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Racial Issue: A Rethinking of Bradley Policy

September 29, 1986|BILL BOYARSKY | Times City-County Bureau Chief

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Tom Bradley says he decided to openly discuss the political impact of being black in order to win the support of "the few" voters who "are not quite certain they will vote for a black based on stereotypes or biases."

Democrat Bradley discussed in an interview his decision to change his approach and talk frankly about whether his race will hurt him in his contest with Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

"I felt I could go through 1982 without getting into that issue at all," he said, referring to his earlier campaign against Deukmejian, which he narrowly lost. "In this election, I am going after every vote, even those who are not inclined to vote for me on the basis of race."

The Los Angeles mayor brought up the question Saturday in a speech to the executive committee of the state Democratic Party, and was cheered repeatedly as he spoke.

Pleased at Reception

Although the political implications of Bradley's speech are unclear, aides said, the reception by the Fresno audience left him euphoric.

Campaign chairman Tom Quinn said it seemed as if a burden had been lifted from Bradley with the ending of years of frustrating caution about dealing with his race.

Indeed, on Saturday night, Bradley joked and laughed over dinner here with aides and reporters.

At one point, when everyone assembled for a group picture, the bride and groom from a wedding party at the restaurant joined in. Bradley hugged them both and kissed the bride. "You've got my vote," shouted the groom as he and his wife left the restaurant later.

Still in a good mood Sunday, Bradley rose early and took a boat ride on Lake Tahoe with Dr. Don Cannon, whom aides described as a major campaign contributor. Afterward, the mayor pledged to a small group of supporters to work to preserve the lake's beauty if he is elected.

But the speech on race was the main event of a two-day trip that concentrated on the Central Valley and Mother Lode, two predominantly white areas Bradley lost in 1982.

The speech was a complete reversal of the way Bradley handled the racial issue in the 1982 election and in his campaigns for mayor. Those campaigns were noteworthy for the way he ignored discussion of the issue.

"In the last election, I lost by a handful of votes," Bradley said in an interview on one of the two small planes that carried the campaign party.

Change in Viewpoint

"I said throughout the election that race was not a factor. When it was over, I said the same thing. But it was obvious there were some people, how many I don't know, but obviously some people did cast their votes on the basis of their attitudes in regard to race.

"It is common knowledge that there are some people who have that kind of attitude, some stronger than others," he said.

He said his advisers have taken polls in an effort to understand the attitudes of this year's electorate toward Bradley's race, but the results were inconclusive.

Quinn said he had asked the mayor earlier why he never discussed the political implications of his race in speeches, when it was obviously potentially damaging.

He said that Bradley replied that people always urged him not to. At that point, Quinn said that he generally agreed that open discussion might not be a good idea.

Topic of Discussion

The two talked about the race question occasionally over the next few months, Quinn said.

It was clear that the problem existed. Pollster Mervin Field had estimated that racism had cost the mayor about 3% of the vote in the last election. Other polls reached similar conclusions.

Bradley strategists tried at first to deal with it subtly, with commercials pointing out that Bradley is a former policeman and seeking to portray him as a fighter against drugs.

But the Bradley team felt that tactic was not working. Then Democrats in predominantly white rural counties expressed fears in interviews that Bradley's race would cost him votes in November.

Reports of those interviews were the last straw, Quinn said, and on Tuesday the mayor called him and asked him to draft a speech on the subject.

Thoughts Expressed

The issue was clearly on Bradley's mind Thursday night when he spoke to a black group in Oakland.

"We've come a long way since no black dared run for a major public office," he said. "We've come a long way since a Catholic couldn't run for President--they don't even talk about that any more. We've come a long way since women couldn't vote and now they are equal in terms of opportunity to run. This campaign is about making history, about sending a message across this nation that here is a state that believes in equality . . . where candidates are judged on quality of leadership . . . not where you were born, not on the basis of black or white, rich or poor."

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