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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

On the council, he was a strong critic of the Police Department, particularly of its handling of the 1965 Watts riots. In a debate the year before his election to the council, Bradley said the department had taken "giant strides" toward solving its racial problems. As a councilman, he said: "Some police officers are bigoted. It is not a majority, but a small minority. I think the public should be aware of it. I think there is obvious segregation in the Los Angeles Police Department."

Bradley took his first crack at the mayor's job in 1969, opposing the conservative, blunt Sam Yorty. Bradley finished first in the primary. But in the runoff, Yorty fought back with a slashing campaign in which he portrayed Bradley as a black militant and an ultra-leftist. Yorty was reelected.

Bradley, however, immediately began planning another, ultimately successful challenge in 1973.

Powerful downtown business interests at first opposed him. But with passage of the 1974 redevelopment plan and the inclusion of business leaders on influential committees, corporate chiefs moved comfortably in behind him.

With business and labor organizations joining the minorities and liberals who had backed him, Bradley was considered unbeatable for years, winning reelection in 1977, 1981, 1985 and 1989. He handily beat back a Yorty comeback try in 1981 and over the years scared off many would-be competitors, including then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and Ira Reiner, who was elected city controller and city attorney before becoming district attorney. His political nemesis, Chief Gates, publicly toyed with challenging Bradley but never did.

He did not find success in a wider political arena. He came within 52,295 votes of winning the governor's office in 1982; his campaign try four years later failed badly. He turned down a cabinet post in Jimmy Carter's administration and was considered, but not chosen, as a running mate for Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign.

He refocused his attention at City Hall, where he remained a popular figure. But by the time the scandal over Bradley's bank ties broke--a couple of weeks before the 1989 primary election--he was very nearly forced into a runoff by a lesser-known candidate, Councilman Nate Holden, also an African American.

Bradley eventually was exonerated but acknowledged making an "error in judgment" in accepting money from Far East National Bank. He also reached a $20,000 settlement with the city attorney over failure to properly report his financial holdings.

Bradley spent the rest of his tenure grappling--belatedly, critics said--with the problems spawned by the city's rapid growth.

Shifting the Balance of Power

Although Bradley was a political liberal, he believed that business prosperity was good for the entire city and would generate jobs, an outlook not unlike that of his successor, Riordan. For most of Bradley's long administration, the city appeared to agree with him. But in his fourth term, with traffic congestion, air pollution and the condition of Santa Monica Bay worsening, and with residential neighborhoods threatened by commercial development, the tide turned.

Other factors in the waning of his political strength were his decision to reverse himself and support a controversial oil drilling project near the Pacific Palisades and his reluctance to condemn Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim minister who made speeches in Los Angeles and elsewhere that many considered anti-Semitic. Further, some key Bradley supporters lost their City Council reelection bids, among them veteran Westside Councilwoman Pat Russell.

But Bradley survived to win a fifth and final term. During that time, he unwittingly shifted the balance of power away from the mayor's office and toward an increasingly aggressive City Council by mistakenly signing a ballot proposal allowing lawmakers to have final say in virtually any matter they chose. Then-City Clerk Elias Martinez angered Bradley by insisting that there was no way for Bradley to rescind his signature. Voters approved the measure.

Through the ups and downs, Bradley kept the loyalty and goodwill of longtime colleagues. Veteran City Council President John Ferraro challenged Bradley for the mayor's office in 1985; nonetheless, they remained friends.

"We got along well for more than four decades," Ferraro said. The men had met when Bradley was an LAPD sergeant and Ferraro was on the Police Commission. "Tom Bradley was a strong force in the city of Los Angeles for 50 years. His is a legacy of service. . . . He was a hard worker; he came in early, worked well into the evening hours."

Battling Heart Attack, Stroke

Bradley's zest for work continued after he retired from City Hall and joined the downtown law offices of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. Specializing in international trade issues, Bradley was usually the first to arrive in the morning and stayed late at night, a young attorney in the firm said recently.

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