Gilbert W. Lindsay, the flamboyant politician who worked his way up from city janitor to become Los Angeles’ first black City Council member and one of its most powerful local elected officials, died early Friday. Lindsay, who helped fashion downtown Los Angeles into a major metropolitan center, was 90.
Left speechless and nearly motionless by a massive stroke on Sept. 2, the veteran politician died shortly after 2 a.m. at the Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Hollywood, hospital Vice President Timothy Ogata said. The official cause of death will be determined later, but Ogata said Lindsay’s already weakened health had deteriorated in recent days.
“Councilman Lindsay was a dynamic force in Los Angeles who opened the doors of political power to all residents with his appointment to the City Council in January of 1963,” said Mayor Tom Bradley, who once served beside Lindsay on the council. The mayor ordered all flags on city property to be flown at half staff.
For the past 27 years--and even at his death--Lindsay represented the sprawling, contradictory 9th Council District, which stretches from the sparkling skyscrapers of the downtown financial district to the impoverished neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles.
The gravel-voiced councilman, although only 5 feet, 3 inches tall, was a giant among politicians in Los Angeles.
Born at the turn of the century in Mississippi, where he worked in the cotton fields, he was one of the last in a line of colorful old-style backslappers who openly helped his friends, remembered his enemies and dished up large doses of hyperbole. Early in his career, he once belittled his fellow council members as people who would “gag on a gnat and swallow a camel” after they had taken time out from city matters to force him to remove several blue lights on his city-owned car that they considered tacky.
Lindsay’s death is sure to create a power vacuum and a scramble among politicians eyeing his seat on the council.
A special election to fill the vacant seat will probably be held in April, coinciding with regularly scheduled municipal elections. In the meantime, the chief legislative analyst’s office will handle the business of Lindsay’s district.
The self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Great 9th,” Lindsay regarded the rejuvenation of the downtown area of his district as his greatest accomplishment. Indeed, many see today’s skyline as a tribute to Lindsay because of his role in transforming parts of downtown Los Angeles from nondescript, aging buildings to an impressive skyline of high-rises and elegant hotels.
Lindsay remained a vigorous proponent of growth even as younger politicians began to question the impact of development on traffic and air quality.
In an interview in 1975, Lindsay spoke of what might have been. “If I was 20 years younger I would be governor or U.S. senator from California,” he said. “I am too old now--I got lazy and old. When you get through swinging that mop, you get tired and old.”
But not too old to keep plugging on. Grief-stricken by the 1984 death of his wife of 48 years, Theresa, he nonetheless sought and won reelection in 1985. He suffered a mild stroke in October, 1988, but was reelected in 1989.
Lindsay never wanted to retire, in spite of his periodic dozing in his seat during council meetings that became the object of jokes in City Hall. Even in 1981 when he was 80 and running for his fifth term, his campaign rhetoric remained feisty: “When I find good new leadership in the interest of the people I sure enough will step aside,” he said, taking off his bifocals and shaking them for emphasis. “But I don’t think three of them (candidates) is worth half of me.”
Nevertheless, the decline of his final years took a toll. After the first stroke in 1988, Lindsay’s absences from council sessions increased and his ability to handle routine council business decreased.
In the weeks before his death, council members were forced to grapple with the issue of whether to remove him from office. This led to a sad incident in which relatives had Lindsay transferred from a hospital in Inglewood to another facility within Los Angeles city limits to make him less vulnerable to efforts to unseat him.
At the same time, an ugly battle over Lindsay’s estate erupted after it was revealed that a 39-year-old former girlfriend had gained control of many of his real estate holdings. In a lawsuit aimed at recovering the property, Lindsay’s stepson, Herbert Howard, described the councilman as senile.
Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who drew up Lindsay’s will and is representing Howard, said Friday that the suit will continue and possibly be combined with the probating of the will.
But the decline and disillusion of the later years were overshadowed Friday as glowing tributes to the politician were voiced from City Hall to the restaurants and shoeshine parlors of Central Avenue.
“The legacy Councilman Lindsay leaves behind is one of care, compassion and commitment to all 9th District constituents--with whom he shared a very special relationship,” said council President John Ferraro. “The ‘Emperor of the Great 9th’ is dead, but he will always remain in our memories, in our hearts and our love.”
“Gil Lindsay worked as hard for Vermont and Central as he did for 1st and Spring,” Bradley added, dismissing critics who said Lindsay catered to big-money developers to the detriment of his poorer constituents. “He was a champion of the little man. We’ve lost a great friend and a great servant of the city.”
