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TOM BRADLEY: 1917-1998

Mayor Who Reshaped L.A. Dies

Leaders: First black to head city overcame racism to guide explosive growth and build coalitions.

September 30, 1998|JEAN MERL and BILL BOYARSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tom Bradley, the slaves' grandson whose historic 1973 election as Los Angeles' first black mayor launched an unprecedented 20-year tenure as head of a roiling, fast-growing city, died Tuesday. He was 80.

The man whose initiatives shaped modern Los Angeles had virtually disappeared from public life since a stroke in 1996 left him unable to speak clearly.

He was pronounced dead at 9 a.m. at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center, when doctors gave up on what they characterized as a furious effort to resuscitate him after he had suffered a heart attack an hour earlier.

His personal physician, hospital chief of staff Dr. Fred Alexander, said at a news conference that the mayor's death came as a surprise. "I can tell you he was doing fine," he said. "This was totally unexpected."

Alexander said Bradley had been in the hospital for six days. According to a family friend, he was being treated for gout.

Bradley's wife, Ethel, and their daughters, Phyllis and Lorraine, were summoned to the hospital and arrived a few minutes before his death.

Presiding Over Enormous Growth

A man of quiet determination, Bradley spent a lifetime bridging racial barriers and used his skills to forge extraordinary coalitions, most notably between blacks and Jews and between labor and business. He presided over a period of enormous growth in Los Angeles, leaving the gleaming downtown skyline of Bunker Hill and the start of a subway and light-rail system as the most tangible of his legacies.

Bradley also was key to the racial peace that the rapidly diversifying city enjoyed during most of his five-term hold on the mayor's office. He opened doors for minorities and women to serve on city commissions, to rise in the ranks of City Hall employees and to share in city contracts.

He positioned the emerging metropolis to take its place as an international trade center. He brought the city a glowing spot on the world's center stage with its smooth and lucrative hosting of the Olympic Games in the summer of 1984. Some of his legacies can be seen in city institutions that bear his name, including the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

Ultimately, he prevailed in his long struggle to bring civilian control and reform to his first full-time employer, the Los Angeles Police Department, a campaign that put him on a collision course with its longtime chief, Daryl F. Gates.

"Tom Bradley was a very great public figure. I know of no one with a greater gift for reconciliation and healing," historian and California State Librarian Kevin Starr said.

"He was a prism through which we can see both the rise of Los Angeles as an international city and the reemergence of a vibrant black community that reaches back to the very beginnings of the Pueblo. . . . His mayoralty was a time in which Los Angeles reconfigured itself, redefined itself."

Yet Bradley's long political career also bore the marks of disappointment and disillusionment. In 1982, he narrowly lost his bid for governor and a chance to make history again by becoming the first black in the nation to win a state's top office.

In his administration's waning years, scandals over his financial dealings and charges of cronyism dogged the mayor and at one point, in 1989, came close to denying him a fifth term. As the city began polarizing along socioeconomic lines and concerns over the environment, traffic congestion and overdevelopment gathered force, his pro-growth policies came under increasing attack. Some black and Latino leaders began accusing Bradley of turning his back on their impoverished communities to concentrate on downtown, on the affluent and politically active Westside, and on the harbor and the airport to boost global trade.

The city's image dimmed dramatically when the 1991 videotaped police beating of black motorist Rodney G. King was televised worldwide. The rioting, largely by poor blacks and Latinos, that was sparked a year later after a Simi Valley jury refused to convict the four officers charged in the incident shattered the city's long years of racial harmony. But it also led to the ouster of Bradley's nemesis Gates and created the climate for a sweeping reform of the LAPD.

Accomplishments Transcend Flaws

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor whose 1993 book, "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles," closely examined Bradley's rise, called Bradley "the most important political figure in Los Angeles in the last three decades." He predicted that Bradley's accomplishments in guiding the transforming city, in building a strong multiethnic coalition and in bringing consensus to leaders of the city's many competing interests would far outweigh the flaws that surfaced late in his administration.

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