Cal State Fullerton political science professor Raphael Sonenshein, a student of Los Angeles politics, said that Yaroslavsky, while thoughtful on the issue of the historic liberal alliances between blacks and Jews, never actually built a solid bridge to the black community himself.
Others fault Yaroslavsky for not living up to his early billing as a reformer and champion of the underdog. "I haven't seen the reformer," said Ridley-Thomas, who represents South-Central Los Angeles.
To Ridley-Thomas, that was apparent when Yaroslavsky fought a plan to shift city housing funds to the central city, at the expense of Yaroslavsky's white, middle-class constituency.
"Unfortunately, he put his not inconsiderable talents to bad use . . . to divide the city and strain relations between communities," Ridley-Thomas said of the housing funds fight--which Yaroslavsky won.
To win his first City Council election in 1975, Yaroslavsky--a Hebrew schoolteacher and leader of a Soviet Jewry group--had to beat Fran Savitch, a member of Mayor Bradley's inner circle and the favorite of the affluent-liberal Jewish community.
But Yaroslavsky walked precincts and endeared himself to the older, middle-class Jewish residents of the Fairfax district--many of them recent immigrants--and scored an upset.
Before long, Yaroslavsky was embroiled in several popular crusades of the day that, in retrospect, show how Los Angeles and Yaroslavsky have changed over nearly two decades. Those fights included his support for killing a plan to put a diamond lane for car-pooling commuters on the Santa Monica Freeway and his opposition to an unpopular and hugely costly federal program to require the city of Los Angeles to stop dumping sewage sludge in Santa Monica Bay.
But it was on the police issue that he made his strongest mark.
A product of 1960s campus skepticism about law enforcement, Yaroslavsky tangled with the LAPD over police spying on dissident groups, including his own Southern California Council on Soviet Jews.
Later, Yaroslavsky championed a plan to end the use of the chokehold by police amid growing evidence that the restraint was being used to deadly effect mostly against blacks. The chokehold controversy in some ways foreshadowed the city's painful encounter with police brutality after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King was televised around the world.
Yaroslavsky began to see himself as mayoral material. He started building a massive campaign war chest, hoping that Bradley would be elected California's governor.
But after Bradley failed in races for governor in 1982 and 1986, Yaroslavsky prepared to challenge him head-on.
Yaroslavsky tapped into the powerful quality-of-life fears of the city's middle-class homeowners, who felt that their neighborhoods were imperiled by the traffic and aesthetic incursions of the 1980s commercial building boom.
The councilman drew on credentials he established in 1986, when he and Councilman Marvin Braude unveiled Proposition U, a bold measure to trim development citywide that handily won in the face of tepid opposition from Bradley and the city's business and labor interests.
But in the summer of 1988, a memo to Yaroslavsky from Michael Berman, his political adviser in the mayor's race, was leaked to The Times. The memo's observations--that Bradley was not bright and that Yaroslavsky should lean heavily on his wealthy Jewish connections--caused an uproar about the dangers of ethnic stereotyping.
The outcry forced Yaroslavsky to dismiss Berman, leaving his fledgling campaign without a guide.
Then Bradley turned the anti-development tables on Yaroslavsky, whom neighborhood groups thought was too soft on a plan to expand the Westside Pavilion. Bradley stepped in and blocked part of the project. The move signaled that the mayor--with the support of homeowner activists--was ready to aggressively challenge Yaroslavsky's anti-growth credentials.
By January, 1989, Yaroslavsky had decided--after seeing a poll that showed Bradley's popularity was remaining constant--to abort his run for the mayor's office.
It was a low-water mark. Yaroslavsky still had substantial power as chairman of the budget committee, but during the tough economic times that started in the late 1980s, the city's budget-making process has involved a constant, joyless tightening of the screws.
People remarked that Yaroslavsky seemed frustrated and bored. Yet in 1993 Yaroslavsky again decided not to run for mayor. Some say it was a failure of confidence.
He toyed with the idea of taking on Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, privately boasting that he thought he could beat him.
But in the end he was spared such a clash and given an opportunity to escape the confines of City Hall when Edelman unexpectedly decided to retire.
Council President Ferraro was with Yaroslavsky in Tokyo when they got the news. They had planned to fly back to Los Angeles in two days, but Yaroslavsky--anxious about losing even a moment's opportunity--got on the next available plane.
Ferraro savored the memory: "I think he would have swum back if he hadn't got that earlier flight."
* EDELMAN RETIRES: The supervisor leaves a legacy of civility, quiet good works. B1