Mayor Who Reshaped L.A.
Tom Bradley, the slaves' grandson whose historic 1973
election as Los
Angeles' first black mayor launched an unprecedented 20-year tenure
of a roiling, fast-growing city.
Presiding Over Enormous Growth
A man of quiet determination, Bradley spent a lifetime bridging
barriers and used his skills to forge extraordinary coalitions,
between blacks and Jews and between labor and business. He presided
period of enormous growth in Los Angeles, leaving the gleaming
skyline of Bunker Hill and the start of a subway and light-rail
the most tangible of his legacies.
Bradley also was key to the racial peace that the rapidly diversifying
city enjoyed during most of his five-term hold on the mayor's
opened doors for minorities and women to serve on city commissions,
in the ranks of City Hall employees and to share in city contracts.
He positioned the emerging metropolis to take its place as an
international trade center. He brought the city a glowing spot
world's center stage with its smooth and lucrative hosting of
Games in the summer of 1984. Some of his legacies can be seen
institutions that bear his name, including the Tom Bradley International
Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
Ultimately, he prevailed in his long struggle to bring civilian
and reform to his first full-time employer, the Los Angeles Police
Department, a campaign that put him on a collision course with
chief, Daryl F. Gates.
"Tom Bradley was a very great public figure. I know of no
one with a
greater gift for reconciliation and healing," historian and
Librarian Kevin Starr said.
"He was a prism through which we can see both the rise of
as an international city and the reemergence of a vibrant black
that reaches back to the very beginnings of the Pueblo. . . .
was a time in which Los Angeles reconfigured itself, redefined
Yet Bradley's long political career also bore the marks of
disappointment and disillusionment. In 1982, he narrowly lost
his bid for
governor and a chance to make history again by becoming the first
the nation to win a state's top office.
In his administration's waning years, scandals over his financial
dealings and charges of cronyism dogged the mayor and at one point,
came close to denying him a fifth term. As the city began polarizing
socioeconomic lines and concerns over the environment, traffic
and overdevelopment gathered force, his pro-growth policies came
increasing attack. Some black and Latino leaders began accusing
turning his back on their impoverished communities to concentrate
downtown, on the affluent and politically active Westside, and
on the harbor
and the airport to boost global trade.
The city's image dimmed dramatically when the 1991 videotaped
beating of black motorist Rodney G. King was televised worldwide.
rioting, largely by poor blacks and Latinos, that was sparked
a year later
after a Simi Valley jury refused to convict the four officers
charged in the
incident shattered the city's long years of racial harmony. But
it also led
to the ouster of Bradley's nemesis Gates and created the climate
sweeping reform of the LAPD.
Accomplishments Transcend Flaws
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science
professor whose 1993 book, "Politics in Black and White:
Race and Power in
Los Angeles," closely examined Bradley's rise, called Bradley
important political figure in Los Angeles in the last three decades."
predicted that Bradley's accomplishments in guiding the transforming
in building a strong multiethnic coalition and in bringing consensus
leaders of the city's many competing interests would far outweigh
that surfaced late in his administration.
"He came from the liberal reform section of the Democratic
Party. . . .
He built bridges to whites and to other groups. He reached into
worlds, but he did it without ever losing his commitment to the
community," Sonenshein said.
The wealthy, white Republican entrepreneur whom voters selected
Bradley's place when he stepped down in 1993 called his predecessor
leader in appearance, word and deed."
"Tom Bradley was the right leader at the right time for our
unifying force in bringing together diverse elements from throughout
Angeles," Mayor Richard Riordan said. "Tom Bradley earned
the confidence of
leaders everywhere. His impact was felt throughout our city, our
the world," added Riordan, who supported Bradley's gubernatorial
against Republican George Deukmejian and later became a Bradley
Bradley, a tall, dignified figure with a quiet, sometimes nearly
expressionless demeanor, was never a firebrand. He preferred to
behind the scenes, as he did in calling together labor and management
a 1982 bus strike that was creating havoc for the city's elderly
In announcing a settlement of the 3-day-old strike, leaders on
said Bradley had played a key role.
