Bradley’s Campaign for a Theme

<i> Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau. </i>

The story of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s gubernatorial campaign so far has been his search for a theme, a reason for Californians to toss out Gov. George Deukmejian.

Recently the Democratic mayor has attacked Republican Deukmejian’s regulation of the insurance industry. That was a switch from previous criticism of the governor’s regulation of poisonous wastes.

To some who follow politics, the manner in which Bradley and his campaign chairman, Tom Quinn, approached those two subjects was itself poisonous. They felt there was something sleazy about Bradley radio advertisements, prepared by Quinn, charging that Deukmejian espoused weak regulation policies because he accepted campaign contributions from state-regulated insurance and toxic-disposal companies. A substantial part of Bradley’s campaign funding, after all, has always come from lawyers and companies doing business with the city of Los Angeles. Was it fair play, critics asked, for Bradley to attack Deukmejian’s contributions without mentioning his own?

Quinn, however, has never been much of a believer in good sportsmanship in a political game where very few people play fair. Nor does he share the philosophy of some Bradley backers who have always wanted the mayor to be a quiet, dignified symbol of how well the races get along in Los Angeles--a local Statue of Liberty who says nothing to offend anybody. Quinn wants Bradley to come out of this election with more than a dignified loss.


The radio ads cost the impoverished Bradley campaign only $50,000. But the mayor got more than his money’s worth. The ads themselves were widely broadcast. Press conferences staged by Quinn to announce the ads were covered by newspaper, television and radio reporters. Then some outraged political commentators blasted the ads on TV and in print.

Managers of statewide Democratic campaigns not associated with Bradley said they thought the Quinn tactic was a great success. The ads immediately turned attention away from the issue of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, which had been damaging the campaign because of the time Bradley took to announce his decision. Weeks of controversy, and Deukmejian criticism, preceded the mayor’s announcement that he would stay neutral. Now, the focus is on the commercials and their subject matter. In the view of the political managers, that gives Bradley, far behind in the polls, a chance to attack, and has forced Deukmejian to reply to the charges of favoritism toward insurance and disposal companies.

That is merely a short-range tactic, not a long-range campaign theme. But the beginning of a theme can be found within those $50,000 worth of radio attacks, a theme based on what several campaign managers in the state believe is a widespread fear among Californians--toxic waste pollution in the state.

Bradley’s is not the only campaign convinced that this is a potentially powerful political issue. Toxic pollution is featured in television commercials against Proposition 51, the June ballot measure designed to end what many local governments and insurance companies say is a crisis in liability insurance. The measure would limit a defendant’s share of damages for pain and suffering in a liability suit.


Two anti-Proposition 51 ads contend that the measure would limit the liability of toxic polluters sued by their victims. One has state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp declaring, “The chemical companies behind Proposition 51 say that toxic polluters who cause cancer should not be held fully accountable.”

That sort of attack is also the style of campaign chairman Quinn, who went into the political business with former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. They had much in common--a fondness for attack-style politics and a hostility toward big institutions, especially giant corporations.

After Brown was elected governor, Quinn turned his political style into state policy as chairman of the state Air Resources Board, where he waged war against auto manufacturers and other big companies he believed were reluctant to control air pollution.

Bradley’s campaign staff is preparing the groundwork for a fall attack on Deukmejian on the issue of toxic pollution. Bradley’s deputy mayor, Tom Houston, helped prepare a measure for the November ballot imposing tough regulatory laws on toxic polluters. Bradley supports it.

If the backers collect enough signatures by May 26, the measure could touch off a furious campaign. Oil and chemical industries may spend millions to beat it. Environmental groups will campaign hard for the measure. There may be mammoth publicity, enough to mobilize environmentalists and civic organizations worried about industrial pollution. And, if he is lucky and skillful, Bradley could capitalize on the furor. Voters then might have a reason to vote against an incumbent who has done much to satisfy Californians by increasing educational appropriations, and by presiding over a generally prosperous state in a calm and dignified manner.

The failure to tell voters why they should choose Bradley--and toss out Deukmejian--has been lacking in the mayor’s campaign. He, himself, has been vague.

Asked what his first act would be if elected, Bradley recently said, “The most important thing is setting up a certain vision for the state, setting certain goals for the state and outlining them to the people and working toward those goals.”

Usually, that is done during a campaign. Possibly, as the toxic-control initiative and the Bradley campaign merge during the fall, the mayor will find a theme, a reason for his election.