Huntington Beach Babbitt
"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."
But according to Kelly's daughter, Garofalo's adulation of the popular mayor was not reciprocated. "I don't think my dad had any respect for Dave Garofalo," says Nicole Kelly, speaking by telephone from her Washington, D.C., office, where she works for a television-news company. "My dad may have been his mentor, but it was unbeknownst to my dad. Dave used to send my dad letters and sign them, 'Your Humble Servant.' My dad had no respect for a man like that.
"Dave was this annoying little man. Like a groupie, almost, one of those people who hangs around and tries to become one of the in-crowd. He seems to ride on other people's shirttails," says Kelly. "My dad was cordial and nice. But they certainly didn't hang out.
"If my dad was alive today, they wouldn't be hanging out. I have a feeling my dad would not be a supporter of Dave Garofalo. I don't think there would have been a place for Dave on the City Council as long as my dad was still there."
The most American of holidays dawned chilly and drizzly last January in Huntington Beach, a place more famous for making a big deal out of the Fourth of July. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the purest kind of patriotism was in the air. A wholesome assortment of volunteers, health nuts and curiosity seekers were up early, bustling around the soggy downtown for the annual Pacific Shoreline Marathon.
Mike Ramsey, a 48-year-old Huntington Beach resident, was feeling particularly good after finishing strongly in an 8-kilometer race held in conjunction with the marathon. "I do most of my running on the treadmill at the gym," said Ramsey, "but the opportunity to run a race in my hometown was too good to pass up."
As Ramsey wandered away from the crowd, catching his breath and calculating his accomplishment, he suddenly noticed three men approaching—Mayor Dave Garofalo and two others Ramsey didn't recognize. He recalls Garofalo smiling tightly and extending his right hand. Ramsey, breaking into a grin of aw-shucks pride, responded in kind.
"Dave grabbed my hand and started squeezing—a lot harder than a gentleman's handshake," recalled Ramsey. "Then he grabbed the back of my arm with his left hand and started squeezing my arm hard, too.
"It was strange. I wasn't sure what was happening—I mean, this was the mayor of my town doing this," Ramsey continued. "And then Dave moved his face real close, right up in my face, and said very angrily, 'You're a fucking asshole!'"
Garofalo isn't only Ramsey's mayor—both men also attend St. Bonaventure Catholic Church, where Garofalo sometimes distributes communion. "Dave told me I was a fucking asshole for being quoted in the OC Weekly," Ramsey continued. "He told me that the things I had said had made his mother cry."
Apparently, Garofalo's anger had been simmering for nearly two months, since a Dec. 3, 1999, Weekly story in which Ramsey—a very successful businessman—explained why he had declined an invitation to invest in the upstart Pacific Liberty Bank. "I don't have that much confidence in small banks like that. You don't know . . . how much knowledge or experience they really have," he said. "And knowing that Dave Garofalo is on the board of directors, well, I don't have any confidence in him at all."
Months later, Ramsey is still bewildered when he recalls his post-race run-in with Garofalo. "My first thought was, 'I can't believe this is happening,'" Ramsey says. "My second thought was, 'Where did this guy ever get this kind of nerve?'"
As a boy back in Cranston, a faded suburb of Rhode Island's state capital of Providence, Garofalo seemed to believe that riches, respect and influence would be his destiny. Garofalo was a member of the staff that produced the 1963 Cranston High School West yearbook—the same yearbook that ran the JFK-generation quotation beneath his crew-cut senior picture, "He is not of an age, but for all time."
The phrase reads like something that should have been chipped into a park statue. The words would seem to suggest that the short, chubby kid from 101 Normandy Dr. was held in rarefied esteem by his school mates. Maybe so. The résumé Garofalo compiled at Cranston High School West sounds good: three years on class council, twice class president, three years on the football team, twice president of the Boys Athletic Association, two years in chorus and a role in the senior play. It certainly foreshadowed the busybody he has become.
"My life is an open book," Garofalo told the Weekly on April 28. "The story of my life has been published a half-dozen times in the past decade."
Most of this disclosure has been in Garofalo's column in The Local News. But the picture that emerges from these revelations is vague. It sounds good, but specific names, events and dates are strangely absent.
Garofalo seems to go out of his way to conceal even the most innocuous details of his life. Take something as simple as Garofalo's business address, which he always lists as 5901 Warner Ave., Suite 429, Huntington Beach. The word "suite" sounds good. But Suite 429 is actually Slot No. 429 at a private mailbox service. A woman who answered the phone at the Mail Secretary had no idea of Garofalo's real address. "I wouldn't be able to give it out, anyway," she said. "That's kind of the reason people have P.O. boxes—so you don't know their address."
Garofalo's most extensive autobiography is a Don Quixote-meets-Walter Mitty column he wrote in the Aug. 21, 1998, issue of The Local News. He spins grand tales of his high-life and high-tech globetrotting. He refers to big-money deals in which the sale of mysterious polymers necessitated visits with presidents and generals. He claims to have invented an airline baggage cart.
"For me . . . it all began in grade school. I volunteered for the then-Auto Club's traffic guard . . . school patrol," Garofalo wrote. "I made lieutenant. We went to Washington, D.C., with all the other kids in the U.S. at the time. That's were [sic] it all started."
