The pending retirement of Mayor Tom Bradley leaves the city's black community in a political vacuum. A politician who showed little interest in building a machine, Bradley leaves behind neither a favorite son nor a clear-cut strategy for protecting the gains made by African-Americans during his long tenure.
At a time when ethnic competition for political largess grows more intense by the day, many blacks are convinced they face an uphill battle not only to protect Bradley's legacy of appointments, access and influence, but to address the critical needs of the city that were exposed by the rioting last spring.
And while the mayor's departure opens up opportunities for a new generation of ambitious young blacks, the new voices often are among the most cautionary.
"There is great concern about our political future, about losing clout," said Denise Fairchild, who directs a nonprofit firm that promotes economic development in the inner city.
"We worry about a mood that says, 'You've had your chance now. Your day is over.' " said the Rev. Kenneth Ulmer, pastor of the Faithful Central Baptist Church in South-Central Los Angeles.
The 1993 mayor's race, which has already begun, will be an important test of the black community's political solidarity.
City Councilman Nate Holden, an African-American and a longtime foe of the mayor, has joined the race, and black lawyer J. Stanley Sanders is seriously thinking of becoming a candidate. But both men are considered long shots. Holden lost to Bradley in the 1989 mayor's race and now must contend with allegations of sexual harassment by former female staff members. Sanders, a former Rhodes scholar and a Bradley appointee to two city commissions, is not widely known and would have to work hard for recognition outside downtown corporate and legal circles.
Without a black incumbent or a front-runner to rally around, black leaders are looking for ways to unite voters, knowing that the community's ability to influence city policy will be tied to its continued willingness to vote as a bloc.
The sense of political urgency in the black community grows out of the rioting last spring. But it also is a reaction to dramatic economic and demographic changes that have robbed South Los Angeles of thousands of jobs just as hundreds of thousands of new, mostly Latino immigrants have begun competing with blacks not just for jobs but for government resources and political leverage.
Black political leaders realize that voting strength is the one clear advantage they have over other, faster-growing ethnic groups. Although their numbers are declining, registered black voters still outnumber Latinos by nearly 2 to 1 and Asians by 20 to 1.
Harnessing that power, black leaders say, is the best hope they have of holding onto the gains of the Bradley era.
"We are very focused on the issue of equitable distribution, whether it's contracting opportunities or appointments to city commissions," Fairchild said. "It's bound to be an issue the (mayoral) candidates will have to grapple with. And we must make sure our interests aren't taken for granted."
Political tensions between blacks and other ethnic groups, particularly Latinos, in Los Angeles have surfaced during the selection of Police Chief Willie L. Williams and a new acting superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Sid Thompson.
Blacks came out on top in both cases, adding to an impressive list of African-American public officials that also includes Bradley, three members of the 15-member City Council and the winner of the still undecided race for the County Board of Supervisors. Both contenders, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Diane Watson, are black.
Yet these victories do not allay the insecurity of many blacks. They regard much of the progress made over the past several years as the last harvest of the old politics--alliances among blacks, Jews and Westside liberals that appear to be on the wane. Moreover, the rioting is seen as evidence that longstanding coalitions were not responding to the social and economic ills that were exposed last spring.
As the race for Bradley's job gets under way, the challenge for black political leaders is to form new coalitions that will protect the gains made under Bradley, who opened up city departments and commissions to minorities and expanded minority business opportunities.
With the black population declining relative to other groups, leaders realize they will be unable to win on their own.
And to avoid alienating potential allies, they must deftly craft an agenda on such volatile issues as economic development for the inner city, crime and education.
"Obviously, you have to play to your base," said Sanders. "But you can't allow yourself to become a captive to it. You can offer a policy of economic vigilance toward South-Central that doesn't amount to quotas for jobs or contracts."