It seemed that year as if April Fools’ Day had come late: On April 12, 1988, a middling restaurateur, high school dropout, and trivia-quiz answer became mayor of wealthy Palm Springs, Calif. Former hippie singer Sonny Bono beat out seven contenders for the $15,000-a-year job that would eventually lead him to Congress — and he’d never even registered to vote until the year before.
Blame the currency of celebrity. As half of the married pop duo Sonny & Cher, Salvatore ”Sonny” Bono had a No. 1 record in 1965 with ”I Got You Babe.” Four more top 10 hits followed, as well as a top-rated CBS variety show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, launched in 1971. After the pair’s acrimonious divorce in 1975, Cher skyrocketed into music and film stardom while Bono found himself guesting on Fantasy Island. He opened an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood in 1983 but sold it when it nearly went bankrupt; he launched (and sold) another in Palm Springs, his home since 1985.
Bono didn’t always fit into that tony enclave of the Republican rich; in fact, a clash with city hall over remodeling his house and restaurant made him fight back by running for mayor. And in a field of eight candidates, he received nearly twice as many votes as his closest competitor, winning by the largest margin in the city’s history. During his four-year tenure, he banned thong bikinis and established a film festival. He also fought off a 1989 recall effort by citizens’ groups that wanted to oust him for (a) spending $4,500 of city funds to pay for new publicity portraits of himself; (b) requesting first-class plane tickets for himself, his family, and their nanny for official trips; and (c) using his revived fame to do a TV pilot and a beer ad. (A meeting with an opposition leader brought a truce.)
No hard feelings: In 1994, Bono was elected to Congress as California’s 44th-district representative. The 61-year-old Republican neophyte’s most notable achievement? A back-burnered bill to mandate changes in the way judges review voter initiatives. ”He’s perceived as doing a fairly good job for a freshman,” says Keith Carter, editorial page editor of the local paper, The Desert Sun. Carter notes, though, that some residents find Bono ”an embarrassment — inarticulate and unsophisticated.” Brooklyn representative Charles Schumer rebuked Bono publicly for his impatience during a 1995 meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, saying ”We’re making laws here, not sausages.” Bono (who did not return calls for this story) plans to run for reelection this year, but the jury is still out. Is he a real politician, or does he just play one on C-SPAN?
Time Capsule: April 12, 1988
Moviegoers drank up Beetlejuice; TV viewers stayed up for the Academy Awards; Billy Ocean cruised to No. 1 with ”Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”; and Trump: The Art of the Deal aced the nonfiction charts.