Gil Lindsay ran downtown Los Angeles as if the money and the power would never run out. He had a Southern senator’s gift of gab and a gunslinger’s arrogance. When he wanted contributions, the 9th District city councilman brashly rang up developers and investment bankers and told them to get out their checkbooks.
For 27 years, Lindsay called the shots downtown and shaped the soaring Los Angeles skyline. He has thrived on flattery and the doting of young women. He called himself “the Emperor” and dubbed his inner-city district the “Great 9th.” Old-timers in City Hall say he was the closest thing they have seen to the late Chicago political boss Richard J. Daley.
Today, all that is over for Gilbert William Lindsay. At 90, the city’s first black councilman is in the twilight of his imperious reign, and his world is crumbling around him.Lindsay hangs onto life, and onto elected office, at Queen of Angels/Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, incapacitated by a stroke that felled him Sept. 2.
Unable to sit up and unable to speak, he is kept virtually without visitors. Lindsay’s political war chest, which used to bulge with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, is all but empty. Contributions this year total zero. A former girlfriend controls much of his personal real estate. While those who love him bemoan Lindsay’s loss of dignity, others are at work maneuvering to seize his kingdom.
The final chapter of the Lindsay era presents a strange, unsavory lesson in Los Angeles politics. No one will come out and say it, but many people believe that Lindsay has outlived his time. In the midst of the prayers and testimonials, cronies and constituents anxiously await the moment when the district and its biggest prize, downtown Los Angeles, becomes officially up for grabs.
During Lindsay’s absence, would-be successors have met quietly with community leaders, soliciting support. Power brokers have begun to talk of carving up the Great 9th. Latino activists, alert to the city’s shifting population, have started looking forward to a battle for control of the once-overwhelmingly black district.
Even Lindsay’s frail body has been viewed as a political chess piece. As the council counted the days he had been hospitalized in Inglewood--60 days outside city limits would have allowed his ouster--Lindsay was loaded, mouth agape, into an ambulance and transported to a hospital inside the city. The clock stopped.
Though city officials, including Mayor Tom Bradley, remain uncertain about whether, or how, to remove Lindsay from office, it is increasingly evident that they are not ready to embrace a new emperor. This is not good news for Lindsay’s political protege and onetime heir-apparent, chief deputy Bob Gay. Like Lindsay, Gay started out as a janitor. He is 37, black, smart, articulate, and he grew up just three blocks from Lindsay’s longtime residence on 52nd Place.
Now, Gay is the target of critics who say he is too eager to slide onto Lindsay’s throne and assume the role of big-city boss. Last week, the Bradley Administration made a move calculated to prevent Gay from gaining any advantage over others who might be interested in succeeding Lindsay. Bradley voiced his opposition to a plan to permit the appointment of a temporary replacement for Lindsay. Gay was seen by many in City Hall as the obvious candidate.
It now appears that the contest to replace Lindsay is wide open, though more than one council member suggests it is possible that the emperor will finish the remaining two years of his term.
At stake is Lindsay’s legacy--a district that he built from obscurity into one of the richest commercial enclaves in the country. With its cultural diversity, its extremes of corporate wealth and ghetto poverty, Lindsay’s Great 9th came to look like Los Angeles in miniature. From Chinatown, Little Tokyo and the towering financial district on the north, the district extends south through the well-worn streets of South-Central Los Angeles to Central Avenue, the cradle of black culture and politics in Los Angeles.
Lindsay was almost unassailable in the 9th, doubly fortified by contributions from downtown developers and black votes from South-Central. Changing demographics raise the possibility that the district could be broken into two or more pieces during the coming redistricting.
The district’s long-dominant black population is barely a majority. Demographers predict blacks will be surpassed by Latinos before the end of the decade. The trend heightens speculation that at least a portion of the district will wind up in the hands of a Latino councilman, someone such as Richard Alatorre, who has made no secret of his interest in representing downtown.
The breakup of the district could cost blacks one of the three council seats they hold and, by splitting off the downtown, make it harder for poor neighborhoods in the southern half of the district to tap into the millions of tax dollars generated by new construction in the central business district.
“With anyone in there but a strong incumbent, (the district) will be carved up,” one former council member said. “A lot of people think it’s too great a concentration of power to remain in any one council member’s hands.”
Even if the district is kept intact, voters are likely to join the call for a new style of leadership, one oriented more toward pressing social issues such as jobs, employment, gang wars and low-cost housing. Even as the emperor lingers, some constituents have begun to reassess his reign.
“When Mr. Lindsay was in good health, he wasn’t always providing us with what we wanted,” said Estelle van Meter, who runs a senior citizens’ center.
Lindsay was born in 1900 in Mississippi, and increasingly has been seen as a political relic, especially among younger constituents. Community leaders revolted a few years ago when Lindsay supported plans for construction of the giant trash-to-energy Lancer incinerator project, which was seen as a health threat to the poor communities that would border it.
Similarly, Lindsay opposed handgun control even though violent crime rages in parts of his district. “I’m liberal, but I’m not a phony,” Lindsay once told an interviewer. “I haven’t gotten so liberal that I can’t enjoy Old Glory as my flag and my country.”
Lindsay reveled in the city’s growth and, in an era when younger politicians fret about the environmental consequences of growth, big has never been quite big enough for Lindsay. At last year’s dedication of the city’s tallest building, the 73-story First Interstate World Center Tower, Lindsay called for more.
