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Bradleyism as Corporatism

Los Angeles: The mayor aided minorities but his pro-business agenda didn't help areas most in need.

October 04, 1998|ERIC MANN | Eric Mann is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles

Tom Bradley was the political architect of modern Los Angeles. He brought L.A. out of its Great Racist Depression into the politics of a rainbow corporatism. His epochal campaign battles with Sam Yorty (1969, 1973) were urban civil wars, for Yorty was not a harmless old curmudgeon but a cunning reactionary who busted unions, fostered racism and allowed the LAPD to operate as a publicly funded terrorist organization.

Bradley, who died Tuesday at the age of 80, was part of the first generation of black mayors in U.S. cities--which also included Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Richard Hatcher in Gary, Ind., and Ken Gibson in Newark--that was a major component of a worldwide anti-racist, anti-colonial revolution, of which the 1965 Watts rebellion was the local incarnation. But within a few years of his rise to power, many of Bradley's most liberal and militant supporters felt shunted aside and betrayed as he constructed a centrist, corporate dominated strategy for L.A. Big business--not the poor and not South-Central L.A.--were at the center of his plan.

Bradley's achievements were structural and impressive. He transformed the ruling elite from a white boys network to a multiracial and transnational one. He positioned L.A. as the financial, manufacturing and cultural center of the Pacific Rim. He worked to curtail the worst abuses of the LAPD. He orchestrated the construction of an international city with a signature downtown skyline.

However, the lower-wage and dispossessed working class and minority communities were the victims of the Bradley agenda. In 1982, I was the coordinator of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open, trying to stop GM from closing the last major industrial plant in L.A. We worked with civil rights and labor groups to organize a preemptive boycott of GM products in the largest new car market in the U.S. We asked Bradley for help, but he preferred incentives to threats, not wanting to hurt the business climate.

The campaign succeeded in spite of Bradley, keeping 5,000 union workers employed for a full decade. The Van Nuys plant--now leveled and soon to become a haven of minimum wage jobs as a new commercial center--was the last of the major factories in L.A. that, once gone, wiped out well-paying jobs for an entire generation of blacks and Latinos.

In 1992, another urban rebellion triggered by the Rodney King verdict cried out against racism, poverty and the LAPD and extended its scope to the Latino poor as well. But Bradley could offer little sympathy and even less help. He and Gov. Pete Wilson refused to make any demands on President Clinton to help L.A. with public capital for schools, hospitals, Head Start programs or living-wage jobs. Instead, Bradley and Wilson recruited Peter Ueberroth to head Rebuild LA. He gave South Los Angeles a dose of tough love, offering private sector jobs in return for environmental deregulation, low-wage labor, more police to protect property and pro-corporate community politics. A year later, the Strategy Center issued "Reconstructing Los Angeles From the Bottom Up," a blistering report on the regressive impact of Rebuild LA; meanwhile, Ueberroth left town and, again, South L.A. was left holding the bag.

Bradley had hoped to use the MTA Red Line subway as the final act in his urban development plan--transportation as public monument. But as the rail system depleted its budget, it parasitically raided public funds designated for the bus system, inflicting unbearable transportation conditions upon 350,000 bus riders--95% of all MTA passengers. Separate and unequal had once again come to Los Angeles: A boondoggle rail empire for wealthy developers and a few suburban riders and a dilapidated, overcrowded, undependable bus system for the urban poor of color. In 1994, the Strategy Center and the Bus Riders Union were forced to take the MTA to court for violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Besides L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, the defendants included County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who is black, and Supervisor Gloria Molina and L.A. City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who are Latino--all beneficiaries of the civil rights movement. Bradley's corporate rainbow had come full circle.

My last memory of Bradley was as a tactical ally after he left office. In 1995, MTA chief Franklin White, under pressure from the Bus Riders Union, tried to slow down the rail construction program, in particular the Pasadena Blue Line that was raiding funds from the bus system. The MTA board moved to fire him. I saw the termination of his contract as a violation of his civil rights and did not like the board using a black CEO as a sacrificial lamb for its rail obsession. State Sen. Diane Watson, Bradley and I all testified on White's behalf. White, facing the firing squad, decried the MTA board as a money train and publicly apologized to the Bus Riders Union for not taking more risks on behalf of bus riders.

As Bradley shook hands with everyone in the MTA board room and left to return to his corporate law firm, I could imagine another apology, this one from Bradley:

"I, too, want to apologize to the poor and the minorities that my ambition and strategy left behind. I broke the racial--yes, the racist--codes at the top. In a country in which the shadow of the plantation still haunts us, I exemplified a black man as an honest, intelligent leader that none could impeach. I brought coherence and prosperity to the city of L.A. but, after all was said and done, not to those at the bottom. Now is your time to formulate your own agenda, to train your own leaders, to go beyond me on the next leg of the journey. I have gone as far as I can go."

For a whole new generation of allegedly progressive elected officials in Los Angeles, I hope another round of apologies won't be necessary.

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