Jean Merl and Bill Boyarksy
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.
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.
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.
"He came from the liberal reform section of the Democratic Party. . . . He built bridges to whites and to other groups. He reached into other worlds, but he did it without ever losing his commitment to the black community," Sonenshein said.
The wealthy, white Republican entrepreneur whom voters selected to take Bradley's place when he stepped down in 1993 called his predecessor "a regal leader in appearance, word and deed."
"Tom Bradley was the right leader at the right time for our city--a unifying force in bringing together diverse elements from throughout Los Angeles," Mayor Richard Riordan said. "Tom Bradley earned the confidence of leaders everywhere. His impact was felt throughout our city, our nation and the world," added Riordan, who supported Bradley's gubernatorial campaign against Republican George Deukmejian and later became a Bradley commissioner.
Bradley, a tall, dignified figure with a quiet, sometimes nearly expressionless demeanor, was never a firebrand. He preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, as he did in calling together labor and management during a 1982 bus strike that was creating havoc for the city's elderly and poor. In announcing a settlement of the 3-day-old strike, leaders on both sides said Bradley had played a key role.
His demeanor sometimes earned him unflattering sobriquets--"the Sphinx of City Hall," "Mayor Automaton"--and his style irritated followers who wanted inspiration.
Longtime friends attributed his stoicism to his membership in the generation of American blacks who cracked the color line and, in doing so, were counseled to hide their hurts and resentments from a hostile white world.
Like so many members of that generation, Bradley worked hard, often seven days a week, laboring over budgets and other paperwork and spending countless hours at civic functions and ceremonies. Among the staples of his administration were "Area Days," carefully planned, jampacked rounds of meetings, visits to senior citizen centers and factory tours in a particular part of the city. Often he would take up a chair in one of the city's two branch mayoral offices, and hear out whoever cared to come in and talk.
Those events caught Bradley at his most animated, smiling broadly, occasionally breaking into hearty laughter as enthusiastic Angelenos vied for a chance to shake his hand, get his autograph and say some words of encouragement.
His popularity with citizens held steady even at the height of well-publicized probes of his role in steering city deposits to a bank he was a director of. "Hi, mayor!" shouted a sunburned young driver as she saw the beleaguered mayor on a Westside street corner during a heated news conference in May 1989. "Hang in there!" Her closed-fist wave brought a sparkle to his grim face, and he waved in acknowledgment.
But when he finally left office, only 42% of the respondents in a Times poll said Bradley would be remembered as an "above average" mayor.
Quiet though he may have been, there were things that moved him to eloquence. At a 1979 ceremony naming a new South-Central Los Angeles public health care center for then-93-year-old H. Claude Hudson, a lifelong civil rights activist who had helped found the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Bradley paid a moving tribute to the frail leader. He ended by noting how glad he was that Hudson was being honored in his lifetime, saying he was pleased to "give you your roses while you can smell them."
He was more famous for his caution than his rhetoric. Guarded in speech and action, Bradley declined, for example, to take a stand on a school segregation crisis that threatened to rip apart the city in the late 1970s. "Tom usually doesn't join the battle until it's time to shoot the wounded," Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner once said.
His emotions were usually hidden behind a poker face. "One of the most difficult [things] to learn in dealing with Tom Bradley is that you go in and he listens with a sphinx-like expression and you don't know whether anything you have said has registered and you certainly don't know whether he agrees with your assessment of the situation," said Anton Calleia, a top assistant after Bradley was elected to the City Council in 1963.
While Bradley was mayor, the appearance of downtown, the Westside and parts of the San Fernando Valley was changed by high-rise office buildings and other commercial enterprises.
The downtown growth was sparked by one of Bradley's first mayoral policy initiatives, a huge redevelopment plan that he steered through the City Council in 1974. Under city auspices, and with heavy Bradley prodding, a shopping center was built in Watts, the first since the area was largely abandoned by businesses after the 1965 riots. A mayoral effort prevented the Produce Market from leaving the city, and Bradley succeeded in saving shopping centers in two inner-city areas threatened with decay--the Slauson-Vermont neighborhood and the Crenshaw district.
A start was made on a subway from downtown to the San Fernando Valley, although it was heavily criticized as being far too expensive, and work was begun on a light-rail line, allowing him to finally keep an early campaign promise to break ground on a rail mass transit system before he left office. The subway, the planned linchpin of the system, has since been mired in controversy, delays and cost overruns and is the subject of a November ballot initiative that would bar use of sales tax revenues for its expansion beyond what Bradley envisioned as merely its first leg--a segment from downtown to North Hollywood.
Growth in the Bradley years brought traffic, disruption of once-quiet residential neighborhoods and environmental decay, including increasing pollution of Santa Monica Bay, where the city dumps its treated sewage. In his last years in office, the mayor struggled to supply solutions to those mounting ills.
