They were the alpha and omega of Tom Bradley’s Los Angeles. No two players
in Bradley’s coalition — a coalition that dominated the city in the 1970s and
’80s — were more different in politics and sensibility than Bill Robertson and
Marvin Braude. Robertson headed the L.A. County Federation of Labor from 1975
to 1993 (all but the first two years of Bradley’s mayoralty); Braude represented
the Westside on the City Council from 1965 to 1997. Robertson was the onetime
barkeep and alkie who won his war with the bottle; Braude was the guy who waged
a decades-long successful battle to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Robertson
was the guy who brought the Raiders to the Coliseum and, with Bradley, the glass
and steel towers to Figueroa; Braude — whom one cannot imagine attending a Raiders
game even at gunpoint — was the guy who brought the bikeway to the beach and,
with Congressman Tony Beilenson, the park to the Santa Monica Mountains. Both
died last week — Braude on Wednesday, Robertson on Friday.
Conceptually, if not personally (for Robertson was a soft-spoken and reflective man), Robertson was the Oscar and Braude the Felix in Bradley’s political ranks. When they fought — as they did over Bradley’s use of tax abatements to build the downtown skyline, and over Braude’s campaign to keep the rest of the city high-rise free — the Bradley coalition tottered. If they differed on growth, though, they agreed on social and racial equity. In the early years of Bradley’s two-decade run, that was enough to keep the Bradley machine chugging. In the later years, the growing tensions between the builders and the slow-growthers almost pulled Bradley down. Robertson took the helm at the County Fed in 1975, and over time found himself presiding over a movement that was entering into a long, sickening decline. In those days, the labor powerhouses in L.A. were the United Auto Workers and the machinists, each with close to 100,000 members in the auto and aerospace plants that ringed the city. L.A. was then the nation’s largest center of defense production, and its second-largest producer (after Michigan) of cars. But the auto companies shuttered all their factories during the ’70s and ’80s, and aerospace shriveled to almost nothing by the mid-’90s. With industrial unions losing their clout, and membership numbers ebbing fast, the building trades, whose leaders were seldom social visionaries, played a more prominent role. There was some detectable militance among SEIU’s county workers, the teachers and the machinists, but on the whole, L.A. unions during this time were losing their political edge.But not their political clout — at least, not the building trades. Robertson, and his chief aide, Jim Wood, provided crucial support for both Bradley and his growth agenda, which centered on the revival of downtown. In those days, unions didn’t flood the precincts with Election Day activists; that had to await the ascent of Miguel Contreras to the Fed’s top job in the mid-’90s, and the mobilization of thousands of new immigrant union activists, most of whom then were still south of the border. But nobody walked in L.A. politics in the ’80s. Politics in Robertson’s time was a business of donations and advertising, and the unions played the donation game to the hilt.Working chiefly behind the scenes, Robertson did all he could with a hand that grew a little weaker each year. Wood, his protégé, chaired the Community Redevelopment Agency and ensured that when a CRA building went up, the jobs would pay union wages. Robertson himself, as chairman of the Coliseum Commission, was Bradley’s emissary to Al Davis — and as long as Bill called the shots, the Raiders stayed in town. But the good jobs in working-class L.A. continued to vanish — part of a global trend that no labor leader on the planet has figured out how to arrest.
If the movement as Robertson found it would be unrecognizable today, the
Westside when Marvin Braude first ran for council would look equally strange.
It’s worth noting that Braude ousted a Republican, Karl Rundberg, when he was
first elected in 1965, and that Republican Alphonso Bell Jr. (Sr. had built Bel
Air) was the congressman from the far Westside until the late ’60s. Brentwood
now may be the residential zip code that provides Democrats with more money than
any other, but that was hardly the case then.
Not that Braude was in any sense a movement liberal. A businessman of independent means, with a University of Chicago degree, he was too impatient and cantankerous for movements. Indeed, for a man who did not suffer fools gladly, serving 32 years on the L.A. City Council would seem cruel and unusual punishment — except that Braude had a sense of mission. He wanted green space and cleaner air, and he kept hectoring his colleagues and his city until out of conscience, self-preservation and abject weariness they gave him what he asked for. Many of the leading advocates for these environmental causes in both Washington and Sacramento — Beilenson, Henry Waxman, Terry Friedman, Tom Hayden, Sheila Kuehl — all had districts that overlapped Braude’s, and all followed in his wake. Some of them had broader visions and agendas than he; but if Braude lacked Waxman’s scope, he could at least claim to have begun the political war on tobacco that Waxman has continually advanced.Braude wasn’t a down-the-line liberal: Back in 1978, he authored an L.A Times piece noting — wrongly, in hindsight — that Proposition 13, which he’d opposed, wasn’t doing any great damage to the Golden State. In a sense, he prefigured the kind of process liberalism — taking economic prosperity for granted but much concerned about clean politics, clean cities and clean air — of the Watergate class of congressmen, and Gary Hart Democrats in the decade following. While he was never one to pander to the homeowner associations — if you had to spend your days with the City Council, why would you spend your nights with sensibilities even more parochial than theirs? — he did champion many of their purposes, if not their paranoia.By the mid-’80s, Braude and his fellow Westside councilman Zev Yaroslavsky were doing all they could to halt Bradley’s and Robertson’s growth machine. They authored a successful ballot measure to contain the spread of high-rises to a few spots around town. Braude yelped at more CRA-backed major developments. Bradley could ill afford to lose their support: He had come to power with the support of a black-Jewish, South Central–Westside alliance, and he spent his latter years as mayor just barely holding it together despite the tensions over growth. In his last re-election campaign in 1989, he dodged what could have been a politically fatal bullet when Yaroslavsky, who’d been planning a run as the slow-growth challenger, finally chose not to.Today, these battles seem as distant as the Civil War. Braude, Robertson and Bradley were leaders of a city that exemplified the broadly shared prosperity of the postwar boom, perhaps the pre-eminent expression of the sprawling, auto-centered city. Today, our class differences are far greater, our median income lower, our living patterns much denser. And our new mayor embodies both the red and the green tendencies, the labor and environmental visions, that threatened to pull the Bradley coalition apart. Maybe that’s why the subway down Wilshire — creating jobs and getting cars off the streets — seems so dear to Antonio Villaraigosa’s heart: Hizzoner has found a project that both Bill Robertson and Marvin Braude might just endorse.
They were the alpha and omega of Tom Bradley’s Los Angeles. No two players