Huntington Beach Babbitt

The story of Dave Garofalo

"He is not of an age, but for all time."

—Inscription beneath Dave Garofalo's senior picture in the 1963 Cranston High School West yearbook

Dave Garofalo really wanted to live in that house up on Poppy Hill Circle, but it's just a little too far from Cranston, Rhode Island. He's not going to get there in this lifetime. Garofalo is already 55. His résumé is checkered. His finances are shaky. He recently had heart surgery again. He's still overweight. It's almost 30 years since he settled in Huntington Beach, an East Coast kid just married, out of college and the Marine Corps, looking to make a big shot out of himself.

Well, now he's the mayor, which sounds good—pillar of the community and all. Garofalo always assumed being mayor would, you know, count for something. He still thinks it ought to, considering where he has come from and all the guff that comes with the job. "Happy people don't call mayors," Garofalo observed in April, six months after taking office. "People call with complaints. That's what my day is consumed with. We get paid $175 per month, and it takes 25 hours a week to do even a half-assed job."

Garofalo has been slogging through the menial indignities of being mayor—and slathering himself with the sheer glory of the title —with the expectation that the better work and grander veneration of higher office await him. And in recent years, as Garofalo's mercurial back-slapping, back-biting style has revealed an increasingly desperate ambition, he has attracted the attention of such Republican power brokers as Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) and developer George Argyros. They may see the potential value of an obediently snapping political lap dog. They have begun grooming Garofalo for political life beyond Huntington Beach. Last winter, they threw a lavish brunch that netted $10,000 for some future campaign.

"Sure, I would support Dave Garofalo for higher office," says Baugh, who leads Republicans in the the state Assembly. "I don't know what his intent is, but nobody works harder for the city of Huntington Beach than Dave Garofalo."

Nonetheless, Garofalo has discovered, to his dismay, that being mayor—like everything else he's ever been—doesn't count for quite enough. He's got almost 10 years divorced, two adult kids with health problems and a printing business that just took a turn toward the dumper. He's being investigated by state, county and local government agencies—as well as the press—for allegations of political corruption. He's accused of accepting advertising money for his printing business—including the twice-monthly Local News community newspaper he founded and a city-supported Huntington Beach tourism guide—from merchants and developers for whom he subsequently cast supportive votes when their issues came before the City Council.

And people are still wondering how Garofalo won the No. 1 position in the lottery for the best house on Poppy Hill Circle. But it's no wonder he accepted it. Poppy Hill Circle epitomizes everything Garofalo ever wanted. The houses are not only new and large but also expensive and exclusive. The community, in a tract called St. Augustine, is gated. The houses overlook the Pacific Ocean and the Bolsa Chica wetlands. The neighbors were certain to be successful and wealthy.

Garofalo's mistake has been to confuse the pragmatic political endorsements he gets with heartfelt personal acceptance. He seems certain political status comes with all those memberships in big-business associations and nonprofit charities, with the first-man-with-his-hand-up willingness to martyr himself as what he calls "the poster boy" for the goals of the moneyed and powerful. Instead, all of Garofalo's hard, loud work actually serves to exclude him from their quiet, efficient circle.

But this is the story of Dave Garofalo's life. It's the story of a common man plagued by the pressure to be a self-made sensation. It's the cruelly familiar flipside of the American Dream.

Its essence is the two-sided business card Garofalo used to carry—Huntington Beach city seal on one side, Local News logo on the other. Garofalo, first elected to the City Council in 1994, thought he was following in the footsteps of the late Jack Kelly, a former mayor and city councilman who published the Huntington Beach News in the late 1980s. Kelly, who starred in the old Maverick television show, was a hard-drinking but personable sort whose good-old-boy approach made him popular.

Garofalo idolized Kelly. In 1998, when Garofalo decided to run for re-election to the City Council, he wrote a column in the Local News insinuating a longtime connection with the late mayor and explaining how Kelly influenced him to run for office the first time. The tortured prose and punctuation come straight from the newspaper:

"Even as a Board member of some 12 nonprofit organizations, I wanted to make a contribution to life that I was still unable to make," Garofalo wrote. "I had not worked with Jack Kelly for almost 12 years since we first met in the late 1970s. He was on the Council. I saw a man do his thing. While sometimes reckless in terms of showing his feelings for what he loved and his disdain for what was not right . . . he did do it his way."

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