'I Got You, Babe,' Sonny Bono Proclaims, Making An Offbeat Run for Mayor of Palm Springs

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's only a few minutes past 7 in the morning and already there's a long line of people in front of the Palm Springs Senior Center waiting to have their cholesterol checked. Suddenly the conversations about bridge, golf scores and prune juice trail off in mid-sentence as a balding flyweight of a man wearing baggy pants and a satin baseball jacket steps out of a baby-blue Mercedes and approaches with outstretched hand. "It's that Sonny Bono," a woman whispers. "He used to be with that Cher, the one with the hair and the clothes." "I know, dear," her friend says. "He's running for Mayor."

That's right, Sonny Bono is following the campaign trail blazed by fellow Californians Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood, trying to use showbiz celebrity as a springboard to executive office. But does the man who stood so long in the shadow of Cher have the capacity to make rich and fancy Palm Springs his on election day, the way Eastwood did in Carmel? No way, his opponents say. "Clint's a big star, while Sonny's a big nothing," taunts retiring Mayor Frank Bogert, who has called Bono everything from a hippie to a squirrel. But with front-runners Lloyd Maryanov, a certified public accountant, and Eli Birer, a Realtor who sits in for the current Mayor, splitting the more mainstream vote in a field of eight candidates, the April 12 election is too close to call, and some are picking Bono to win.

Suddenly the race for the $15,000-a-year top job in this tranquil desert resort has gotten hotter than the sidewalk in July. "I never thought this would happen again after 1965, but I'm fighting the establishment again," says Bono, 53. Ironically he happens to be a registered Republican who voted for Reagan in 1984. But in the course of a few protracted bureaucratic wrangles with city hall over the remodeling of his Spanish-style mansion in the Mesa neighborhood, Bono came to see his town's leaders as entrenched bullies. "This elitist group has this attitude that this is their town and they'll run it their way," he says. Blaming the stodgy old guard for Palm Springs' slide into economic torpor, Bono decided to run for office himself, on a platform of growth through glitz. "This city is a sleeper," says Bono. "We're failing at our industry, which is tourism." To most eyes it isn't failing by much, but in order to attract more visitors, Bono would create a world-class film festival in Palm Springs as well as an annual marathon and a series of revival rock concerts. "I'm pretty moderate as a businessman, but in this election I guess I'm the liberal," he says.

"He's a nice guy who's running for something he's not qualified for," says Bogert. "He'd be a terrible mayor. No sensible citizens like him." Nevertheless some local merchants have been warming to Bono's go-go ideas. "He's doing a lot better than anyone expected," says Palm Springs Desert Sun reporter Lauralee Mencum. "He was awful at first, but he's cleaned up his speeches, and people disenchanted with the present system like him."

Faced with this widening support, Bono's opponents have reportedly begun resorting to threats. "One woman, who's prominent in public relations, was told she'd be through in Palm Springs if she helped Sonny," says Bono's fourth wife, Mary, 26, who assists him on the campaign.

"I must be hitting them in the right places, making them real nervous," says Bono. "I'm their worst nightmare." As for qualifications, he says, "From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint I'm not qualified. But if I need a lawyer, I hire one. There are people you can go to, to learn what you don't know." Besides which, as a three-year permanent resident and the owner of Bono's, one of Palm Springs' more popular restaurants, Sonny says, "I have a vested interest in staying here and seeing this place flourish."

Bono first began going to Palm Springs 14 years ago, during the breakup of his marriage to Cher. Since then the former co-stars have kept their physical and emotional distance, though Bono remains close to their daughter, Chastity, 19, now a film student in New York. "Every once in a while Cher and Chas will get into some stuff that's real rough, and then I get included," he says. "Otherwise, Cher and I aren't in much contact." Meanwhile Cher's career has headed into the stratosphere, while Sonny's has seemed on a slow slide to oblivion. After personal frictions polished off their wildly popular television show in 1977, "I couldn't get it rolling again," Bono says. "I was guesting on Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Then I got hit with reality. You're either on the way up or on the way down in those things. I was a professional floating guest star. So I passed."

Instead of guesting, Bono sought salvation in food, opening a flashy Italian eatery in West Hollywood in 1983. Two years later that first Bono's was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and he had to sell. At the same time his three-year marriage to model Susie Coelho was collapsing. But he came out of this blue period with two things: a liking for the restaurant business and Mary, whom he met when she came into his Italian restaurant in 1984 to celebrate her graduation from USC as an art history major. A year later he proposed. Now Mary, who says that life with the ever-boyish Bono is "like living with a college roommate," is expecting a baby, due to arrive just five days after the election. "I'm more content being married now than ever before," says Bono, who also has a 30-year-old daughter from his first nine-year pre-Cher marriage. "And I'm more ready to be a father than ever before."

At the Bono for Mayor storefront on Palm Canyon Drive, Mary does her part to control the mayhem. Today, while campaign manager Chris Baker talks on the phone, a bus load of tourists from Taiwan descends to buy mementos. As she stands hawking buttons and bumper stickers, Mary notices that a campaign volunteer has already sold nearly all the Bono for Mayor T-shirts to the visitors. "What are we going to sell to the locals, the people who vote?" she asks, alarmed. But Bono, who's posing with two Taiwanese women while their husbands shoot videotape, just laughs it off. Win or lose, at long last, Sonny has his own show.

—By Montgomery Brower, with Todd Gold in Palm Springs

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