Recalling Sonny Bono’s political career in Palm Springs

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The petition to remove Palm Springs mayor Sonny Bono garnered 2,000 signatures barely a year after he took office. His becoming mayor was a notable event in a remarkable life. Bono had always reinvented himself. This latest incarnation as mayor of Palm Springs was no more unlikely than his previous lifetimes as a songwriter, singer, record producer, cabaret actor, film producer, TV star, and restaurateur.

It was as a restaurateur in Palm Springs that his political life began. In 1988, he wanted a bigger sign for his restaurant and was frustrated with Palm Springs City Hall: “It’s a real cliquey town. And their attitude is if you don’t like it, it’s hard! He resolved to solve the problem by going to town hall and then leading the city.

No one thought much about his campaign. In his newspaper ads, he promised change and a municipal government responsive to business needs. He worried aloud about traffic problems. He denounced the crowd of disrespectful spring break revelers, their scanty attire and almost criminal behavior. And invited voters to have coffee with him at his eponymous restaurant, Bono. Still, no one thought he had a chance. Asked by a Desert Sun reporter about the reaction of townspeople to his candidacy, he admitted, “They thought it was a joke.”

But all his life, Bono had been perpetually underestimated. Critics had never stopped him. Intrepid, he charged forward and ultimately charmed voters with his industrious campaign and cheerful demeanor. He won in a landslide.

As if he was coming out of jokes from the hit TV show Sonny & Cher, there were teases that he spent $ 100,000 to land a job that made $ 15,000 a year. But just a year later, in 1989, there was some serious rumbling in the community. A group of forty determined citizens wanted to overthrow him.

The Los Angeles Times summed up the early years: “There are those who praise him. As these fans see, Bono, 54, worked diligently during his first year to overcome his political inexperience and learn the ropes at City Hall. Its high visibility, exploited through appearances on late-night TV shows and at various special events, has put Palm Springs in national limelight, and its plans for an international film festival in town have generated widespread interest.

“Some business leaders even attribute to the new mayor the fact of having courted developers pushed elsewhere in recent years by the inhospitable regulatory environment of the city. But the voices of Bono’s critics are heard more frequently these days … Many former supporters, who initially viewed Bono as a savior who would save Palm Springs from the grip of less progressive rulers, now believe his run for mayor was failing. was just a coup to help jumpstart a declining entertainment career…. “

Bono was unfazed. “There is a group that thought I was just going to come in and validate everything, but that’s not the reality. So if I made them angry, then that’s part of the job. “

Bono had indeed changed the way things were done. He refused to participate in a march to fight AIDS; it allowed a noisy and inconvenient vintage car race; he was lambasted by residents and two of his fellow council members for dismissing three members of a city tourism board, and at the meeting about it, banning public comment, prompting cries of ” dictatorship ”.

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“” Sonny Bono is now Sonny Bonaparte and we are not going to put up with him here in Palm Springs, “said Shirley Barker, a real estate agent who has volunteered in Bono’s campaign. “I would like to see him run away from town. “

The effort to recall Bono began in earnest. The citizens’ group produced an eight-page document outlining their grievances.

The document accused Bono of breaking his promise to protect the elderly and enforce rent controls. During the campaign, he had promised to “close the rent control loopholes,” but once in office he let mobile home park rents soar, prompting residents to create a voting initiative for the Stop. The document accused him of funding public relations staff rather than badly needed police officers. He was also accused of being instrumental in hiring an out-of-town public relations company for $ 200,000, which promoted Bono more than the town. . He detailed his request for the city to foot the bill for his first class travel expenses. He complained about his support for an unpopular utility tax, his failure to revitalize the downtown area, and his inexperience in government. What was particularly annoying was that he was inaccessible to the public, unavailable to meet the residents. The document accused him of being a joke, a self-promotional embarrassment.

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Bono, initially mildly annoyed by what he called a “noisy minority”, began to publicly complain about defamation and harassment. To combat the attack, he met individually with the leaders of the group, personally introduced himself and explained who he really was.

Long interested in politics, Bono had helped Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign. Despite his television character, dressed in elephant paws and fur vests, he was a businessman and a family man. He had left the music business in the late 1960s when he thought it was all about drugs. He had more in common with the “old guard” than either side had expected.

Bono was charismatic. He understood the publicity and fame of his years in the public eye. He had certainly awakened the national consciousness of Palm Springs.

Bono’s charm offensive worked. The recall effort failed after 2,000 signatures – barely half the amount needed to trigger a special election. Bono was mayor for four years and was elected to Congress in 1994. Then again, he was not taken seriously at first.

The Republican caucus had a new majority, and its leader Newt Gingrich would eventually trust and admire Bono, whose advice would ultimately transform the Republican message. Respected journalists David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf in their book, “Tell Newt to Shut Up” credit Bono with being the first person to recognize Gingrich’s PR problems in 1995 and recommend a solution. Bono indicated that Gingrich’s status had shifted from politician to celebrity.

Bono, the celebrity-turned-politician, had carved out another career, survived a recall attempt, and stepped onto the national stage in a whole new title. And oddly predicted the future of a potential celebrity convention.

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Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at pshstracy@gmail.com


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