Only in L.A.--The Mayor Is on the Firing Line but Draws Little Flak

When questions first arose about Mayor Tom Bradley's personal finances and links between his Administration and banks doing business with the city, those of us who had migrated here from cities with highly charged politics could not help but snicker. Scandal in City Hall is familiar conversational territory to anyone from Chicago or Washington or New York.

But this is an unfamiliar situation for Los Angeles' "clean as a hound's tooth" mayor. And what is perhaps most striking about it is the lack of much criticism, or even extensive interest. The press has given these charges, and the mayor's typically low-key responses, considerable coverage. But the Los Angeles City Council, Democratic and Republican leaders at the state and city levels and the public at large do not seem very interested. While not many people have rushed to Bradley's defense, even fewer seem eager to involve themselves in an attack.

Those of us who brought our political assumptions with us when we moved to Southern California can't help wondering why the allegations don't at least get some juices flowing. Why are there not more outraged editorials? Why aren't ambitious politicians jumping on the issue? And why, to all indications, doesn't the public seem very disturbed?

I can think of a number of reasons for this, starting with the very structure of Los Angeles politics. Our city is blessed or cursed with a rigidly nonpartisan system, which most locals seem to treasure. But nonpartisan politics tends to muddy lines of responsibility, and to dissipate questions of blame and its effects. Democratic congressmen are very concerned about charges against House Speaker Jim Wright because they know that such charges could rebound to Democrats generally. This does not happen in a city like Los Angeles. Tom Bradley is surely a Democrat, but he does not run or even govern as one.

Consequently, other Democrats are more likely to simply stay away from the fray. Bradley rival Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky's uncharacteristic diffidence is a case in point. And Republicans see little partisan advantage from joining the issue, either.

More important, I think, is the fact that nonpartisanship dulls public interest in politics. Political parties exist to involve the electorate; nonpartisan organizations and individuals are less adept at this. Thus we have in this city a very apathetic electorate, especially toward local politics. Bradley may have won reelection in the primary by a very narrow margin, but this was not due to allegations of conflict of interest; rather, 77% of the voters just didn't care enough to vote.

Other factors reflect the man rather than the city. Tom Bradley is a curious figure for a local politician--very private, low-key, somewhat aloof. He does not tend to generate strong personal responses. Not many people "love" the mayor, but not many "hate" him either. His opposition has been more ideological (and racial), or purely political, than personal. As a result, there is an unusual lack of locals who would like to "get" him, those who would jump into an anti-Bradley movement because of the man himself.

Moreover, Bradley's reputation works very much in his favor. Even his fiercest opponents, such as former Mayor Sam Yorty or several successive chiefs of police, never questioned his basic honesty. That reputation, which has held up in 16 years in office, seems to give him the benefit of the doubt. And that makes it a little risky for anyone to jump out in front of any "Bradley is a crook" bandwagon. It also leaves the public apparently willing to withhold judgment until all the information is in.

And finally, there is the fact that Tom Bradley is a very powerful guy in this city. His relationships with the business community, and the power structure generally, are excellent. And he continues to have strong ties to the major ethnic communities, as well. When Yaroslavsky withdrew from the mayoral race last January, he had good reason. Bradley had already survived criticism about his role in overdevelopment, oil drilling, and "quality of life" issues. And, barring major revelations of malfeasance, he is likely to continue as mayor for the duration of his current 4-year term. So while Bradley is not known as a vindictive man, it would nonetheless make little sense at this stage for most power brokers to defy him, or to appear among those trying to pull him down.

The charges have the potential to destroy Bradley's political career. But most Angelenos, true to their political laissez-faire approach, seem quite willing to let others pursue the chase.

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