Takes On Bradley in Mayoral Race : In the Ring or in Politics, Holden Loves a Fight

Times City-County Bureau Chief

To understand City Councilman Nate Holden’s decision to run for mayor of Los Angeles, go back to 1945 to a gym in Elizabeth, N.J., when he was 16 and a novice boxer.

“They had this black guy who looked like he weighed about, I guess about 200 pounds, and I weighed about 167,” Holden said. “They said, ‘Can you beat this guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can beat him.’ I was watching the way he walked. Sized him up. So, they say, ‘OK, you’re on.’ But instead of me fighting the black guy, they put me on with the champion, who was an Italian guy. In an Italian town.”

Those who have experienced the ferocity of ethnic fight fans and seen their hysteria influence referees and judges know the mischievousness of the double-cross inflicted on Holden. The only way a black fighter could have won that fight, in an arena filled with Italians, was to knock out his opponent.


“So I went in and knocked him out, and they booed me.”

The story tells much about Nathan Nathaniel Holden, 59, a tall, gray-haired, dignified-looking man in a nicely conservative suit, a city councilman since 1987 and a state senator from 1974 to 1978.

This is a man who does not avoid a fight. In fact, he looks for one. After four years in a state Senate seat so safe he had virtually a lifetime job, he gave up Sacramento to enter a crowded Democratic primary for a congressional seat ultimately won by Julian C. Dixon. He has run for office eight times in the last 22 years, winning only twice.

So when Holden decided to run against the heavily favored Mayor Tom Bradley this year, it came as no surprise to those who have watched Holden’s frequent entrances into the political wars of Los Angeles, particularly those in the predominantly black South-Central and Southwestern sections--his base.

“Nate has a habit of going out and running for things before he has tested the waters of the office he holds,” said Bradley supporter Ted Watkins of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.

As he showed that day in the New Jersey ring, Holden loves a fight. When City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky looked at the polls, concluded that Bradley was unbeatable and pulled out, Holden jumped in.

Finally, Holden is ambitious. Critics have said that what he is really doing this year is getting publicity to help him run for Los Angeles County supervisor if Kenneth Hahn ever decides to retire from his South-Central, Southwestern Los Angeles seat.

Untrue, Holden said. “My true motive is that, as I’ve said, is to challenge Tom Bradley, and to be the vehicle for the people who are unhappy with the way this government has been run the past 16 years.”

And he has been challenging since he joined the council. Where Bradley welcomes foreign investment in America, Holden has backed resolutions urging Congress to pass laws requiring restrictions on it. Holden has been a consistent critic of Bradley’s housing authority. He introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of Bradley’s personal finances. And he has accused the mayor of failing to provide Los Angeles police with enough narcotics investigators.

Despite this record of combat, Holden is a gentle, considerate, compassionate person much of the time. One day in City Hall he told his life story to a reporter. It was a richly anecdotal story of a black man, guided by a strong mother and good friends, in a slow, steady climb from a cold-water flat in Elizabeth. He remembered the names of friends who helped.

But he also remembered the names of those who did not help. That is the other Nate Holden. Insults, harangues, orders, threats of revenge and promises of punishment erupt when he perceives that someone has crossed him.

The nice Nate:

Council President John Ferraro recalled the night that he and his wife, Margaret, who had suffered a stroke, were going to a dinner at the Century Plaza. “We were walking slowly. Margaret walked slowly,” Ferraro said. “He (Holden) came over to help and he hovered over her like a bear hovers over a baby. The next morning he called me and said, ‘John, I know what you are going through.’ (Holden’s mother had suffered a stroke.) Margaret loves the guy. He is gruff and he is rough, but he has a big heart.”

The mean Nate:

Soon after his election to the council, Holden went over to Queen Anne Park, a city park in his district. It was a mess. On his car phone, he called the office of Recreation and Parks Director James Hadaway. Hadaway was not there. Holden ordered Hadaway’s assistant to the park immediately. “You’ve got to be a little rough to get a response,” he said. “They know who I am now.”

Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores said she once saw Holden marking the name of everybody who went against him on a City Council vote. “It shows the vindictiveness that I don’t think we have room for or that should be present on the council floor,” she said.

“He’s often very difficult,” said City Councilman Marvin Braude. “He has his own agenda. He takes off on city administrators. The assumption is they are always suspect. That’s not always bad, but it depends on how it is done. If he can’t get his own way, he has a strong tendency to blame the city administrators. . . . But he’s learning. . . . I think he is less brusque, less demanding.”

The mean side comes directly from the young man in the ring, the victim of the double-cross.

Even Holden seems aware of how difficult he can be. After post-World War II service in the Army military police in Germany, he said, it took him a long time “to adjust into civilian life. I guess I really never did.”

“What do you mean?” an interviewer asked.

