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Personal Perspective

A Symbol of Civic Reconciliation

October 04, 1998|Joe Scott | Joe Scott is a Los Angeles political consultant and former columnist for the Herald Examiner

Thirty years ago, a black politician whose parents were Texas sharecroppers wanted to become mayor of Los Angeles. It was fall 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Councilman Tom Bradley asked me to be his press secretary for the April primary. I accepted, hopeful that I might play some role in what would be, if Bradley won, a historic new era in L.A. politics.

Bradley, who died last week, and I first met in 1967, when we were members of a reform-minded ad-hoc group called the Committee for the City. Nonpartisan in every sense, the committee was composed of about 200 Angelenos from every ethnic group and socioeconomic class. It included liberal Democrats, moderate Republicans, prominent downtown lawyers, academics at USC and UCLA and journalists, among them the late Times columnist Art Seidenbaum.

At informal gatherings held around the city, the talk was about how to re-energize and reunify a badly divided body politic, one still feeling the wounds of the 1965 Watts riots. The scandal-ridden administration of Mayor Sam Yorty also was uppermost on our minds. But our real objective was to identify a credible, people-oriented candidate to run against Yorty in 1969. We wanted a reformer, but we also sought someone who could play a more demanding role: as a symbol of civic reconciliation.

While other politicians occasionally attended these gatherings and engaged in dialogue, Bradley never missed one. So it wasn't surprising when he emerged as the committee's consensus choice to bring a new spirit of inclusiveness and strategic vision to City Hall.

My first assignment working for Bradley was to write his announcement statement. It was two pages in length, and Bradley read it at a news conference at the Ambassador Hotel on Nov. 26, 1968.

"I run," Bradley said, "because there must be new policies to restore the confidence and pride of our citizens in local government and because something must be done to improve the quality of life in Los Angeles."

Never one for rhetoric when action sufficed, the first black man ever elected to L.A.'s City Council pointedly said that he hoped no one would vote for him because of his color or oppose him because "I'm a black man."

Aware of widespread skepticism regarding Bradley's ability to unseat a two-term incumbent, I devised a media strategy to take advantage of Bradley's workaholic habits (he often remained in City Hall on weekends). I urged local radio stations to interview Bradley on issues raised in daily newspaper stories. These interviews, often taped, aired on several stations, among them KNX and KFWB.

I also drove Bradley to every weekly newspaper in the greater Los Angeles area, from San Pedro to Sunland to Northridge. Few editors had ever met the councilman. Some, clearly upset that a black man would challenge the status quo, were grudgingly civil to him. But whatever hurt Bradley felt inside, he never expressed it to me.

One visit, to the Eastside Sun on Soto Street in East L.A., is especially memorable. Bradley was eager to improve his standing in the Latino community, which was caught in the middle of a political struggle pitting the conservative Yorty administration and its City Council allies against an alliance of blacks and white liberals. Bradley sought the backing of the newspaper's influential publisher, the late Joe Kovner.

While the two were talking, I got a telephone message that Tom Rees, a liberal West L.A. Democratic congressman regarded as a serious potential contender in the mayoral primary, had decided not to run. I immediately told Bradley and Kovner.

Grasping what the decision could mean to Bradley's nascent candidacy, Kovner seemed impressed by, if not immediately committed to, the councilman. Bradley was uncharacteristically ebullient. He leaped to his feet and declared, "Joe, I need your help, but I've got to leave now."

Rees' departure meant that Bradley was the only clearly progressive candidate left in the race. Of the 13 candidates remaining, only two were serious foes: Republican Rep. Alphonzo E. Bell and acerbic newscaster Baxter Ward.

Driving back across town to his dingy campaign headquarters on West Pico Boulevard, the usually taciturn Bradley enthusiastically talked about his suddenly improved chance to force Yorty into a runoff. A solid coalition of blacks and Jews, liberal whites and Latinos would be the engine propelling him into City Hall.

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