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The Times Poll : Bradley: Is He Losing Old Touch?

First of two parts. Next: Bradley and the future of his ethnic coalition.

July 01, 1987|BILL BOYARSKY | Times City-County Bureau Chief

At 69, Tom Bradley is a far different leader from the man who moved into the Los Angeles mayor's office in 1973 as an environmentalist, reformer and symbol of reconciliation in the decade after the Watts riot.

He has been reelected easily three times and has said that he will run again in 1989. But today, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll, he is out of step with a city that is fast expanding as a multiracial economic capital, with its attendant problems of ethnic tension, traffic jams and neighborhoods congested from new commercial buildings.

"The vultures are feeling he can be had," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League and a longtime Bradley friend. " . . . I think they are wrong. But clearly, that's a factor (in city politics)."

A Changing City

Conflicting themes--a constituency in flux and a mayor who keeps his own counsel and is reluctant to respond to signs that the city is changing--dominate an examination of Bradley by The Times Poll and by a reporter who interviewed Bradley, current and past members of his staff, other Bradley advisers, city officials and community leaders.

Today, the poll showed, he is preferred over potential opponents, and if the election were held now, Bradley would be the favorite. However, that finding is considered by polling experts to be a reflection of Bradley's high name recognition, and not a forecast of an election that is two years away. Those polled gave high marks to the mayor for the way he is doing his job. For example, most approved of some of his major policy decisions, including his support of the Metro Rail commuter project and his decision to clear out homeless sidewalk camps near downtown. But the poll also showed that there is substantial disapproval of the mayor's position on several other important issues, and doubt about whether he was the man to guide Los Angeles in the future.

For instance, 45% of those polled said Los Angeles was changing faster than the mayor, 31% said he has kept up, and only 8% said he was thinking ahead of the city.

Only a minority of those polled saw him as the best bet to solve some of the city's emerging big problems. While Bradley won as a strong environmentalist 14 years ago, only three out of 10 residents said he is the best person to solve environmental pollution problems today. Only 17% said they agree with his approval of oil drilling near the beach in Pacific Palisades, a decision that cost him substantial environmentalist support.

And a majority of all kinds of Los Angeles residents--blacks, whites, Latinos, Democrats, Republicans, independents--said the next city administration should not continue on the Bradley path.

In short, the poll findings and the interviews give a picture of a mayor who has failed to meet the public's hopes in providing solutions for a city where the realities of growth are clashing with the traditional Los Angeles suburban dream of a single family home, complete with yard and a car for each adult in the family.

The concern for quality-of-life problems, while always an undertone in Los Angeles politics, rose to the surface relatively suddenly both here and in other parts of the state, catching many traditional politicians unaware.

It has resulted in a new, informal political movement of "no-growthers" or "slow-growthers," who are both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, middle class and above and who, for the most part, are white.

Some of them--conservative Republican suburbanites--were never Bradley people. But in these times of change, he is also losing white liberals, among them Jewish voters who have always been loyal to him, but now say they have lost confidence in his ability to solve traffic, pollution and planning problems.

Shift in Personal Style

Sadly for the mayor, the change in public sentiment has coincided with a change in his style that prevents him from knowing what is going on, according to several past and present staff members.

Once he consulted many people. He was the ultimate grass-roots politician. Today, with new currents sweeping the city, Bradley deals with some of the most complex problems without consulting old aides or young ones who have been trying to sell him on new ideas. Associates said in interviews that Bradley has become out of touch and mistrustful of people who were once close advisers.

"The mayor is more and more into himself," one said. "He really doesn't consult anyone. He doesn't want to."

One friend, William Robertson, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said that after Bradley's narrow loss for governor in 1982, "he began relying less on people and more on his own judgment." Has he lost trust in his advisers? "I guess one could come to that conclusion," Robertson said. "After doing some soul searching, he has less confidence in the people around him, which is natural."

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