(This article first appeared in the LA Alternative Press in May, 2003)
By Marc Haefele
On the 30th anniversary of Mayor Tom Bradley's inauguration, we look back on a career marked by inclusivity and vision by Marc Haefele Remembering gets to be hard after a while. Collective memories fade and become traditions, then legends and even negative clichs. The drive for 'diversity,' for instance.
Now that we live in a city without an ethnic majority population, now that equality of opportunity is conceded as an ideal - if by no means an every day fact - and now that, with the offensive against affirmative action, even equality seems to many people to have gone too far, it's necessary to recall that there was a time when Los Angeles made no pretense of diversity. There was a time when white was the color of the Big Boss man, and there was no Number Two ethnicity in government, or out of it, and when municipal corruption went hand in hand with an authoritarian and autocratic police force that made sure things stayed that way.
This state of sinister autocracy in the sunny land of promise has become our local myth. You've seen it in movies from 'Chinatown' to 'Devil in a Blue Dress' to 'L.A. Confidential.' What you perhaps haven't encountered is an explanation of how we got all the way from there to here: a majority-free city with a majority of 'minority'
members on the former lily-white council and a majority of minority members in the once-notorious Los Angeles Police Department.
Maybe the best you can say about this sometimes-undergoverned and misgoverned great city is that things can never go back to where they were 30 years ago. But when you think about it, that's saying a lot.
It didn't just happen. If there is any one reason for that change, it was Mayor Tom Bradley. It's 30 years this summer since he moved into City Hall's third-floor mayor's office and changed this city eternally.
Surprisingly, no one's said much about this anniversary that ought to mean so much to Los Angeles. Apart from the manic Council Member Nate Holden's flubbed attempt to rename Crenshaw Boulevard after his onetime mortal enemy, the anniversary's major commemoration seems to have been the term-limited ouster of all the remaining council members who actually served under Bradley (including Holden).
Maybe this is just the way Los Angeles, the city of Now is Forever, plays false with its history. But it's worth looking back now, to Bradley as history ' no longer the failed charismatic figure we saw last, whose five terms of office were, by most estimates, two terms too many and in whose last full year of office, the city rose up in riot.
After Bradley, the voters chose a Republican millionaire with a can-do reputation to clean up after L.A.'s longest-serving mayor and, just by the way, limited all city office holders to two terms.
A recent Downtown News poll found Dick Riordan is the favorite ex-mayor of the Central City movers and shakers. I would guess that if there were a citywide poll on the topic, Bradley would be everyone else's favorite ex-mayor. Despite the decline, despite the riots, he was still the mayor who made the city great -- made it, for want of a better word, inclusive.
Nowadays, like 'diversity,' inclusivity's a well-worn clich. Thirty years ago, though, that very description seemed impossible in a city that had been run by a cartel of downtown insiders ever since the 1850s. Bradley's election, too, seemed impossible. Yet really to understand how that came to pass, it's necessary to go back further, to the dawn of Bradley the Politician, before he ran for L.A. City Council and after he realized he'd never be promoted again in the LAPD.
At that time, L.A. was not, as its critics love to say, 'the most segregated city in America.' Had that been the case, Bradley couldn't have attended an integrated high school and state university. Nor would so many African Americans, like Bradley's parents, have journeyed thousands of miles to get here.
But L.A. was a tough and oppressive place for minorities, with a segregated police force that had what you might call not a glass, but a cast-iron ceiling: the highest rank a non-white officer could attain was lieutenant. The top rank a woman could rise to was sergeant. Thus, LAPD headquarters was White Boy country.
So was City Hall. Yet by 1961, when he turned in his badge to practice law, Lt. Bradley probably realized that it might be easier for him to get elected mayor of Los Angeles than become chief of the LAPD. So he entered politics from the street level. As a precinct-walker in Ed Roybal's 1963 congressional campaign, he brought the thoroughness that had made him, in Bradley's chief deputy Maurie Weiner's opinion, one of the best cops in the city. (In John Gregory Dunne's novel 'True Confessions,' a fictional version of Tom Bradley is sheltered from the department's endemic racism because of his devotion to by-the-book
procedure.) Bradley never forsook this meticulousness.
'Tom Bradley was the only person who could take a [200-name] precinct sheet and account for every name,'' said Weiner.
Knowing the district as a patrolman meant he already knew every resident personally. And knew that resident's story.