“I thought I told them to build a 100-story building. What happened?” he quipped to the crowd. “I like big deals. Big things. Big everything.”
Above all, Lindsay has been a wheeler-dealer. If you wanted to build something downtown, Gil was the man to see.
Even those who criticize the way Lindsay has exercised his power acknowledge that his illness has created a vacuum.
Homeowners and developers alike complain that the district is being ignored. “So much crime out here--the gangs, the drugs--we just can’t do without a representative,” Van Meter said.
“His presence . . . is greatly missing,” said George Mihlsten, an attorney and lobbyist representing major downtown developers. “Without a steady hand and a clear vision for where downtown is going and should go, downtown will suffer.”
The question of the powerful man’s fate has swung the spotlight onto a reluctant City Council and a number of would-be successors, most notably Gay.
“Gil Lindsay has honed and developed everything I know and understand about politics, about government, (about) what’s right and what’s wrong,” Gay said.
Powerful factions at City Hall seem keenly aware of the similarities.
“With an old man you say, ‘That’s fine. That’s the way (politics) used to be, and he’s not going to be around for very long,’ ” one council member said, asking not to be identified. “But a young man, he’s going to be here for a while.”
Gay’s role during Lindsay’s hospitalization has been a source of controversy. On the night of the stroke, Lindsay was rushed to Daniel Freeman Memorial Medical Center in Inglewood, outside Los Angeles boundaries but close to his home. He remained there for nearly a month, despite written instructions saying he should receive emergency care at Queen of Angels/Hollywood Presbyterian.
According to Gay’s critics, the circumstances opened the door for the deputy’s possible rise to power by allowing the council to invoke the 60-day absentee provision of the City Charter. Suspicions were heightened because calls about Lindsay’s condition were routed to Gay and the councilman was allowed few visitors.
Gay denies exercising influence over his boss’ hospitalization, saying that all the medical and visitation decisions were made by doctors and by Lindsay’s stepson, Herbert Howard--who happens to work for Lindsay’s office. Howard insisted that the decisions were strictly medical: “Everyone seems to think it was political--that’s nonsense,” he said. “The primary thing on my mind was, and is, my father’s health.”
Lindsay’s closest friends became increasingly worried about the effects of isolation on a man who thrived in the company of well-wishers.
“He hated to be alone,” said former Councilman Art Snyder. “The very idea of his lying there alone, staring at the ceiling, could be enough to drive him insane.”
Lindsay’s image had begun to suffer even before his latest stroke. Also, The Times reported in late November that Lindsay had signed over control of two commercial lots and at least one of his three homes to 39-year-old Juanda Chauncie. Chauncie, who claimed that Lindsay left her for a younger woman, was in court trying to evict an elderly couple from Lindsay’s former house. Meanwhile, the councilman, who had suffered a minor stroke in 1988, was quoted as being confused about one of the transactions.
“Did I get my money?” Lindsay had asked repeatedly.
With the 60 days about half gone, the council grappled hesitantly with questions of deposing the old firebrand: What were the legal ramifications? Who would replace him? Would there be an appointment? A special election? In the meantime, who was representing the district?
Meetings were called from City Hall to South-Central, seeking answers. Some of the meetings were less than pleasant.
At one, about 100 frustrated residents gathered at a church hall to press their demands on a representative of the city legislative analyst’s office--which technically is running the district. The representative did not show up. Gay did.
His efforts to appease the angry crowd were rebuffed. The meeting was scheduled to last two hours but ended in an uproar in only 30 minutes. Much of that time was spent debating whether Gay should be permitted to speak. In the end, he was not.
“It was ugly,” Gay conceded later, describing the affair as a political ambush engineered by other council aspirants. “The meeting was intended to embarrass me, to deal me a blow. And I sat there and took it all.”
At another meeting, held the same day, City Atty. James K. Hahn was visited in his City Hall office by council President John Ferraro and several ministers prominent in the black community. The community leaders wanted the city attorney to find a way to keep Lindsay in office, allowing for his political successor to be chosen through an election.
Hahn said he replied that it was possible for the City Council to excuse the absence any time before the 60-day clock ran out. Before the council could convene again, Lindsay was transported to Queen of Angels/Hollywood Presbyterian. It was left for followers of the saga to speculate over the move’s timing.
Besides Gay, two others are frequently mentioned as possible Lindsay successors: Brad Pye, a deputy to County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Woody Fleming, a union official. Others are expected to enter the fray.
The field is considered wide open in part because Bradley, according to sources close to the mayor, has not decided on whom to support.
City officials have had ample time to think about the future of the 9th District. Lindsay’s health has declined for several years, causing bouts of fatigue, confusion and frequent absences from the council. Lindsay has needed a full-time paid escort for much of the last two years to assist him at City Hall, and he has had to rely on his aides at times to help him vote correctly on routine matters.
But council members have been reluctant to deal with Lindsay’s decline, not just out of deference. Lindsay was--and is--a feared man at City Hall. “One thing you never want to do with Gil,” one associate said in 1975, “is cross him. . . . He doesn’t hold a grudge, but he remembers.”
Even now, his colleagues are hesitant about closing the book too early on Lindsay. A close friend, Councilman Nate Holden, can imagine Lindsay returning--unable to speak, sitting in a wheelchair, the old emperor scrawling notes and exacting his political vengeance.
“He would be pretty mad about what we’ve done to him.”