Even while Bradley was increasingly blamed for having a blind eye toward growth-related problems, he remained a well-respected figure, credited with honesty. But as he was running for a fifth term, he found himself defending his integrity, when newspapers revealed that he had been paid to serve on the board of advisors of a bank and the board of directors of a savings and loan association, both of which had business with the city. Those disclosures led to a series of increasingly wider investigations into many aspects of his personal finances.
As investigations intensified, the mayor occasionally would look sad or troubled, but he did not often reveal those emotions.
Bradley's entire life was a series of firsts, a primer on how to surmount institutionalized injustice.
He was born Dec. 29, 1917, to Lee and Crenner Bradley, poor sharecroppers who lived in a small log cabin outside Calvert, Texas. His grandfather had been a slave.
The family moved to Arizona to pick cotton, and young Tom had to help. Half a century later, as he rode through California's Central Valley cotton fields on a gubernatorial campaign trip, Bradley looked out the window and recalled how he picked cotton as a young boy. "That was enough," he said. "I never did fill that 25-pound sack."
In 1924, the family moved to Los Angeles, near Temple and Alvarado streets. Lee Bradley was a porter for the Santa Fe railroad and worked on crews that traveled the West Coast. Crenner Bradley worked as a maid.
The Bradleys were divorced and, at one point, their son recalled, the family went on public assistance. "Public assistance during the Depression was not an unusual thing, and it just seemed that everybody we knew in one way or another received some kind of help," he recalled.
By then, there were five children: Lawrence, the oldest; Tom; Willa Mae; Ellis, who had cerebral palsy; and Howard.
Bradley's mother worked hard. "She was not at home except late at night when she would return from work every day, exhausted from cooking someone else's meals and washing clothes," Bradley told his biographers, J. Gregory Payne and Scott C. Ratzan, authors of "Tom Bradley: The Impossible Dream."
"But the first thing she would do was fix a meal for us for the following day and ask about our schoolwork."
Bradley attended Rosemont Elementary School and Lafayette Junior High School, where he was counseled against going to college. But he was a promising athlete at the neighborhood Central Recreation Center, and he was recruited by Ed Leahy, track coach at Polytechnic High School, a mostly white school. His success there foreshadowed the accomplishments to come--he became the first black to be elected president of the Poly Boys' League and the first to be inducted into the Ephebians, a national honor society. He also was captain of the track team and a star in the quarter-mile and long jump, and anchored the relay team. He was All-City tackle for the Poly Engineers football team, shifting occasionally to running back or end.
He won admission to UCLA on an athletic scholarship, competing on the Bruin track team, and joined Kappa Alpha Psi, the black fraternity that remained one of his major interests after his student days. One of the jobs that he had while at UCLA was as a photographer for comedian Jimmy Durante.
During his junior year in college, Bradley took an exam to join the Los Angeles Police Department, placing near the top, and entered the department academy in 1940.
By then, he had fallen in love with Ethel Arnold, whom he had met at the New Hope Baptist Church, where her father was superintendent. They were married May 4, 1941, and later had their daughters Lorraine and Phyllis.
During Bradley's incessant rounds of civil and political appearances many years later, Ethel Bradley busied herself by becoming one of the city's biggest Dodger fans and by working tirelessly in her gardens at Getty House, the city's official mayoral residence in Hancock Park. Bradley told The Times in 1988 that there were just three evenings a year that he could be counted on to spend with his wife: "Her birthday, my birthday, the Academy Awards. Those are absolutely inviolate dates."
The early years of Bradley's marriage and his career with a Police Department that numbered just 100 blacks among its 4,000 officers provide examples of the racism that the future mayor and his family encountered in the Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s.
"When I came on the department, there were literally two assignments for black officers," Bradley once told a Times reporter. "You either worked Newton Street Division, which has a predominantly black community, or you worked traffic downtown. . . . You could not work with a white officer, and that continued until 1964."
Bradley rose to lieutenant, the highest rank held by a black upon his 1961 retirement.
But his relations with the department were always ambivalent. As mayor, he appointed a Police Commission that increased civilian control. During Bradley's 1973 rematch with then-Mayor Sam Yorty, someone leaked material from police intelligence files that implied that Bradley was a left-wing radical with communist leanings.
Racism seemed to touch every aspect of life in Los Angeles for a young black couple just starting out. Bradley rarely complained, but he always remembered the downtown clothing store that refused him credit, although he was a police officer, and the restaurants that would not serve blacks.
Bradley and his wife needed a white intermediary to buy their first house in Leimert Park, then a virtually all-white section of the city's Crenshaw district. In 1956, the Bradleys were refused admittance to hotels and restaurants because of their race.
They were, daughter Lorraine recalled, a close family.