This same systematic knowledge helped him months later, when he first won the 10th District City Council seat. But what really helped him get elected against a white incumbent backed by reactionary Mayor Sam Yorty was something completely new in the history of Los Angeles. It was what Weiner called 'the most representative campaign committee ever seen in the city. There were blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, people from labor. His policy, then as always, was to involve as many people as possible.''
Before he even won office as the first elected black councilman in the city's history, the inclusive pattern for his 20-year mayoral administration was set, Weiner said.
Part of Bradley's success was based on the velocity of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, more black people than ever before were voting, even in Los Angeles. This was the first step to reclaim a lost 100-year heritage and to grasp political power. Former L.A. City Controller Rick Tuttle ' who campaigned for voting rights in the early 1960s in the South, quotes a Martin Luther King Jr. variant on a Vietnam era pro-war slogan: 'Give us the vote, and the hearts and minds will follow.''
But even having the vote didn't quell a rising sense of social injustice in Los Angeles. In 1965, this flared up into one of the first and greatest civil disturbances of the troubled 1960s.
'After the 1965 Watts riots, many saw it as more important than ever to elect Tom Bradley mayor,' Tuttle recalls. That Watts convulsion was a national event, launching a half-decade of violent protest and city-burning that swept the country from coast to coast. Like the 9/11 attack of 2001, it created a national atmosphere of alarm and terror overnight.
A progressive Democrat, Bradley nonetheless stood apart from the fiery rhetoric of the time ' from the Black Panthers, from the young radical whites.( 'He'd been a policeman for 19 years, '' recalls Victoria Pipkin, a longtime Bradley aide. 'Of course he believed in change from within.
And he wasn't just saying that.''
But he also believed in empowerment and a transformed government and electorate. If Mayor Sam Yorty danced to the bidding of the Downtown Establishment, Bradley built his base among the new rich L.A. of the Westside, influential Jewish voters of that area and voters in his own 10th District. At a time when Jewish-black coalitions were dissolving into acrimony in New York and Chicago, Bradley's kept picking up steam ' adding, along the way, Asians and Hispanics also eager for empowerment. It looked like Bradley had enough wind beneath his wings to win big in 1969, and to become the first African American ever to be elected mayor of a major city.
To understand why Bradley lost that election, you have to understand his opponent, incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty. Although Yorty switched his registration from Democrat to Republican over the years, Yorty was at all times a card-carrying opportunist. In the early 1950s, then-Democratic congressman Yorty escaped a Republican congressional sweep by becoming more anti-Communist than Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1961, he ran with a platform that stood against the city's then-advanced ecological practice of trash sorting. His free-men-don't-sort-garbage campaign won him office as it condemned L.A. to a future of overflowing landfills and lawsuits with which it's still coping.
Yorty knew the best way to beat Tom Bradley was simply to terrorize as many white voters as he could. In 1969, with the recollections of the
1968 Chicago Convention police riots fresh in the public mind, along with the disturbances at Berkeley and even UCLA, Yorty associated the stolid, 51-year-old ex-police lieutenant with the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society.
'The anarchy of the campus threatens city government,' shrieked one Yorty mailer. Yorty linked Bradley with the 'militants' of the 'hippy-peacenik-Black-power combine.' His stampede of the conservative homeowner vote in the Valley helped him win his last term ' and lose the next election.
Ironically, Bradley's team later threw Yorty's 1969 red-baiting racism back in his face, during the 1973 election. Then, Bradley triumphed big. By now, he didn't need downtown support: his backers included some of the region's most stellar names, including actors Lloyd Bridges, Rita Hayworth, Richard Widmark, George Takei, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly and Peter Lawford; comics Milton Berle, Marty Feldman and Jimmy Durante; Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Twilight Zone producer Rod Sterling.
Tom Bradley was a celebrity mayor even before he was elected. His win by a margin of 97,000 votes in a 2.8 million-population city with a mere 15 percent black population was a brilliant and festive triumph for liberal and multi-ethnic politics in the darkening national twilight of the Nixon Administration.
City Hall regulars old enough to remember still speak with awe of Bradley's first 100 days as mayor. The consensus is that no incoming mayor ever shook the bureaucratic tree as hard as Bradley did.
'As a councilman, he learned how the departments worked and didn't work,' Weiner recalls. 'The idea was to use all the talent available to build a stronger city. For the first time ever, the city's commissions were staffed with people who represented the breadth of the population 'this was way beyond tokenism; it was a breathtaking gathering of fresh talent.''
