Newcomer faces veteran in LA City Council race at the harbor

Joe Buscaino
Joe Buscaino
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
Joe Buscaino
Assemblyman Warren Furutani
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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A new player has burst onto the Los Angeles political scene. He is LAPD Sgt. Joe Buscaino. The 14-year police veteran is running for City Council against State Assemblyman Warren Furutani, a longtime politico vying to become the second Asian American ever to serve on the council. The election takes place on Tuesday.

The heart of L.A.’s 15th City Council district is San Pedro, where the smell of salt air is strong and giant shipping cranes reach high above the water. More than half of the district’s voters live here. It’s also where Joe Buscaino grew up, and still lives, and is making his first run for public office.

“As a kid my dad was a fisherman. I spent many summers on those fishing docks," Buscaino told a recent forum. "My mom worked the canneries. My father-in-law was a fisherman for 20 years.”

For six years, Buscaino’s also patrolled San Pedro streets as an LAPD senior lead officer assigned to working with local people to solve problems — good training, he said, for a city councilman.

Assemblyman Warren Furutani grows tired of his opponent playing the hometown guy. He reminds the audience that he too has roots at the waterfront.

“I keep trying to tell people, I’m born in San Pedro, my father’s born in San Pedro," Furutani said. He adds, with a chuckle, "My grandmother and mother are buried in Greenhill Cemetery."

But Furutani, whose parents met in an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese-Americans, grew up in Gardena. That makes a difference in a tight-knit harbor town. Buscaino polled first in the primary, largely because of San Pedro support.

Furutani said he’s drumming up support throughout a district that runs north to Watts, and would represent its entirety better. But the portly 64-year-old veteran politician knows he faces an uphill battle against the 37-year upstart with the biceps of a cop.

Politics piqued Joe Buscaino’s interest early.

“Call me a geek, but as a kid, when they started putting these City Council meetings on channel 35, I was watching ‘em," he said in an interview. "And watching John Ferraro. My dad would remind me – he’s Italian, he’s Italian.”

Ferraro was a longtime City Council president. Buscaino – yes, that's Italian - likes to point out that more than 40,000 Italian Americans live in the district.

But Asian-Americans are watching the race closely, too.

“For the past 19 years, there has been no Asian Americans in the City Council," says Charlie Woo, who heads the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment. "And the Asian American community would really love to have voice and representation.”

“The focus is huge," says Bill Wong, one of California's top Asian-American political consultants.

He adds that only one Asian-American has ever served on the L.A. City Council because no one district concentrates enough of them to form a strong voting bloc.

“They are designed – and I am not saying intentionally - but they’re designed to reduce the power and representation of Asian Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles city.”

They represent 7 percent of the 15th District. Citywide, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise 12 percent of the population.

In his campaign, Furutani emphasizes his experience – on the L.A. School Board, the Community College Board and in the state legislature. His literature says he wouldn’t need “training wheels” if elected, and that he understands working with communities.

“I use the word balance a lot. Ya know, it’s a Yin and a Yang we got to make sure these things work together.”

Neither Furutani nor Buscaino offer many specifics on L.A.’s knottiest issue: the deficit. Buscaino talks of privatizing some city services, but he'd also like to eliminate the gross receipts tax. That could increase the deficit.

Buscaino was a longtime Republican who changed his party affiliation about a year before he announced his candidacy in this largely Democratic district. Some Democrats say the switch was a ploy. He's denied it; he maintains that his years as a cop have made him more liberal.

“As I grew older, I’ve come to realize we need to provide more social services for these folks who are struggling with drug addiction, family issues," he said. "That’s why I switched. It was no reason for running for office.”

Both candidates promise to balance growth with green concerns at the port, but major environmental groups are backing the better- known quantity, Furutani. In this non-partisan race, the county Democratic Party also backs Furutani, as do many labor unions, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Buscaino enjoys powerful support too. His own police union, the Department of Water and Power workers union and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce have plowed nearly $400,000 into his campaign.

He still fashions himself as a homegrown newcomer.

“Today, ladies and gentlemen, people are thirsting for a political outsider. They are thirsting for one of their own.”

Furutani knows he faces a tough fight, as voters are looking for new answers.

“I admit it, Joe’s got a bandwagon going," Furutani said. "People on the City Council are calling me saying ‘we love you, Warren. We’re praying for you, but hey I’m going to go with the guy I don’t know because I’m concerned if he wins, what he’s going to do.”

Furutani said they should be more concerned about what he’s going to do - because he intends to beat the bandwagon.

If Buscaino wins, he'd become the fourth officer, reserve officer, or former LAPD cop on the 15-member City Council.