved to the United States 20 years ago and started a business restoring brownstones in Hoboken, N.J.
In 1999, he moved to Los Feliz, where he and his wife built a "green" version of Tara, the mansion in "Gone With the Wind." The home has white columns in front and solar panels on the roof.
O'Grady, 44, whose political experience is confined to his work with the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council and the parent teacher association at his daughter's public middle school, accused LaBonge of treating his district "like a fiefdom" and dolling out special favors to political supporters.
He said road improvements and other city services should be given out equally. "It shouldn't matter whether you know Tom or not." In recorded calls to voters, O'Grady has given his home phone number.
LaBonge, 57, a gregarious former football player, is one of the most recognizable figures in city politics. A native of Silver Lake, he is known for hiking every day at sunrise in Griffith Park.
He has a knack for remembering names, a skill that was on display Tuesday when he mentioned many constituents whose problems he had helped fixed.
He also mentioned his role in saving Cahuenga Peak from development and getting the 138-acre mountaintop added to Griffith Park, as well the work he has done in revitalizing Hollywood. He said he hoped to bring more investors to Hollywood in the coming years.
Box, 53, said he wants to see real estate development in Hollywood stop.
"People who come from around the world don't come to see condo projects," he said.
Box, who was born in Australia, the son of two ministers, moved to Hollywood 14 years ago. He's a producer who once made music videos for hard-rock bands Limp Bizkit and KORN, and he travels everywhere by bike. He said he got interested in how the city works after he was nearly run off the road by an MTA bus and couldn't get any city agency to respond. He played a big role in the drafting of the city's new bicycle master plan, which was approved this week.
His supporters include cyclists, who this weekend have planned a Tour de Box campaign ride, and many of the city's food truck operators, who are angry at LaBonge for proposing two City Council motions that would limit how food trucks operate. On Twitter, many have asked their followers to donate to Box's campaign.
Box and O'Grady have both won significant endorsements — Box from the Daily News and O'Grady from the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times.
LaBonge has the backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and several of the state's Democratic heavyweights, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who singled him out at a press conference on Tuesday as "a man who personifies this city."