Under its Charter, Los Angeles' varied departments are governed by some 30 separate commissions, staffed by over 170 mayor-appointed volunteer commissioners. Bradley, in the words of then-Copley reporter Robert Ballenger, 'broke the old white-male appointment stereotype,' enrolling 150 new commissioners and keeping only 21 Yorty appointees. Forty-five of the new commissioners were women, 21 were black, 13 were Hispanic, and 13 Asian Americans. All of them had, for the first time, to disclose possible conflicts of interest between their regular employment and their commission service. And they usually brought expertise, not political connections, to their jobs.
Bradley drew his own staff not just from his Los Angeles supporters, but from all over the country. Raphael Sonenshein, now a professor at Cal State Fullerton, recalls that as a young local-government maven from the East Coast, he was welcomed into the new administration with open arms. He went on to write 'Politics in Black and White,' still the best book about what it was like to work in what was then probably the only progressive big-city government in the country.
Now he recalls: 'Bradley must have been the most important mayor in the history of Los Angeles ' he created the cosmopolitan L.A. out of what was really a small town that was, until then, just wearing the clothing of a big city.'
'What was really great about working for Tom Bradley was that even if he didn't agree with you, he'd always listen to you, hear you out,'
says Pipkin. 'This developed a unique mutual trust. And incredible loyalty.''
In his first weeks, Bradley also set the post-Yorty city agenda that both he and his successors have struggled to advance ever since. Mass transit and pollution control were new priorities; social utility and open space became key aspects of land-use planning. There was much talk of, and some effort to, 'streamline government,' to make it more responsive. For a liberal mayor, Bradley had an extremely tight fist:
one of his first demands was that the City Council cut Yorty's budgeted spending by 10 percent. He also ordered an audit of the corruption-prone Harbor Department.
Council President John Gibson, a 22-year veteran, said Bradley was 'better than any mayor I've worked with.''
Bradley calmed the turbulent relations between the council majority and the mayor's office. And he kept reforming. Well into his second term, he appointed Maureen Kindel, now a well-known lobbyist, to the high-salaried and highly-politicized Public Works Commission. 'The mayor told me to change the face of things over there,' she says.
Later as president of the board, she recalls bringing minority- and woman-owned businesses into the contracting tent. Unlike some previous mayors, she recalled, he never reached into the process to show favoritism toward bidders. But he was concerned with 'making sure things got done.'
What was he like? 'He loved to work. He read and studied everything that crossed his desk,' Kindel remembers. And he had many friends. Many were overwhelmed by his presence, his thoughtful demeanor, 6-foot-4 height and operatic baritone voice ' all of which quickly got him national, then international attention.
'They particularly loved him in Japan,'' Kindel recalls, noting, during the unique official Music Center dinner the city hosted for Emperor Hirohito, 'how he towered over the little emperor.'
Yet many found him an enigma, a sphinx. 'You didn't get to know him unless he let you,' Pipkin says. But, she adds, he let 'millions of people think he was their best friend.'
As Bradley worked to shape L.A. into his ideal of a 'world-class city,'
he also politicked internationally and with the downtown crowd to bring the Olympics to L.A. in 1984. 'That was probably his crowning accomplishment,'' Kindel recalls.
Many would agree. But there was nothing like that triumph left in his increasingly lackluster final nine years in office. Bradley ran for governor in 1982 and nearly won. He ran again in 1986 and lost badly.
As he became increasingly important as a national political figure (he stumped for presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis), his own ladder to state and national office grew frustratingly out of reach. Probably his last major accomplishment was the creation of the city's 1990 ethics laws and commission. But these actually stemmed from a reaction to what the first Ethics Commission president Ed Guthman called 'his own worst transgressions.'
Many would not blame Bradley for the bellicose breach between him and Police Chief Daryl Gates that maximized the impact of the '92 riots.
But few would exculpate him, either. In 1993, Bradley waited till the last moment to announce he wouldn't run for a 6th term. But the real decision for him had been made a year earlier, after the Rodney King trial set the city on fire.
The historic truth about Bradley is probably best explained by the one man who has since sought to follow in his inclusive footsteps: 2001 mayoral Candidate and now council member Antonio Villaraigosa:
'He was a great mayor, because he understood that to run a great city, you had to hear the voices of all the residents.''