Alphonzo Bell Jr., who represented Los Angeles' influential Westside in Congress for eight terms and was a scion of the pioneering ranching, oil and development family that gave its name to the Southern California communities of Bell, Bell Gardens and Bel-Air, has died. He was 89.
Bell died Sunday at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica of complications of pneumonia.
The patrician politician's death came just 18 days after that of his wife of 34 years, actress and tennis champion Marian McCargo Bell.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Bell obituary -- The obituary of former Rep. Alphonzo Bell Jr. in Tuesday's California section said that his grandfather, James George Bell, discovered oil on the Bell Station ranch in the Santa Fe Springs area. The oil was discovered on the family's property in the 1920s by the politician's father, Alphonzo Bell Sr., founder of Bell Petroleum Co. It also stated that Tom Bradley served a record four terms as mayor of Los Angeles. He served a record five terms.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Bell obituary -- The obituary of Alphonzo Bell Jr. in Tuesday's California section said he was first elected to Congress in 1950. That occurred in 1960.
In Congress, Bell, a multimillionaire Republican, became known as mildly hawkish on foreign policy -- he backed the Vietnam War through three presidential administrations -- but often liberal on domestic issues that included open housing laws and other civil rights legislation.
Some called Bell a political conservative, others a moderate. A Ralph Nader study on Bell's voting record in 1972 said: "It's hard to say exactly what he is. He leans in many areas, especially those concerning economic regulation, toward the conservatives. When it comes to the people issues, especially those concerning the downtrodden in American society, Bell is a liberal."
The congressman described himself as "middle-ground" and said he voted according to principle and an issue's merits rather than political expediency. A moderate, he told a Times columnist in 1970, has to study harder. "The extremist at either end doesn't have to do most of the work or most of the thinking -- he knows what he's for and against beforehand. A moderate has to decide each question on its own merits."
As a ranking member of the House committees on Science and Astronautics and on Education and Labor, he earned bipartisan approval for his work on such diverse bills as the Older Americans Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 and laws improving labor standards, workers' safety, veterans' benefits and environmental protection programs. He helped create a public park in the Santa Monica Mountains and open San Onofre beaches to the public.
From 1950 to 1977, Bell represented a vast congressional district -- the 28th and, after redistricting, the 27th -- running along the coast from Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and encompassing all or part of Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Bel-Air and West L.A. Then considered a Republican stronghold, the district nevertheless had only 40% to 49% GOP voter registration, and bipartisan approval was essential.
Wealthy, handsome and mild-mannered, Bell had no trouble appealing to voters in both parties. In 1964, he won reelection with the largest margin of any Republican congressman that year, and in 1966 he won by the largest plurality of any congressman of either party.
He was so well-liked that one of his campaign aides once complained about the problems of raising Bell's visibility outside his own district, saying: "As a political figure without a breath of scandal, he never got much in the newspapers."
Bell was unable, however, to transfer his popularity into winning higher office. He tried twice -- with an effort to unseat incumbent Sam Yorty in the Los Angeles mayoral race in 1969 and, in 1976, vying for a U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat John V. Tunney. Yorty retained his office, and Tunney fell to S.I. Hayakawa, who defeated Bell in the Republican primary.
The mayoral race illustrated Bell's independence and determination to do what he believed in even though it could harm him politically. After he lost the primary, he actively campaigned for its winner, Democrat Tom Bradley. Although Bradley lost that general election, he did defeat Yorty in 1973 to become the city's first black mayor; he went on to serve a record four terms.
Bell had long opposed Yorty, claiming he was "temperamentally unsuited" to govern Los Angeles and that his constant bickering with Washington had prevented the city from getting federal funds. Bell said Yorty's racial campaign against Bradley, along with earlier smear tactics against other opponents, filled him with revulsion.
But Bell's support of Bradley in the nonpartisan race so irked some conservative Republican constituents, such as fellow oilman and Yorty backer Henry Salvatori, that Republican attorney John LaFollette was put forth to run for Bell's congressional seat in 1970. Bell prevailed and remained in Congress.
Bell entered politics through Republican Party positions. He served as chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Los Angeles County, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee of California and as a member of the Republican National Committee.