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Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono in 1990. (Photo: Youtube)

How the Political-rise of Sonny Bono is Happening Again in California

Anger over business restrictions are leading more business owners on a similar political path

By Evan Symon, February 11, 2021 2:07 am

As business owners’ anger continues with COVID-19 restrictions, even after the end of the statewide lockdown last month, the desire of many to jump into politics have begun to parallel another California small business owner who turned their anger with local government restrictions into a political career to fight them The man? Sonny Bono.

One of the largest music and TV stars of the 60’s and 70’s with musical hits like ” I Got You Babe” with his then-wife Cher and shows like the The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Bono settled for a quiet semi-retirement in Palm Springs, like many celebrities of the day. But, after noticing that there was no decent Italian restaurant in the city, his business partner E.J. Steinke told him that he should open his own restaurant. Bono immediately set out to build a restaurant…only to be sandbagged by the Palm Springs City Council.

To Bono, it wasn’t hard to see why: the Palm Springs City Council, at the time, was made up of only developers and real estate people, and they didn’t seem to like Bono trying to add a big name marquee restaurant built on star power on a prime piece of land surrounded by resorts. Beginning in the early 1980’s, Bono was mysteriously denied permits, had delayed construction due to unusual regulations, while others could just build similar buildings without them, and had to fight tooth and nail for licenses.  And to Bono, they were the ones holding him back.

“The mayor and our city council is made up of contractors and real-estate people,” Bono said of the Council in 1988. “It’s important that you don’t place your personal gain before the gain of the community. You have to be ethical to the overall goal of the community. We’ve got council people that are selling land, like Eli Birer. I’m either going to run against Mayor Bogert or Eli Birer. They’re big real-estate moguls. Our convention center was brokered by him. You can’t be impartial on something like that.”

Bono drained money for years into the restaurant that wasn’t allowed to open. And when it did in 1986, the restrictions kept coming, particularly over the signage outside, despite similar places nearby having larger, more intricate signs.

Becoming a Mayor and a Congressman

At that point, Bono could either walk away, power through and hope for change, or, as a third option, make the change himself. Bono, still angry, took the third option and decided to run for Mayor in 1988.

Then Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono and President Ronald Reagan in 1988 (Photo: Wikimedia)

While his name recognition and celebrity status didn’t hurt, he ran on a campaign of bringing business back to Palm Springs, and capitalizing on its fame by bringing in low-risk endeavors like a film festival. His opponents, mainly developers, couldn’t keep up. In a record-breaking turnout of voters, the Republican Bono won in a landslide, getting twice as many votes as his next closest opponent.

After coming onto the stage to accept the position to the Rocky theme, Bono gave a speech that pretty much defined why he ran in the first place.

“Wow I can’t believe it. The city goes back to the people. They made us too mad, gave us one too many kicks and that’s the last we’re going to take,” stated Bono. “It’s a wonderful American thing that just happened. If they can do that to me, just imagine how the ordinary person is treated who wants to start a business. We’re trying to encourage business here, not chase it away. I have a big investment in this city. I don’t want to see it deteriorate or decline.”

Bono went on to create the Palm Springs International Film Festival and has been cited as one of the main drivers for Palm Springs returning to prominence in the 1990’s. He only served one term, exiting as Mayor in 1992, but came back to politics two years later when he ran for Congress in 1994.

Congressman Newt Gingrich (Photo: Ballotpedia)

He was elected along with many other Republicans during the Republican Revolution that year and presided over a Congressional district that presided over Southeastern California, including Palm Springs. In his next few terms, Bono helped bring about national and entertainment oriented legislation, most notably the copyright term extension law named after him. But he was also unusually still locally active, being the biggest politician to fight to protect and preserve the Salton Sea and surrounding area, which was also named after him. His clout was so big that he even managed to get then House Speaker Newt Gingrich to come out to Salton City to give a speech promoting federal protection of the Sea.

Bono’s celebrity status also made him an advisor to many Republicans in the House, particularly Newt Gingrich, who now faced unprecedented public relations issues after the ’94 elections. Noticing that they were being treated as celebrities, Bono helped set them up to be dealt with as such by the media, saving them countless times from public ridicule in the 90’s.

“You’re a celebrity now,” said Bono to Gingrich in 1995. “The rules are different for celebrities. I know it. I’ve been there. I’ve been a celebrity. I used to be a bigger celebrity. But let me tell you, you’re not being handled right. This is not political news coverage. This is celebrity status. You need handlers. You need to understand what you’re doing. You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities.”

While Bono had much greater plans as Congressman, and had been rumored as a potential Governor candidate, they were cut short in 1998 when he tragically died in a skiing accident in Nevada. His wife, Mary Bono, took over his congressional seat and remained in office well into the 2010’s.

Business restriction anger fueling local office jumps once again

Bono’s rise into politics, particularly starting in local elections, is now being seen again in 2021. Fatigue from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions, particularly by small businesses and other groups primarily affected by the COVID lockdowns, is sparking similar political change.

Change wasn’t seen as much in the 2020 elections largely because COVID-19 still lacked a widespread vaccine, together with during the fall of 2020, a large spike in cases precipitated more restrictions. The focus on the Presidential election played a factor, as well.

But there were some election results sparking up because of it, most notably the Stockton Mayoral election where a Security Company manager and Pastor, Kevin Lincoln, defeated incumbent Mayor Michael Tubbs, with small business issues one of the top concerns.

Anger over COVID-19 and business restrictions statewide are also dominating at the state level right now as well, and driving the now probable recall election against Governor Gavin Newsom. Many local 2021 races are also seeing non-politician business owners running for office this year, some already declaring for 2022 races. As with Bono in 1988, the anger over business restrictions has hit a crucial boiling point. Some even have the financial backing and name recognition Bono had.

People running because they’re mad at something isn’t new, even among more business-savvy candidates. But the specific anger over business restrictions and regulations is beginning to eerily parallel Bono’s rise to public office in the late 1980’s, as well as other business owners spurned by governments, such as radio star Pappy O’ Daniel when he ran for and became Governor of Texas in 1938.

Bono showed what could happen if you restricted business owners in California too much in 1988. The governor’s COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 are now simply showing that it’s beginning to happen again in local governments.

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Evan Symon
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5 thoughts on “How the Political-rise of Sonny Bono is Happening Again in California

  1. Another example of a celebrity running for office because of a short sighted mayor and city council was Clint Eastwood. http://www.clinteastwood.net/mayor/
    “We got rid of quite a lot of punitive attitudes on the council and helped people get things done,” he claimed later. “We got things built — beach walkways, a library annex which had been waiting 25 years, and so on. I approached it from a business point of view, not a political one.”

    1. Politicians don’t care about money so much, they only care about spending it on pet projects and getting reelected. They like the perks that come with the office.

  2. “This may sound incredibly simple after all that articulating, but what strikes me funny is when something is illegal, it`s illegal. Enforce the law. . . . I wish it was more complicated than that. But that`s the way I do with my city and it works out fine.”

    — Sonny Bono on illegal immigration

  3. We need more practical leaders like Sonny Bono in California, and DEFINITELY fewer community organizers…

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