Sam Yorty, the scrappy conservative who was Los Angeles’ mayor during the fractious 1960s, showed Monday he can still strike his share of political sparks, as he criticized the hiring of a Los Angeles police chief from outside the city, expressed sympathy for two officers convicted in the Rodney G. King beating and picked a bone with the man who defeated him 22 years ago.
In a rare public speech before an audience of mostly white-haired listeners, Yorty, 85, also said that President Clinton will be defeated in 1996 and praised his fellow Republican, Mayor Richard Riordan.
Yorty described LAPD officers as “very demoralized” in the wake of several events, including the King beating and the hiring of Chief Willie L. Williams, who formerly headed the Philadelphia police force.
“I don’t mind him being black . . . , but I just mind him being brought in from outside,” said Yorty, who served as mayor from 1961 to 1973.
Yorty, an unabashed supporter of former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and a foe of the voter-approved ballot measure that led to police reforms after the King beating, said the beating also has taken its toll on the Police Department.
“An officer is afraid to use force now because they’ll sue him,” Yorty said.
Referring to former LAPD Officers Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell, who were convicted in the beating of King, Yorty said: “Those fellas don’t deserve the punishment they got.” Of King himself, Yorty said he “doesn’t deserve the judgment he got, running around like a millionaire"--a reference to the $3.8-million court judgment King won against the city.
Initially a Democrat who courted a folksy image as “Mayor Sam,” Yorty endorsed Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960 and later switched his party affiliation to the GOP when the Democrats nominated George McGovern for President in 1972.
In 1969, Yorty held onto his seat in a bitter contest with Tom Bradley, then a city councilman who was the first black to run for the city’s top job. During the campaign, Yorty angered blacks and liberals by charging that blacks usually voted only for members of their own race.
He also warned voters that unless he was reelected, the city would be taken over by a coalition of “black power (advocates), left-wing radicals, and if you please, identified Communists.”
The snowy-haired Yorty, who arrived at Valley College with the aid of a cane, delivered a rambling speech covering a broad range of subjects, from life in Los Angeles before the freeways to present-day City Hall squabbles.
But the old politician could not resist a few more potshots at Bradley, who defeated him during a 1973 rematch.
Yorty criticized his foe for dismantling the Police Department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division--an action that Yorty said spawned the rise of gang violence. The division was abolished in 1983 after revelations that police had spied on political figures, Communists and Police Department critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Yorty characterized the city’s present chief executive, Riordan, as “a good mayor,” adding: “He’s made some mistakes, but he’s learning.” Yorty said Riordan has not asked him for any advice.
The onetime mayor said his most notable accomplishments included construction of the Los Angeles Zoo, which he complained has since been neglected. He also recalled his success in building the Los Angeles Convention Center.
“They used to call it my white elephant,” he said. “But they don’t now.”
Yorty described Clinton as “weak” on foreign affairs and said that he would be defeated next year. “Phil Gramm is my choice,” said Yorty, referring to the Texas senator running for the GOP nomination.
When an elderly member of the audience asked Yorty if he remembered riding on a German zeppelin and seeing a startling new invention--color television--at the 1936 World’s Fair in Chicago, he responded with a reminiscence about watching TV at the Ambassador Hotel.
But not all the audience members were there to share old memories. Asked why he attended Yorty’s speech, Jose Gutierrez, a 26-year-old office manager, replied: “I’m just here to observe a living fossil.”
Times staff writer Jack Cheevers contributed to this story.