Tom Bradley was a big man. Big in stature, big in persistence, big in dreams. He was the mayor of Los Angeles for 20 years, most of it a time of boundless optimism. No other politician is ever likely to make as indelible a mark on this city as Tom Bradley.
Bradley died Tuesday at 80 after a heart attack. A stroke two years ago had robbed him of his speech, but he was out and about until the end. It was hard to imagine the ramrod-straight former star athlete with the purposeful stride as anything but on his way to his next meeting. He thrived on the details of government, on the subtle and not so subtle horse trading of politics, on the still viable notion that all people have more commonalities than differences. That’s why for so many years he was an official in whom Angelenos had enormous pride.
Publicly bland but behind the scenes firm and effective, he moved Los Angeles from a sprawling and somewhat provincial town to a world-class city. And Angelenos, for the most part, cheered him on, for years giving him popularity ratings that today’s politicians can only dream of. It wasn’t because Tom Bradley was a red-hot dynamo of a personality. It was because he was, in a time of great growth and change for Los Angeles and the nation, reassuring. On the job, solid, reliable, likable.
Someone from Calvert, Texas, a grandson of slaves, had a lot to prove. He should not have had to prove anything, but the times into which he was born dictated it. Bradley lived his life as a series of firsts. First African American to rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, during an era when the department was so hostile to blacks in its ranks that it had an unwritten rule that no black would rise above lieutenant. He went as far as he could in the LAPD and then left it for the law. Politics had long been beckoning, and soon he became the first black elected to the Los Angeles City Council. As hard as it is to believe now, the moderate Bradley was branded by critics as a “black militant” in the tenor of the mid-1960s. He could not shake that absurd label in 1969, when a scare campaign persuaded enough voters that a Mayor Bradley would mean Black Panthers taking over City Hall. But voters didn’t buy it in 1973, when Bradley became the first black mayor of a major American city.
Bradley, rightly so, would not allow himself to be typecast as the “black mayor”; he steeped himself in urban issues but also put great emphasis on Los Angeles’ international port and trade opportunities. He traveled extensively as a goodwill ambassador, (so extensively, many noted, that he far outdid his globe-trotting predecessor, “Travelin’ Sam” Yorty). Bradley pushed for downtown development, for rail transit, and he opened City Hall’s forbidding doors to more women and minorities. Los Angeles, it seemed, was a place everybody in the world wanted to be.
For many years, Bradley made it look easy: His proposals in the City Council usually got the eight votes needed for passage. That wasn’t a coincidence. He lined up his allies, he pacified his opponents. Discreetly.
With all this came more ambition, and Bradley’s greatest political disappointment: his razor-thin loss in the governor’s race to George Deukmejian in 1982. Many recriminations followed: Bradley’s campaign was overconfident, didn’t play it smart, spent too much time courting big business and too little time cultivating the inner city. Bradley didn’t do a lot of public post-mortems. He just doggedly turned his attention to what he would call the highlight of his mayoral career: the wildly successful 1984 Olympics.
Bradley ran for governor again in 1986 but lost decisively. Up against an incumbent, it was a different ballgame. The mayor, some began to suggest, had stayed too long. There were the signs: Some of the inner circle seemed more intent on self-promotion than public policy. Accusations of conflict of interest rose. Increasingly, Bradley turned to many of the same, familiar players that he had relied on years before--even though the demographics of the city were changing rapidly. The African American/Jewish/liberal coalition was crumbling, both nationally and locally. Soon, political rivals spoke openly of challenging Bradley, the only mayor many Angelenos had ever known. After the horror of the 1992 riots--so reminiscent of the 1965 riots that Bradley thought he would never again have to witness--it seemed the mayor was ready to go. In 1993 he retired from public office. Was the big man finally weary? That would have been another first.
Free of the constraints of being The Mayor, Bradley relaxed into a less public but still active role as a lawyer and rainmaker for a law firm. He often could be seen lunching at downtown restaurants, shaking his head about the bad advice one local pol was getting, laughing devilishly when someone asked him why he didn’t look a day older.
Tom Bradley set a tone for this city: one of possibilities, not limits. Los Angeles will miss you and what you meant to the people, Mr. Mayor.