Gilbert W. Lindsay, the flamboyant politician who worked his way up from city janitor to become Los Angeles' first black City Council member and one of its most powerful local elected officials, died early Friday. Lindsay, who helped fashion downtown Los Angeles into a major metropolitan center, was 90.
Left speechless and nearly motionless by a massive stroke on Sept. 2, the veteran politician died shortly after 2 a.m. at the Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Hollywood, hospital Vice President Timothy Ogata said. The official cause of death will be determined later, but Ogata said Lindsay's already weakened health had deteriorated in recent days.
"Councilman Lindsay was a dynamic force in Los Angeles who opened the doors of political power to all residents with his appointment to the City Council in January of 1963," said Mayor Tom Bradley, who once served beside Lindsay on the council. The mayor ordered all flags on city property to be flown at half staff.
For the past 27 years--and even at his death--Lindsay represented the sprawling, contradictory 9th Council District, which stretches from the sparkling skyscrapers of the downtown financial district to the impoverished neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles.
The gravel-voiced councilman, although only 5 feet, 3 inches tall, was a giant among politicians in Los Angeles.
Born at the turn of the century in Mississippi, where he worked in the cotton fields, he was one of the last in a line of colorful old-style backslappers who openly helped his friends, remembered his enemies and dished up large doses of hyperbole. Early in his career, he once belittled his fellow council members as people who would "gag on a gnat and swallow a camel" after they had taken time out from city matters to force him to remove several blue lights on his city-owned car that they considered tacky.
Lindsay's death is sure to create a power vacuum and a scramble among politicians eyeing his seat on the council.
A special election to fill the vacant seat will probably be held in April, coinciding with regularly scheduled municipal elections. In the meantime, the chief legislative analyst's office will handle the business of Lindsay's district.
The self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Great 9th," Lindsay regarded the rejuvenation of the downtown area of his district as his greatest accomplishment. Indeed, many see today's skyline as a tribute to Lindsay because of his role in transforming parts of downtown Los Angeles from nondescript, aging buildings to an impressive skyline of high-rises and elegant hotels.
Lindsay remained a vigorous proponent of growth even as younger politicians began to question the impact of development on traffic and air quality.
In an interview in 1975, Lindsay spoke of what might have been. "If I was 20 years younger I would be governor or U.S. senator from California," he said. "I am too old now--I got lazy and old. When you get through swinging that mop, you get tired and old."
But not too old to keep plugging on. Grief-stricken by the 1984 death of his wife of 48 years, Theresa, he nonetheless sought and won reelection in 1985. He suffered a mild stroke in October, 1988, but was reelected in 1989.
Lindsay never wanted to retire, in spite of his periodic dozing in his seat during council meetings that became the object of jokes in City Hall. Even in 1981 when he was 80 and running for his fifth term, his campaign rhetoric remained feisty: "When I find good new leadership in the interest of the people I sure enough will step aside," he said, taking off his bifocals and shaking them for emphasis. "But I don't think three of them (candidates) is worth half of me."
Nevertheless, the decline of his final years took a toll. After the first stroke in 1988, Lindsay's absences from council sessions increased and his ability to handle routine council business decreased.
In the weeks before his death, council members were forced to grapple with the issue of whether to remove him from office. This led to a sad incident in which relatives had Lindsay transferred from a hospital in Inglewood to another facility within Los Angeles city limits to make him less vulnerable to efforts to unseat him.
At the same time, an ugly battle over Lindsay's estate erupted after it was revealed that a 39-year-old former girlfriend had gained control of many of his real estate holdings. In a lawsuit aimed at recovering the property, Lindsay's stepson, Herbert Howard, described the councilman as senile.
Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who drew up Lindsay's will and is representing Howard, said Friday that the suit will continue and possibly be combined with the probating of the will.
But the decline and disillusion of the later years were overshadowed Friday as glowing tributes to the politician were voiced from City Hall to the restaurants and shoeshine parlors of Central Avenue.