However, the details dry up when it comes time for Garofalo to account for the kind of experiences that might make him a good city councilman. He insists that "the real Dave Garofalo showed right after a try at the hotel business in San Francisco (Sir Francis Drake-Front Office) and then the Marine Corps." But he never explains why the hotel experience was pivotal, and several calls to the hotel failed to confirm his employment there. The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis confirms Garofalo was in the Marines; his active duty from late 1967 to late 1969 was sandwiched between reserve status that continued until 1973, when he was discharged as a sergeant. Again, however, where Garofalo was stationed and what he did in the Marines is unknown—except for the fact that he was not in Vietnam. As a Republican and notorious self-promoter, Garofalo's silence about his time in uniform seems uncharacteristic. Yet he makes a bigger deal about being a grade-school crossing guard.
Garofalo's review of his professional life is even more disjointed. "Went into business with a customer who owned some patents in a high technology area,"he wrote. "We had fun, made some money and we expanded the business from a client base with some cites [sic] in Arizona to dominating the market in U.S.
"A major corporation made me an offer I could not refuse. It started again. They wanted a new market in a high-technology market. I gave it to them. It was coast-to-coast travel every week. A dozen top-caliber sales executives covering the U.S. We made history, broke records and lived high.
"Helped invent a new baggage cart for the airline industry, helped old and new foreign government [sic] enter new technology fields, met presidents, generals and the like. But somehow, I was missing something."
These days, Garofalo recites his memberships on the boards of nonprofit organizations as fast as the Hail Marys on a rosary. They are part of his first line of defense when questioned about his alleged political double-dealing—along with melodramatic references to his humble beginnings, his dedication to his church and family, and the tragic challenges of poor health that have plagued him and his children. Last spring, Garofalo repeatedly made a point of telling a reporter that he was phoning from the hospital where his 28-year-old son was battling serious problems with his transplanted kidneys.
"You paint me into a dark corner where I don't belong," Garofalo told the Weekly on April 28. "I work with the cancer foundation. I've been president of the Chamber of Commerce. I go to church. I've had heart surgery. My son is a triple organ transplant recipient. I work 12 to 14 hours per day. I raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for good causes. I'm baffled by what you're trying to do to me."
The portrait of the solid family man is a long-standing tool of political image-making. Garofalo has used it more extensively than most, often mentioning his son and daughter in the pages of The Local News and occasionally paying pictorial tribute to them on birthdays and the like. One might expect this is tough on Garofalo's kids at times, such as when they heard the boos and insults directed at their father last month while accompanying him in Huntington Beach's Independence Day Parade.
But mixing family and politics invites problems for the politician, too, because it invites—actually, demands—investigation to discover the truth. A review of court records shows that almost from the moment Garofalo's former wife filed for divorce in mid-1991 —citing irreconcilable differences after 23 years of marriage—she had to fight for the $685-per-month child support the court ordered Garofalo to pay for their 13-year-old daughter.
"[David Garofalo] refuses to pay this amount forthwith, although he has sufficient funds to do so," says a petition filed by Linda Garofalo on Dec. 13, 1991. "Instead, he is dribbling it out at his whim each month. [Garofalo] is consistently late and has given [me] one Non-Sufficient Funds check."
Hoping to make it easier for Garofalo to pay his child support, the judge ordered him to pay half the monthly amount—$342.50—twice each month. But Linda Garofalo repeatedly returned to court to force Garofalo to pay past-due child support. At least three times, the Orange County Marshall was dispatched to garnish thousands of dollars from Garofalo's account at American Savings Bank.
In that Dec. 13, 1991, filing, Garofalo's ex-wife also accused him of dipping into insurance money intended to cover the cost of their son's congenital kidney failure: "[We] have agreed the money will be used only for [our son's] medical needs, but [David] now uses the money for other purposes. The boy is extremely ill; in fact, he was in the hospital because his kidney transplant failed the week of Dec. 2, 1991, and he is currently on dialysis."
Garofalo faxed a statement to the Weekly, in which he said, "All payments were made and all obligations paid in full . . . several years ago." But he did not explain why he was late with payments to his son's kidney fund.
Ultimately, Garofalo's quest for the house on Poppy Hill Circle blew up in his face—the face he was desperately trying to save from the moment he said yes to the deal, knowing he could never afford it. After owning the house for only one day, he had to sell it for $625,000 to George Pearson, another successful parishioner at St. Bonaventure—a millionaire who owns 80 gas stations. A man Garofalo considers a real big shot.
"He [Pearson] is a great guy. He takes priests on vacation. He takes kids to camp," Garofalo explained, full of awe and envy, when first questioned about the unusual real-estate transaction in April. "Since I don't have those kinds of resources, since I can't compete with [him], this is what I did for the guy."
Garofalo subsequently finagled his way into one of those cookie-cutter townhomes that one of his developer buddies built on Main Street, just north of downtown. He suggests he's happy to be there, which sounds good. It's certainly an improvement upon his previous residence, which was a Holiday Inn. Garofalo lived there for about a year, on the top floor—the penthouse, it was called, which doesn't sound so good when you're talking about a Holiday Inn. The view was of San Diego Freeway traffic jams and the empty Huntington Center parking lot.
Garofalo insists that Main Street is where he always really wanted to live. That's hard to swallow, especially since the fallout from his gesture in the Poppy Hill Circle deal has gone beyond indignity into accusations of illegality now being investigated by the district attorney, OC grand jury and the Fair Political Practices Commission. Even as Garofalo continues to reject speculation that he cashed in big-time—insisting that he made only $1 off the arrangement—his own pronouncements of innocence seem to grate on him. It's almost as if he's rubbing salt in the wound of his latest lost opportunity. "It actually would have been better for both of us had I closed the escrow, kept the subject property for the nine months or so . . . and enjoyed the $75,000 to $100,000 appreciation that was in the market," Garofalo told the Weekly in a May 1 fax. "You would have a much better story, and I wouldn't have minded so much."
The story of his life.
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