Photo by Ted Soqui
Tom Bradley’s 1973 triumph over Sam Yorty was the kind of cause the L.A. Weekly could have gotten behind: the black Democrat — representing change and progress — against the race-baiting, reactionary Republican. It would have been a defining moment for a movement paper pushing the envelope with its lefty agenda. Not to mention a sweet victory, for which us scribes could have taken some credit, as in: “We advocated and the citizenry responded.” (Kind of like what was supposed to happen when the paper editorialized so strongly on behalf of mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001.)
Bradley, after all, was a pioneer — the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, who picked cotton as a child in the fields of Texas until his hands bled. In his adopted L.A., after refusing his counselor’s advice to stick to vocational classes, he went to college and became a track star — a classmate and friend of Jackie Robinson. In the Police Department, he battled discrimination as the first black to rise to lieutenant. Then he got a law degree at night and became the first black city councilman, before finally getting past Yorty.
But Bradley’s landmark victory came some five years before the Weekly hit the scene. And by then, Bradley very much wasthe establishment. Not the worst of it, but not a figure whom a collection of reckless radicals was prepared to rally behind.
“We were extremely critical of Bradley from beginning to end,” said Weekly founding editor Jay Levin. “We saw him as a semirightist Democrat.” Levin gives Bradley credit for opening up city-government jobs to minorities and generally good marks on overtly racial issues. “But on the other, really core issues that challenged the power structure, he’d been framed by a previous generation. Yes, he was a huge improvement in that he brought city government from the ideological right to the middle. But even at the time, Los Angeles could have been more of a progressive city than he allowed for. He got into bed early on with the power structure, even to the extent of neglecting his own community.”
The young L.A. Weekly felt a near duty to challenge Bradley’s authority, to score points at his expense without apology. Much of that job fell to City Hall reporter Ron Curran, who died last month. “One of Ron’s better pieces,” said Levin, “was one analyzing Bradley’s dereliction toward his own African-American precincts in terms of city budgets and city services.”
Predictably, Weekly writers inclined toward overlooking the significance of Bradley’s ascension. And because they often focused on events, say, in Central America, the local reporting could be spotty as well. “The Weekly could have done a better job with the Bradley administration,” said Marc B. Haefele, who later covered City Hall for the Weekly, “particularly earlier on in covering some of its positive accomplishments, particularly considering the kind of mayoralties that came before him and after him.” Haefele said that Bradley made the city a more inclusive place for blacks, other minorities and women in a way that hasn’t since been equaled. And it’s easy to underestimate how difficult and crucial that was in the life of the city.
The forward-looking Bradley, however, shared the weaknesses of the go-go development era in Southern California, especially in reshaping downtown, where his leadership etched a metropolitan skyline that was soulless at street level. “His basic idea,” said Haefele, now city editor at the L.A. Alternative Press, “was to destroy all that vibrant infrastructure of small shopkeepers from various parts of the world who had been moving into old commercial buildings and freshening them up. Instead, his whole plan was basically to turn downtown into a kind of Century City, as though it was some sort of a General Motors futurama vision, circa 1938, of tall, beautiful 100-story buildings connected by freeways and monorails. He never really got the idea of downtown as a concentration of the essence of the civilization of a city.”
Even so, the L.A. that Bradley nurtured and left behind after 20 years as mayor was proudly multicultural, a world-stage city, with one of the globe’s major ports, with tall buildings downtown — a bustling Pacific Rim flagship. He nearly became the state’s first black governor, losing narrowly to George Deukmejian in 1982. Two years later, L.A.’s hosting of the Olympics proved a spectacular success and showcase.
“Bradley probably reaches his apogee with the Olympics in 1984,” said Kit Rachlis, who became the Weekly’s editor in 1989. “I was on hand for the ‰74 downward slide of Bradley, the Bradley who became the prisoner of downtown development, who trafficked in petty corruption, who no longer was a dynamic spokesperson for the city. But he still was capable of browbeating and manipulating the City Council.” So much so that it was easy to forget that L.A.’s charter at the time made it a so-called weak mayor. The Mayor’s Office didn’t seem so weak with Bradley in charge.
At the same time, “Bradley was in the horrible position of being a black mayor overseeing a police department that was notoriously racist — and not being able to do very much about it,” said Rachlis, currently the editor of Los Angeles Magazine. “And this is ironic because he was one of the people who integrated the LAPD years before.”
Bradley wasn’t even on speaking terms with Daryl Gates, the civil-service-protected Anglo police chief, when the city erupted in riots following the 1992 acquittals of officers charged with beating Rodney King. Bradley’s own psyche seemed wounded; every arson fire and every hurled stone seemed to injure him personally, even as it tormented the city itself. His legacy, when he left office in 1993, loomed too large and positive to go up in flames, but the conflagration illuminated the city’s untended business in gang-plagued, job-poor and drug-ridden neighborhoods, and in its battered, overcrowded schools.
Rachlis cites several Weekly scribes for distinction in chronicling events of the late Bradley period, including Harold Meyerson, “who understood and continues to understand L.A. politics better than anybody else.”
Of course, Bradley rarely had any use for reporters. A typical encounter with the post-mayoral Bradley was his 1995 arrival at the election-night gathering of Stan Sanders, who’d just lost his bid for City Council despite Bradley’s endorsement. Bradley swept into the room, took one look at the approaching reporter’s notebook and shook his head. “No interviews tonight,” he said, with a wave of his hand, as though shooing a fly. The awed crowd parted before him as though an invisible red carpet had unrolled. There was no argument about the interview, and a dozen admirers would have happily tossed any reporter who persisted.
This personal magnetism did not extend to an ongoing political influence, as Sanders’ loss demonstrated — although Bradley nurtured many future leaders, including City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and former state Controller Kathleen Connell. And to this day, aspiring politicians claim Bradley’s endorsement — insisting that he gave them the royal nod before he died, or that he would have if he could have.
“I consider Bradley to have been one of the very few great people I’ve met,” said Haefele. “Bradley was something bigger than mayor of Los Angeles, at least during the first two-thirds of his tenure. He should have been a national leader or at least a state leader. And I don’t think he could have failed to be one had he not been black. But on the other hand, he wouldn’t have been Tom Bradley if he hadn’t been black.”
A stroke took away Bradley’s power to speak in 1996. For his last two years, he became a kind of living statue, still moving around the city, his presence wordlessly and graciously reminding people of his stature. Bradley always retained a patrician’s demeanor, which wasn’t a put-on and was usually not off-putting. The regal quality did not offend, because it ran soul deep, rooted firmly in strength of character.