Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

40 years later: Remembering the pivotal election of Tom Bradley

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Eric Garcetti picked up where Antonio Villaraigosa left off, becoming mayor of Los Angeles by assembling a strong multi-ethnic coalition of supporters. But, they weren't the first to do so.

Forty years ago this week, Tom Bradley took office as LA's first African-American mayor after a transformational election. His quest to lead LA began four years earlier in what became a nasty contest against an entrenched incumbent.

The TV news footage from the time is grainy, but the words are clear. It is 1969, and two-term incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty is fighting for his political life against an African-American city councilman seeking to oust him from office.

“Militants are being very quiet right now,” Yorty warned. “They’re kind of lying back and waiting. They don’t want to jeopardize Bradley’s chances.”

Yorty successfully stirred racial fears that year, suggesting Tom Bradley was a tool of violent black militants and white communists.

The idea was absurd. Bradley was a former LAPD police lieutenant. But conservative whites flocked to the polls. Yorty’s strategy worked.

 

 

Almost immediately, Bradley went to work on a 1973 rematch. He added professionals to his grassroots political operation, and spent more time in white communities. They needed to get comfortable with this son of Texas sharecroppers who had become a lawyer and city councilman.

Liberal white voters – many of them Jewish – and African-Americans lifted Bradley to victory.

“Tonight was the fulfillment of a dream – the impossible dream,” Bradley told supporters on election night. “The victory is not just a victory for Tom Bradley, not just a victory for the campaign, but a victory for progress, a victory for our children.”

When Bradley challenged Yorty, he was confronting the white conservative power structure that ran Los Angeles – a system embodied in a police department that routinely harassed minority residents.

“In a way, his victory was really a peaceful revolution,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

His victory was also satisfying revenge, says Bradley’s eldest daughter.

“Oh my gosh, it was sweet,” Lorraine Bradley says, still smiling broadly 40 years later.

It was a joyous but sometimes scary time. She recalls seeing her father prepare for his City Hall inauguration amid a barrage of death threats: “Police had him put on a bulletproof vest.”

Bradley’s longtime chief administrative assistant Wanda Combs-Moore remembers the threats, but also the excitement surrounding the new mayor. For months, news reporters would not leave him alone.

“It was pandemonium,” she says. “The press was all in the hallway. You had to step over them.”

Before joining Bradley, Combs-Moore labored as a clerk-typist for the city – never receiving a promotion despite glowing reviews.

“It was like you were invisible," she says. "You were not taken seriously.”

Early on in his administration, Bradley ordered city managers to diversify hiring and to justify when minorities and women were passed over for promotions.

“After that directive hit, blacks started moving up the ladder,” Combs-Moore said.

Bradley did far more than integrate City Hall. The pro-business mayor led downtown development, brought the 1984 Olympics to L.A., expanded LAX and launched light rail.

“He’s the most important mayor in this city’s history,” Sonenshein maintains. “He served five terms and really made Los Angeles a modern city.”

Bradley had his troubles – facing a financial scandal and the 1992 riots. But just before leaving office in 1993, after years of feuding with a defiant LAPD, he persuaded voters to remove civil service protections from the chief and subject the department to civilian oversight. The smoke from the riots had barely cleared.

“He was dropping in the polls," Sonensheim says. "He was mired in political trouble. And he reaches up and pulls off this colossal victory." The measure laid the groundwork for major police reforms a decade later.

Former Mayor Jim Hahn, who served as city controller and city attorney under Bradley, calls him a great collaborator.

“Mayor Bradley got so much done by not yelling about it,” Hahn says. “He was man of few words when you were in a meeting with him. He would listen a lot, absorb everything.”

That worked well for a six-foot-four black man who might intimidate some people.

Bradley’s enduring political legacy may be his work across racial and ethnic boundaries – something his daughter Lorraine recalls seeing as her father trotted off to dozens of meetings long before he was mayor.

“He was in 63 organizations," she says. "Most of them were multi-cultural and multi-ethnic groups. He always knew that if you don’t bridge gaps between groups of people, you can’t get anything done.”

Bradley attributes her father’s ease among diverse groups to his time playing football and running track in high school and college.

“I think that team sport atmosphere and the fact that he was a star on the teams — all of that helped,” says Bradley, who spent her career teaching physical education. “You have to get along with everybody.”

Bradley unsuccessfully ran for California governor twice, narrowly losing in 1982 to George Deukmejian. He died in 1998 at the age 80.

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