His demeanor sometimes earned him unflattering sobriquets--"the
of City Hall," "Mayor Automaton"--and his style
irritated followers who
Longtime friends attributed his stoicism to his membership in
generation of American blacks who cracked the color line and,
in doing so,
were counseled to hide their hurts and resentments from a hostile
Like so many members of that generation, Bradley worked hard,
seven days a week, laboring over budgets and other paperwork and
countless hours at civic functions and ceremonies. Among the staples
administration were "Area Days," carefully planned,
jampacked rounds of
meetings, visits to senior citizen centers and factory tours in
part of the city. Often he would take up a chair in one of the
branch mayoral offices, and hear out whoever cared to come in
Those events caught Bradley at his most animated, smiling broadly,
occasionally breaking into hearty laughter as enthusiastic Angelenos
for a chance to shake his hand, get his autograph and say some
His popularity with citizens held steady even at the height of
well-publicized probes of his role in steering city deposits to
a bank he
was a director of. "Hi, mayor!" shouted a sunburned
young driver as she saw
the beleaguered mayor on a Westside street corner during a heated
conference in May 1989. "Hang in there!" Her closed-fist
wave brought a
sparkle to his grim face, and he waved in acknowledgment.
But when he finally left office, only 42% of the respondents in
poll said Bradley would be remembered as an "above average"
Quiet though he may have been, there were things that moved him
eloquence. At a 1979 ceremony naming a new South-Central Los Angeles
health care center for then-93-year-old H. Claude Hudson, a lifelong
rights activist who had helped found the National Assn. for the
of Colored People, Bradley paid a moving tribute to the frail
ended by noting how glad he was that Hudson was being honored
lifetime, saying he was pleased to "give you your roses while
you can smell
He was more famous for his caution than his rhetoric. Guarded
and action, Bradley declined, for example, to take a stand on
segregation crisis that threatened to rip apart the city in the
"Tom usually doesn't join the battle until it's time to shoot
Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner once said.
His emotions were usually hidden behind a poker face. "One
of the most
difficult [things] to learn in dealing with Tom Bradley is that
you go in
and he listens with a sphinx-like expression and you don't know
anything you have said has registered and you certainly don't
he agrees with your assessment of the situation," said Anton
Calleia, a top
assistant after Bradley was elected to the City Council in 1963.
While Bradley was mayor, the appearance of downtown, the Westside
parts of the San Fernando Valley was changed by high-rise office
and other commercial enterprises.
The downtown growth was sparked by one of Bradley's first mayoral
policy initiatives, a huge redevelopment plan that he steered
City Council in 1974. Under city auspices, and with heavy Bradley
a shopping center was built in Watts, the first since the area
abandoned by businesses after the 1965 riots. A mayoral effort
Produce Market from leaving the city, and Bradley succeeded in
shopping centers in two inner-city areas threatened with decay--the
Slauson-Vermont neighborhood and the Crenshaw district.
A start was made on a subway from downtown to the San Fernando
although it was heavily criticized as being far too expensive,
and work was
begun on a light-rail line, allowing him to finally keep an early
promise to break ground on a rail mass transit system before he
The subway, the planned linchpin of the system, has since been
controversy, delays and cost overruns and is the subject of a
ballot initiative that would bar use of sales tax revenues for
beyond what Bradley envisioned as merely its first leg--a segment
downtown to North Hollywood.
Triumphing Over Injustice
Bradley's entire life was a series of firsts, a primer on how
surmount institutionalized injustice.
He was born Dec. 29, 1917, to Lee and Crenner Bradley, poor
sharecroppers who lived in a small log cabin outside Calvert,
grandfather had been a slave.
The family moved to Arizona to pick cotton, and young Tom had
Half a century later, as he rode through California's Central
fields on a gubernatorial campaign trip, Bradley looked out the
recalled how he picked cotton as a young boy. "That was enough,"
he said. "I
never did fill that 25-pound sack."
In 1924, the family moved to Los Angeles, near Temple and Alvarado
streets. Lee Bradley was a porter for the Santa Fe railroad and
crews that traveled the West Coast. Crenner Bradley worked as
The Bradleys were divorced and, at one point, their son recalled,
family went on public assistance. "Public assistance during
was not an unusual thing, and it just seemed that everybody we
knew in one
way or another received some kind of help," he recalled.
By then, there were five children: Lawrence, the oldest; Tom;
Mae; Ellis, who had cerebral palsy; and Howard.
Bradley's mother worked hard. "She was not at home except
late at night
when she would return from work every day, exhausted from cooking
else's meals and washing clothes," Bradley told his biographers,
Payne and Scott C. Ratzan, authors of "Tom Bradley: The Impossible
"But the first thing she would do was fix a meal for us for
following day and ask about our schoolwork."
