Last week, with a warm sun pouring into his sitting room and an ocean breeze rustling the chimes on his porch, Robert Farrell and I talked about his candidacy for the seat Janice Hahn recently vacated on the Los Angeles City Council. That's right, Robert Farrell.
Bob Farrell, as those who know the modern history of this city will realize, served on the City Council for most of two decades before retiring in 1991, and he was generally admired for his idealism and for his canniness, if not always for his effectiveness. Now he's hoping for a comeback.
Over the course of his 17 years on the City Council, Farrell championed South African divestment, neighborhood organization and an ambitious Jobs With Peace initiative; he also fended off two recall campaigns and allegations that he steered thousands of dollars in city money to his ex-wife (the district attorney closed that investigation without filing charges).
From 1974 to 1991, Farrell represented the 8th Council District in South Los Angeles, governing alongside his patron, Mayor Tom Bradley, whose 1973 election upended this city's politics and whose long tenure transformed them. Bradley was stern and forbidding, Farrell shrewd and racy. For those who don't know Bob Farrell, think of it this way: His run for City Council is as if Joe Namath were today trying out for the New York Jets.
In 1991, after 17 years on the council, Farrell left. He was on his third marriage, dogged by the conflict-of-interest probe of which he eventually was cleared, seen as vulnerable by a new generation of African American leaders. Just after New Year's Day in 1991, he announced his retirement, endorsed Mark Ridley-Thomas for his office and walked away.
So what is Farrell, 20 years later, doing running for an office that he walked away from when some current voters had yet to be born? His entry into the race is such an odd move that some political mavens have eyed it with a hint of suspicion, wondering whether he might be stalking for another candidate.
Nope, says Farrell, settling into a soft wicker chair in his sitting room, his Chihuahua puppy Chubby by his side. Farrell attributes his resurgent interest in city politics to a recent reunion of the Freedom Riders. "They brought back the spirit of bearing witness," he said. He left with a renewed desire to serve.
Farrell sees his mission in this race to elevate the role of the city's neighborhood councils and to revitalize their presence in policymaking. That's a novel view at City Hall, where the councils are given lip service but largely ignored. In Farrell's view, the council largely views the councils as civics lessons for participants. Instead of addressing real city issues, he says, they're being "taught Robert's Rules of Order."
He would like to see them step up to the city's challenges. What are the appropriate rates for the Department of Water and Power to charge customers? Should Los Angeles authorize a football stadium downtown? What should the city be doing to modernize the waterfront in San Pedro?
"The promise of neighborhood councils is there," he said. "The practice is not."
Can Farrell win? Probably not. He won't enjoy labor's support. Assemblyman Warren Furutani is likely to garner most of that, though Pat McCosker, head of the city's firefighter union, will get a share too. Former City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. represented this district before and has been given a second life by the extension of term limits. He'll be far more familiar to voters of the area, even though he sports a new look (the burly, bushy-haired Svorinich has given way to a trimmer, shaved-headed one). And there are another dozen candidates elbowing for the position as well.
But it could break just right. Furutani and McCosker could cancel each other out among union members; Svorinich could stumble. The other candidates could each pick up slivers, meaning that a few hundred votes could make a difference.
Win or lose, Farrell figures that he can make a point about neighborhood power, and in the process highlight some of what worries him about City Hall. It's too dominated by Sacramento politicians, he says, and that's made its debates more factional, less community-oriented. In his day, Farrell reflects, "we were part of a team, and Tom Bradley was the team leader."
When I venture the observation that I've never heard a current member of the City Council refer to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as its "team leader," Farrell chuckles and pets Chubby.
Farrell is approaching 75 years old. He's been out of politics a long time. But he thinks he might have one more shot. He leans back in his chair for a moment, crosses his legs and listens to the chimes on the porch. "There," he says. "I hear another bell."