Robert Lagomarsino: The Long Life of a Long-Ago Republican

Leaving a Legacy of a National Park, a State University, and a Federal Wilderness Area

Robert Lagomarsino | Courtesy Image

RIP:  I don’t remember exactly where the name Congo-Bob came from. I assume I stole it. But somehow, I managed to make it stick, at least enough to get under the skin of the person I stuck it to, Congressmember Robert Lagomarsino. He made it a precondition for any interview I ever got with him that “Congo-Bob” not appear in the text of any ensuing article.

For nearly 40 years — 1961 to 1992 — Congo-Bob just was. He represented Ventura and Santa Barbara in Congress, and before that, he was elected to the Sacramento Statehouse as a state senator. And from 1958 to 1961, Lagomarsino — son of a successful wine and beer distributor — served as Ojai mayor and city councilmember. But as of a couple of weeks ago, Robert J. Lagomarsino was no more, having died at his family home at age 94.

In the moment, I had tended to dismiss Lagomarsino as just another right-wing, moss-backed Republican. And I wasn’t wrong. He was forever railing against government spending while pushing tax breaks for the rich. He was all law and order when it came to the death penalty. But when his buddy, President Ronald Reagan, broke the law by selling missiles to the Iranian government — designated as state terrorists — to illegally fund a covert war to topple a socialist government in Nicaragua — thus violating a bill passed by Congress to prevent just that — Lagomarsino evidenced precious little perturbation. That Lagomarsino appeared to talk out of the side of his mouth — courtesy of a facial tic — made him that much easier to lampoon.

But with a few notable exceptions, there was good reason no one but Death-Wish Democrats and No-Chance progressives could be mustered to run against Lagomarsino. When it came to constituent services — delivering the actual goods — Lagomarsino was the man. A friend’s mother — a transplanted New Yorker, knee-jerk liberal, and Yellow Dog Democrat — all but giggled when his name was mentioned, so quick on the trigger was Lagomarsino’s staff when her Social Security check did not appear on time. 

Legend has it that his predecessor, Charles Teague, told Lagomarsino the secret to eternal life — at least politically — was returning every phone call and answering every letter. Clearly, he took it to heart. When Teague died on the job in 1974, Lagomarsino ran in a special election to fill his shoes. With Watergate in the air, 1974 was not a propitious time for Republican candidates. Of the seven who sought office in special elections that year, only one would win: Congo-Bob.

Back in the day, Democrats tended to dismiss Lagomarsino as just another get-along-go-along kind of guy. Where was his signature legislation, they demanded? Lago, I am told, got 103 bills passed his first year in Sacramento, still — I am also told — a land-speed record. One increased penalties for dog-napping, then allegedly an epidemic. In Sacramento, Lagomarsino was then Governor Ronald Reagan’s senator. When Reagan occupied the White House, he was the president’s Congressmember. Reagan, after all, owned a ranch in Santa Barbara. Still, his abiding legislative achievement — the creation of the Channel Islands National Park — came about only because Lagomarsino was willing to play political footsies with Democrat Phil Burton, a fire-breathing liberal from the Bay Area who was smart enough to know he needed Republican friends, and Lagomarsino was smart enough to be Burton’s friend.

It was, as they say, a different time.

Really, the Channel Islands Park would be legacy enough, but Lagomarsino did more. Over the years, he laid the necessary spade work for what would eventually become the Cal State Channel Islands campus. And then, of course, there’s the Dick Smith Wilderness, which without Lagomarsino would never have been designated.

A major national park. A Cal State campus. A new federal wilderness named after a local reporter. All in all, pretty impressive footprints to leave behind.

I mention this because Lagomarsino is best remembered by his ignominious departure. In 1990, district boundaries were redrawn, and Lagomarsino found himself in the awkward spot of sharing a district with fellow Republican Elton Gallegly. Lagomarsino, obliging to a fault, “moved” to Shell Beach so he could run in the new district that encompassed San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in 1992. 

About that time, Arianna and Texas multimillionaire Michael Huffington — then on the prowl for a district from which to run — happened to move to Montecito, where they quickly began passing out $10,000 checks to every nonprofit that asked. A gay man then locked in the closet, Huffington was a cipher unto himself and figment of his wife’s sprawling rococo ambition. But he was willing to spend $5.4 million of his Texas tycoon cash to knock off Lagomarsino. 

By that time, Congo-Bob’s 100 percent pro-life voting record did not sit well with many women in his own party. When Huffington allowed himself to be persuaded into taking a pro-choice stance, many defected. Many pro-choice Democrats did too.

Once elected, Huffington found the actual work of office beneath contempt and constituent service tainted by corruption. Pathologically secretive, Huffington refused to tell his own staff where he was and ordered copies of his voting record destroyed. Naturally, one such as this would feel the call of even higher office, the U.S. Senate. To get there, Huffington spent $28 million — another record — and bankrolled the three strikes initiative then on the ballot. Huffington narrowly lost to incumbent Dianne Feinstein, but three strikes would pass and become the driving engine for mass incarceration in California. That one we’re still paying for.

So long, Congo-Bob. You deserved better.


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