"We had a ball in those days," she said. "We didn't have a whole lot. Daddy used to love being at home, and he used to get in the kitchen and cook and wash the dishes. . . . Mother loved to bake. Talk about your hostess extraordinaire! They'd have card parties once a week--bridge, that kind of stuff."
Later, during much of Bradley's time in office, the family struggled with Phyllis Bradley's drug addiction, which led to several arrests over a 10-year period, including a six-month sentence in County Jail.
"It is hard to say what went wrong there," Bradley told his biographers, "and, believe me, any father or mother will ask themselves that, day in and day out--why, with two lovely daughters that you love so dearly, who have been brought up under the same roof, one seems to have had the problems that Phyllis has gone through."
Bradley attended law school in his last years in the Police Department and began practicing when he left the LAPD. His entry into politics came with a prophetic decision to join the Crenshaw Democratic Club. The club was part of the California Democratic Council, a liberal, reformist group organized in the 1950s by young Democrats energized by Adlai E. Stevenson's presidential campaigns. It was predominantly white and had many Jewish members, thus marking the beginnings of the coalition, which along with Latinos, that would carry him to electoral victory so many times.
His choice of a Democratic circle also put him at odds with another political force in the black community, representatives of poor, all-black areas who were associated with the political organization of the late Jesse M. Unruh, then an up-and-coming state assemblyman. The early stage of Bradley's political career was marked by clashes with black leaders like onetime California Lt. Gov. and former Rep. Mervyn Dymally, an Unruh ally.
When the 10th District City Council seat became vacant, Bradley, urged by his Democratic colleagues, applied for the appointment, but the council chose a conservative white Republican. Bradley ran for the seat in 1963 and won, becoming the first black elected to the council. Gilbert Lindsay, who was appointed to the council, actually was sworn in a few months earlier.
Bradley's district, centered in the Crenshaw area, contained three ethnic groups--blacks, Asians and whites, the last constituting a majority. From the outset of his career, Bradley was a black politician with a multiethnic constituency.
Years later, when a student, commenting on Bradley's lack of personal charisma and his caution, wondered aloud whether Los Angeles had elected a black Gerald Ford rather than a black John Kennedy, Bradley replied: "I'm not a black this or a black that. I'm just Tom Bradley."
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.
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."
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.
That kind of dedication continued until Bradley was felled by a heart attack while driving his car in March 1996. Doctors performed triple bypass surgery on the former mayor shortly thereafter, and he appeared to be recovering. But less than a day after the surgery he suffered the stroke that left him unable to speak clearly for the rest of his life. His condition limited his public appearances.
But even before he was stricken, for the most part, he kept a promise he made to himself not to comment on the actions or performance of his successor. He generally resisted urgings to do so from any number of reporters or attendees at his occasional public speaking engagements. A notable exception was the anger that he displayed in late 1995, when Riordan vetoed a housing and commercial development proposed at 81st Street and Vermont Avenue in south Los Angeles. It had been opposed by neighbors of powerful Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) but was an important project to her political foe and area representative, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Bradley publicly denounced the veto, accusing Riordan of acting on a desire to get back at Ridley-Thomas, his most vocal council critic. Soon afterward, the council overrode the veto with a stunning 15-0 vote.
The next month, Bradley lent his voice in opposition to another Riordan initiative to fire Franklin White, the executive director of the agency building the subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. White said that he was being fired because he had shown too much integrity in trying to control a "money train, and if you get between the people who want the money and the people who spend the money you've got problems."
But Riordan blamed White for failing to stop the hemorrhage of bad publicity and other problems with subway construction and for what he called the MTA's "paralysis by analysis."
At the showdown MTA board meeting at which Riordan prevailed, Bradley made a surprise appearance. "I could no longer sit back and be quiet," he said, in defending White as a voice of independence and integrity. "I have too much of my blood, sweat and energy wrapped up in the MTA for me to ignore what is taking place in my community."
Those were exceptions. Once out of the limelight, Bradley generally professed not to miss it and seemed to take easily to life as a private citizen. In 1994, he told a Times reporter of the pleasure he took in reading the morning newspaper once he left office: "It's a joy to get up in the morning, walk out to the frontyard, pick up the paper and say: 'I don't give a damn what's in it.' I had enough exposure in 20 years to last a lifetime. If my name was never printed again, it wouldn't bother me."
Bradley's body will be at the Los Angeles Convention Center for public viewing, beginning Sunday at either 10 a.m. or noon and continuing until 6 p.m.
A funeral service will be held Monday at First AME Church, Bradley's parish, at 10 a.m.. Although seating for the public may be limited, speakers will broadcast the eulogy by the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray to those outside the church.
A wide array of local and national leaders, including President Clinton, have been invited to the service.
Burial arrangements were pending.
Boyarsky is The Times' city editor. Times staff writers Ted Rohrlich, James Rainey and Darryl Fears contributed to this story.--