“Well, the aggressiveness,” he said. “ Toughness. Competitiveness. The competitive spirit is still there. You know, when they train you in the military, that’s what you have to be. And you’re gung ho. And I was.”

A hostile toughness comes out when he discusses the way black leaders refused to back him in unsuccessful races for Congress and in his election to the council.

“They never helped me,” he said, scowling at the memory. “Black voters got to know they could trust me, but the leaders, the black elected officials, didn’t want a new guy on the block.”

Yet he persevered and, like young Holden the boxer, got his revenge. Ignored by big businesses and lobbyists who finance city politics when he ran against Bradley’s choice for City Council in 1987, Holden won anyway. Once on the council, Holden played the political game skillfully. He immediately joined the winning side in a fight for the council presidency. The winner, John Ferraro, gave him an important committee chairmanship. And Holden cooly tapped those businesses who had brushed him off in the election. This time they gave, up to $5,000 in some cases.

“Take from the rich, give to the poor,” Holden said.

“They told me ‘you can’t be the councilman,’ City Hall is against me,” he said one Sunday as he spoke at Southern Missionary Baptist Church. “Well, who is the councilman today? They said ‘you can’t be mayor.’ City Hall is against me. God is with me.”

The end of this campaign is all furious motion, directed by Holden, alone, off the top of his head. Campaign headquarters is his car; the campaign communications network, his car phone. Calling press conferences, introducing resolutions demanding investigations of Bradley’s fiscal affairs, phoning reporters from his car with tips. Holden is muscling himself onto the television screens and into the newspapers in the campaign’s final days.

That has been his tactic since the beginning of his campaign. His offer, early in the year, to pay $300 for every assault rifle turned in to him sent him onto the pages of People magazine. The money came from the campaign funds he raised from businesses after his election.

The experts consider him a sure loser. Professional pollsters believe the race to be so one-sided that they have ignored it.

But as he visits South-Central Los Angeles churches and appears before audiences of far less than 100 in San Fernando Valley mayoral candidates forums, Holden presents a slight, but troubling, threat to a mayor who wants to roll up a huge victory margin.

“It gives the people who are outright hostile to the mayor a place to go,” Braude said. “I think this is misguided. He (Bradley) deserves election. But it is a chance for Nate to sort of capture all the built-in, inevitable hostility to a mayor who has been in office four terms.”

To guard against the dangers presented by Holden and the other candidates, Bradley is planning to invest money from his substantial campaign treasury in a strong Election Day get-out-the vote drive.

Campaign manager Christopher Humes said workers using between 50 and 70 telephones will call registered voters. Mailings will be sent to potential Bradley supporters under the supervision of Richard Ross, one of the state Democratic Party’s best-known direct-mail specialists. Neighborhood campaign offices have been set up, including three in South Los Angeles, a major part of Bradley’s political base.

And that is the area where Holden is directing his message most clearly and emotionally. He has emerged as a spokesman of the poor and middle class of South-Central and Southwestern Los Angeles, particularly of the working people who go to church on Sunday and mourn the deaths of children to drugs and gang violence.

That message came through clearly on a Sunday at Greater Bethany Community Church at 8406 S. Hoover Ave., in a working- class area once all black, but becoming more Latino. As the Rev. Robert W. McMurray spoke to the congregation, a Latino man and woman baptized a man in the rear of the altar area. They were among the growing number of Latino congregants in the church.

“Our neighborhood was mostly white at one time,” McMurray said. “Then the blacks moved in and integrated it. Now the Hispanics. We’re not moving. We’re here to stay. . . . We hope we have a Hispanic congregation as large as this one. . . . They will interrupt our service any time (for baptism). It is the pause that refreshes.”

Later in his sermon, McMurray spoke of another reality, gangs in the territory of several “sets” of the Hoover Crips. How many gang veterans were at the service? he asked. Twelve young men stood up.

Holden, who spends each Sunday visiting South-Central Los Angeles churches, spoke to the congregation.

“Praise the Lord,” he said. “Power from above.

“We need problems solved all over our city,” he said. “Something is wrong. But God is not going to revisit the place.”

As for his own campaign, “We are not running against anyone. We are running for an office, to change the city, to turn it around. . . . Sometimes you’ve just got to change.

“I am going to do the Lord’s work in City Hall.”

Feverish Pursuit

He pursues that goal with an intensity that contrasts strongly with Bradley’s confident election-year stroll through the city.

Before speaking at the church, Holden stopped for breakfast at Kite’s, a popular restaurant on South Vermont Avenue, where busy waiters serve hot plates filled with spicy sausages, ham, bacon, eggs, grits and biscuits with gravy. Many of the patrons, black women, men and children, gave him a friendly “hello” as he walked to his table.

But just as his sausages and eggs were served, a waiter brought him a note. “Mr. Holden,” it said, “I was going to vote for you, but you shook every hand but mine. I am white.”

