How Los Angeles transformed - and didn't transform - Tom Bradley

Almost the last time I saw Tom Bradley, I didn't recognize the slumped old man in the far corner of the City Council, whispering to a few friends. It was 1994, and he hadn't been in City Hall since his retirement the year before. He'd returned for what seemed a strange reason: to counter then-Fire Chief Donald Manning's claim that, as mayor, Bradley had permitted segregation in the fire department in the mid-1970s.

Just how quickly Bradley had integrated the city's most segregated department didn't matter to most of us. The job had been done, and whether it had taken a few months or years was an issue for historians, not journalists. But it mattered to Bradley. As he stood to address the council, an amazing thing happened. The years fell away as he unstooped to his full height. His face became young and strong, and in a baritone that filled the entire room, he told us that he had spread black firefighters from their ghetto locations all over the city as soon as he took office. And that was that.

He held on to this vigor as he marched out of the council chamber and into the elevator. You couldn't know what that 15-minute self-rejuvenation had cost him, but you also wondered whether Bradley's decline had really been that rapid. You wondered whether in his last three years in office, moving into his mid-70s, Bradley had not sometimes been, in private, the old man you now saw in public. Whether the mayor who had huddled in his office over all those weekends had had to, because he found the details of his job increasingly daunting.

Those were the years of Rodney King and the '92 riots. They were the years when Bradley, whose innate inclusiveness had for decades brought an unbelievable spectrum of individuals into his coalition, found himself unable to control his own police department - even after the riot caused by the King verdict. They were the years when the city's 15-year economic miracle turned topsy-turvy, with minorites left at the short end of the stick. They were the years of a fifth term which - following some major personal-finance scandals - perhaps ought not to have happened.

Now that he's gone, it's easier to forget those years. I can remember instead the incredible statewide support Tom Bradley found for his narrowly lost 1982 gubernatorial bid, the enthusiasm of poor whites and Latinos in little San Joaquin Valley tank towns for the big, black man from the city. Tom Bradley was already a national figure. People like me, sick of frozen slush and a screaming little idiot bigot of a mayor, left New York's winter and Ed Koch to move to a great city that practiced a politics of diminished, not increased, racial divisions.

"Inclusion's now a cliche, but it was then real," says John Stodder, who worked with Bradley for six years. "He didn't pick fights. He brought people together."

He had to, taking office as he did a handful of years after the Watts Riots that some believed had spelled the end of Los Angeles as a major metropolis. "He took a Los Angeles that was having trouble identifying as an important national city and left it a world capital," Stodder recalls.

Bradley is also credited with our downtown skyline, which was propelled by, and even propelled, the '80s boom. Bradley's own favorite accomplishment was the 1984 Olympics, but critics contend that after that year, Bradley's interest in his job diminished. Stodder believes that a more lasting Bradley accomplishment was cleaning up the region's air. Before Bradley, he recalls, "W e had a brown sky. Without him, the labor and business factions would never have agreed to [AQMD] strictures."

Rafe Sonnenshein, chief executive for the Appointed Charter Commission, recalls the Bradley administration's incredible openness to newcomers. Freshly arrived in the 1970s from the East, Sonnenshein soon found himself working in Bradley's office, in an incredibly enthusiastic consortium of "every ethnicity imaginable." Sonnenshein has since written the definitive book on the Jewish-black center of that Bradley coalition.

In the midst of this melding, Bradley himself remained a lonely mystery to many. One early close supporter said her relationship with the mayor chilled "the moment I told him how much working for him meant to me."

Such detachment, however, failed to create successors in the Bradley tradition. His City Council proteges, Bob Farrell and Dave Cunningham, fell by the wayside and retired in mid-term. The only city elected official who still practices Bradley-like coalition politics is City Attorney Jim Hahn, but he inherited his style from his father, the late Supervisor Kenny Hahn. Bradley's personal "surrogate son," Ezuniel Burts, spent 15 comfortable years heading the Department of Harbors before jumping over to the Chamber of Commerce. He's shown no interest in electoral politics.

Aside from political progeny and his public duties as mayor, Bradley remained an avatar of solitary determination. Out of office at 75, he could have declared himself retired. Instead, he resumed the practice of law that he had abandoned 30 years before. He pedaled his exercycle to stay trim. Then, in 1996, a stroke and heart attack finally silenced the great baritone. Even so, as Controller Rick Tuttle pointed out, Bradley's mind remained alert and "he showed what a person with a major disability could do," taking positions on issues and endorsing candidates.

What we're left with now is the memory of the Bradley paradox: an aloof, solitary and determined man who somehow brought this city's populations together as never before. Or since.


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