Bradley attended Rosemont Elementary School and Lafayette Junior
School, where he was counseled against going to college. But he
promising athlete at the neighborhood Central Recreation Center,
and he was
recruited by Ed Leahy, track coach at Polytechnic High School,
white school. His success there foreshadowed the accomplishments
became the first black to be elected president of the Poly Boys'
the first to be inducted into the Ephebians, a national honor
also was captain of the track team and a star in the quarter-mile
jump, and anchored the relay team. He was All-City tackle for
Engineers football team, shifting occasionally to running back
He won admission to UCLA on an athletic scholarship, competing
Bruin track team, and joined Kappa Alpha Psi, the black fraternity
remained one of his major interests after his student days. One
of the jobs
that he had while at UCLA was as a photographer for comedian Jimmy
During his junior year in college, Bradley took an exam to join
Angeles Police Department, placing near the top, and entered the
academy in 1940.
By then, he had fallen in love with Ethel Arnold, whom he had
the New Hope Baptist Church, where her father was superintendent.
married May 4, 1941, and later had their daughters Lorraine and
During Bradley's incessant rounds of civil and political appearances
many years later, Ethel Bradley busied herself by becoming one
of the city's
biggest Dodger fans and by working tirelessly in her gardens at
the city's official mayoral residence in Hancock Park. Bradley
Times in 1988 that there were just three evenings a year that
he could be
counted on to spend with his wife: "Her birthday, my birthday,
Awards. Those are absolutely inviolate dates."
The early years of Bradley's marriage and his career with a Police
Department that numbered just 100 blacks among its 4,000 officers
examples of the racism that the future mayor and his family encountered
the Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s.
"When I came on the department, there were literally two
for black officers," Bradley once told a Times reporter.
"You either worked
Newton Street Division, which has a predominantly black community,
worked traffic downtown. . . . You could not work with a white
that continued until 1964."
Bradley rose to lieutenant, the highest rank held by a black upon
But his relations with the department were always ambivalent.
he appointed a Police Commission that increased civilian control.
Bradley's 1973 rematch with then-Mayor Sam Yorty, someone leaked
from police intelligence files that implied that Bradley was a
radical with communist leanings.
Early Clashes With Black Leaders
Racism seemed to touch every aspect of life in Los Angeles for
black couple just starting out. Bradley rarely complained, but
remembered the downtown clothing store that refused him credit,
was a police officer, and the restaurants that would not serve
Bradley and his wife needed a white intermediary to buy their
house in Leimert Park, then a virtually all-white section of the
Crenshaw district. In 1956, the Bradleys were refused admittance
and restaurants because of their race.
They were, daughter Lorraine recalled, a close family. "We
had a ball
in those days," she said. "We didn't have a whole lot.
Daddy used to love
being at home, and he used to get in the kitchen and cook and
dishes. . . . Mother loved to bake. Talk about your hostess extraordinaire!
They'd have card parties once a week--bridge, that kind of stuff."
Later, during much of Bradley's time in office, the family struggled
with Phyllis Bradley's drug addiction, which led to several arrests
10-year period, including a six-month sentence in County Jail.
"It is hard to say what went wrong there," Bradley told
biographers, "and, believe me, any father or mother will
that, day in and day out--why, with two lovely daughters that
you love so
dearly, who have been brought up under the same roof, one seems
to have had
the problems that Phyllis has gone through."
Bradley attended law school in his last years in the Police Department
and began practicing when he left the LAPD. His entry into politics
with a prophetic decision to join the Crenshaw Democratic Club.
The club was
part of the California Democratic Council, a liberal, reformist
organized in the 1950s by young Democrats energized by Adlai E.
presidential campaigns. It was predominantly white and had many
members, thus marking the beginnings of the coalition, which along
Latinos, that would carry him to electoral victory so many times.
His choice of a Democratic circle also put him at odds with another
political force in the black community, representatives of poor,
areas who were associated with the political organization of the
M. Unruh, then an up-and-coming state assemblyman. The early stage
Bradley's political career was marked by clashes with black leaders
onetime California Lt. Gov. and former Rep. Mervyn Dymally, an
1st Black Elected to City Council
When the 10th District City Council seat became vacant, Bradley,
by his Democratic colleagues, applied for the appointment, but
chose a conservative white Republican. Bradley ran for the seat
in 1963 and
won, becoming the first black elected to the council. Gilbert
was appointed to the council, actually was sworn in a few months
Bradley's district, centered in the Crenshaw area, contained three
ethnic groups--blacks, Asians and whites, the last constituting
From the outset of his career, Bradley was a black politician
Years later, when a student, commenting on Bradley's lack of personal
charisma and his caution, wondered aloud whether Los Angeles had
black Gerald Ford rather than a black John Kennedy, Bradley replied:
not a black this or a black that. I'm just Tom Bradley."