Holden got up. “Where is the guy?” he asked the waiter. The waiter pointed to the front of the restaurant. Holden walked quickly through the place, looking for a white face. He was glum when he came back. The man had left.

“The worse thing I did this morning was I didn’t shake that guy’s hand,” he said. During the day, he kept bringing it up, saying that he would have to go back to Kite’s on Monday and try to find the man.

Kenny Hahn Style

The attention to the parks, the worry about every vote, is politics Kenny Hahn style. That is Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, Holden’s mentor, the white Southern Baptist who has represented the largely black area running from expensive Windsor Hills east to Watts and Willowbrook for three decades. The Hahn method? Fix every pothole, build parks and swimming pools and health centers, put in street lights, reflect the religious and family values that guide the area’s many churches and working-class families.

Holden was Hahn’s deputy for many years. “I think Nate is really constituent-oriented, and has a lot of concern about community groups and he learned that from Kenny Hahn, who works things the same way,” Ferraro said. “And that is the way you stay in office, taking care of constituents.”

As Holden drives around his district, checking the parks, the street cleaning, growing angry about the potholes, he often stops and talks to his constituents.

He is comfortable with them, as if they were neighbors.

A woman told Holden that dealers were selling drugs outside her house. He listened understandingly and talked comfortably with the woman.

“Take down her name, Mr. Massey,” he told aide Ira Massey. At a church, Holden saw a man, and called him over. “Mr. Bradley (not the mayor,), how are you?” Holden asked. “ I heard you last week talking about scholarships. I’ll give you a thousand bucks.”

Grew Up With Them

These are the kind of working-class people with whom Holden grew up.

He was born in Macon, Ga. His neighborhood was racially mixed. “Even in the South, we had a mixed neighborhood where the whites and blacks kind of lived on the street and around the corner,” he said. “A neighborhood where everyone was in the same class. Nobody was rich.”

His father was a brakeman in the Central of Georgia railroad yards. “I loved my dad,” Holden said. “You know when he worked for the railroad, they used to go out there and they’d work and they’d have a certain odor because you’re down there with that grease and diesels and so on. But his dirty shoes I even loved.”

When he was 10, his parents separated and his mother moved him and his brothers to Elizabeth, N.J., where his grandmother lived.

“It was a mixed neighborhood, again,” he said. “We lived there mostly with Italians and Polish people and Irish people.”

Shower at the Gym

“My mother, she started working in a bakery, and then she started working for Singer Sewing Machine Co. We’re at ’41 and ’42. She went for the defense industry. . . . Then we moved to a two-story place, little bigger, little better, still a cold-water flat. You had to heat your water. Of course, you could always get a shower at school, in the gym.”

After Holden was disqualified from boxing because he had fought as a professional, he joined the Army in 1946, lying about his age. “I had wanted to join when the war was going on,” he said. “At 14, I first registered for the draft and I couldn’t go because they discovered I was too young. I wanted to get into the military and get some basic training and take advantage of the GI Bill when I got out of the military. It was an opportunity for me.”

Holden wanted to be a designer, or an engineer, even when he was in junior high school. There, he said, “I was the best in the class in drafting. But this teacher gave me a rough time. At that time, a black could not get a job as a draftsman. So he was discouraging me. I knew he was trying to break my spirit so I wouldn’t let him. He gave me a C and I transferred to another school and that teacher was just the opposite. He was fantastic.”

After Holden’s military discharge, he finished high school and studied design and engineering at night. He worked for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, and then moved West. Over the years, he said, he worked on the technical staff of several aerospace companies, including Hughes and Litton Industries.

But politics became more of an interest. He joined the Alta Loma Democratic Club, part of the California Democratic Council, a grass-roots group of liberal reformers that had great influence in party affairs in the late 1950s and 1960s. As the Vietnam War ripped the party apart, Holden joined the opposition to the war.

Draining Resources

“The war was draining all the resources that were needed in order to rebuild the inner cities,” he said. “There was a war in which everyone accepted the fact that we could not win and did not belong in. Everybody agrees to that fact now. I felt people should have the right to self-determination.”

In 1968, he ran and lost for Congress as an anti-war candidate. He became president of the California Democratic Council in 1970 and, over the year, made two more runs for Congress. Once, he said, black leadership betrayed him when he ran and lost against a white congressman. Then, in his race against now-Rep. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), white and black Democratic leaders in Sacramento double-crossed him, he said, by breaking a promise to stay neutral.

All of that history, and bouncing back from all of those defeats, gives Holden a certain stability as he campaigns. He is intense, without the wild-eyed desperation of some other long-shot candidates. Some days, he seems down, when the press has not responded to his latest offering, and television or the newspapers have a story on Bradley. But a quick shot on the television news, or a story in the papers, cheers him up and he is on his one-vote-at-a-time way.

One day, watching his boss work at that sort of politics, his aide, Ira Massey, advised, “Keep pecking away.’

“Peck, peck, peck, peck,” Holden replied.