On the council, he was a strong critic of the Police Department,
particularly of its handling of the 1965 Watts riots. In a debate
before his election to the council, Bradley said the department
"giant strides" toward solving its racial problems.
As a councilman, he
said: "Some police officers are bigoted. It is not a majority,
but a small
minority. I think the public should be aware of it. I think there
segregation in the Los Angeles Police Department."
Bradley took his first crack at the mayor's job in 1969, opposing
conservative, blunt Sam Yorty. Bradley finished first in the primary.
the runoff, Yorty fought back with a slashing campaign in which
Bradley as a black militant and an ultra-leftist. Yorty was reelected.
Bradley, however, immediately began planning another, ultimately
successful challenge in 1973.
Powerful downtown business interests at first opposed him. But
passage of the 1974 redevelopment plan and the inclusion of business
on influential committees, corporate chiefs moved comfortably
in behind him.
With business and labor organizations joining the minorities and
liberals who had backed him, Bradley was considered unbeatable
winning reelection in 1977, 1981, 1985 and 1989. He handily beat
Yorty comeback try in 1981 and over the years scared off many
competitors, including then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and Ira
was elected city controller and city attorney before becoming
attorney. His political nemesis, Chief Gates, publicly toyed with
challenging Bradley but never did.
He did not find success in a wider political arena. He came within
52,295 votes of winning the governor's office in 1982; his campaign
years later failed badly. He turned down a cabinet post in Jimmy
administration and was considered, but not chosen, as a running
Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign.
He refocused his attention at City Hall, where he remained a popular
figure. But by the time the scandal over Bradley's bank ties broke--a
of weeks before the 1989 primary election--he was very nearly
forced into a
runoff by a lesser-known candidate, Councilman Nate Holden, also
Bradley eventually was exonerated but acknowledged making an "error
judgment" in accepting money from Far East National Bank.
He also reached a
$20,000 settlement with the city attorney over failure to properly
his financial holdings.
Bradley spent the rest of his tenure grappling--belatedly, critics
said--with the problems spawned by the city's rapid growth.
Battling Heart Attack, Stroke
Bradley's zest for work continued after he retired from City Hall
joined the downtown law offices of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison.
in international trade issues, Bradley was usually the first to
the morning and stayed late at night, a young attorney in the
That kind of dedication continued until Bradley was felled by
attack while driving his car in March 1996. Doctors performed
surgery on the former mayor shortly thereafter, and he appeared
recovering. But less than a day after the surgery he suffered
that left him unable to speak clearly for the rest of his life.
condition limited his public appearances.
But even before he was stricken, for the most part, he kept a
he made to himself not to comment on the actions or performance
successor. He generally resisted urgings to do so from any number
reporters or attendees at his occasional public speaking engagements.
notable exception was the anger that he displayed in late 1995,
vetoed a housing and commercial development proposed at 81st Street
Vermont Avenue in south Los Angeles. It had been opposed by neighbors
powerful Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) but was an important
her political foe and area representative, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Bradley publicly denounced the veto, accusing Riordan of acting
desire to get back at Ridley-Thomas, his most vocal council critic.
afterward, the council overrode the veto with a stunning 15-0
The next month, Bradley lent his voice in opposition to another
initiative to fire Franklin White, the executive director of the
building the subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
that he was being fired because he had shown too much integrity
in trying to
control a "money train, and if you get between the people
who want the money
and the people who spend the money you've got problems."
But Riordan blamed White for failing to stop the hemorrhage of
publicity and other problems with subway construction and for
what he called
the MTA's "paralysis by analysis."
At the showdown MTA board meeting at which Riordan prevailed,
made a surprise appearance. "I could no longer sit back and
be quiet," he
said, in defending White as a voice of independence and integrity.
too much of my blood, sweat and energy wrapped up in the MTA for
ignore what is taking place in my community."
Those were exceptions. Once out of the limelight, Bradley generally
professed not to miss it and seemed to take easily to life as
citizen. In 1994, he told a Times reporter of the pleasure he
reading the morning newspaper once he left office: "It's
a joy to get up in
the morning, walk out to the frontyard, pick up the paper and
say: ÔI don't
give a damn what's in it.' I had enough exposure in 20 years to
lifetime. If my name was never printed again, it wouldn't bother
Taken From Black America On Line