Lindsay had become a political force commanding the attention and respect of power brokers, whom he had once cleaned up after while working as a janitor. It was surely a heady experience for a black man born in Jasper County, Miss., “six miles from the nearest whistle-stop,” he once said.
It seemed that Lindsay was sometimes in awe of how far he had come--from picking cotton to mingling with heads of state.
Reminiscing during a dinner in his honor in 1983, he talked about a trip he had made years before to Tokyo and Hong Kong.
“The people there would rise and bow to me and I would rise and bow to them. They thought I was (a) king. . . .
“And all the crew was laughing, and I was laughing, but they didn’t know I was laughing at something different than what they were laughing about. As I sailed into the sea, I was thinking about down in Mississippi. The fields that I was picking cotton in in my mid-teens, you know. And here I was sailing the China Sea in a big yacht, as a guest! Oh baby, that’s a long way from Mississippi!
“One thought came to my mind . . . you know one can be whatever one wants to be, just believe that you can make it.”
Lindsay came to Los Angeles from the Mississippi cotton fields in the late 1920s and started working for the Department of Water and Power.
“I used to scrub toilets for the city of Los Angeles with a mop--that was my job,” he once said. “I had so many toilets to clean every night. I was lower than a janitor--I had the lowest job you can give a human being.”
From there, he took the Civil Service exam and became a clerk. He sat in a basement office by himself because his superiors did not want him to sit with whites. He became involved in grass-roots Democratic and labor politics. He became so entrenched that his DWP superiors called on him to help turn out the black vote on various bond issues. As the 1940s and ‘50s approached, Lindsay “was the man to see,” recalled former Councilman Dave Cunningham.
Councilman Robert Farrell, remembering that blacks were barred from many hotels and motels when he and his mother arrived from New Jersey in 1953, said Lindsay helped them find temporary shelter until they could get settled.
Lindsay’s prowess in producing the black vote came to the attention of then-college professor Kenneth Hahn, who was getting ready to run for the City Council in 1947.
“Gilbert would take me from place to place on Central Avenue when it was the Wilshire Boulevard of the black community,” Hahn recalled years later. “He knew every merchant, barber shop, every minister of every church, and he opened doors for me.”
Hahn won and, with Lindsay’s help, later won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1952. Lindsay later became Hahn’s deputy.
Hahn did not forget Lindsay’s important role in his political career. When former Los Angeles Councilman Ed Roybal won election to Congress in 1962, Supervisor Hahn and his brother, Councilman Gordon Hahn, supported Lindsay for the vacant council seat. They knew that whoever was appointed in the interim would have an automatic advantage in the upcoming election.
With the appointment in January, 1963, Lindsay made history by becoming Los Angeles’ first black council member. Later that same year, Tom Bradley became the first black elected to the council. Lindsay went on to be elected to eight successive terms.
Lindsay said later he had no problem seeing his appointment as a quid pro quo: “I’d helped everybody get elected around here . . . and I thought I should do something for myself.”
A politician who was weaned on the “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” school of politics, Lindsay was openly disdainful of the post-Watergate reforms, such as the laws that required elected officials to report the sources of their campaign contributions.
Regularly denouncing such measures as “garbage,” he said in 1980 that “my people gave me the money to do any damned thing I want to do with it, as long as it enhances me,” he said, failing to note that the bulk of his campaign contributions came from downtown big business, not residents and voters of the district. “And that means wearing good clothes, that means making good appearances, that means eating well or anything I want to do.”
He was always quick to point out that he was returned to office each term without major competition, saying with a smile, “The people out there aren’t crazy. They must know something I’m doing right.”
The fact that Lindsay was the first African-American on the City Council was a source of pride to many blacks who liked Lindsay’s penchant for being frank enough to say just what was on his mind. Other blacks looked at Lindsay as an anachronism, his often outrageous speeches and rambling lectures a throwback to earlier times. He was “the type who talked a good game but always did just what the downtown bossmen wanted him to do,” said one critic.
Indeed, challengers criticized Lindsay for his constant attention to the downtown business district, saying it was to the detriment of the district south of the Santa Monica Freeway, one of the poorest areas in the city. But the argument never stuck with the largely elderly voters of that district, who consistently returned Lindsay to office by a large margin.
Lindsay usually supported traditional Democratic Party candidates and causes, but he was more conservative than many of the Democrats on the council. In the early years he often clashed with Bradley, once claiming that Bradley and his “liberal” friends were backing a Lindsay opponent. Once Bradley became mayor, Lindsay became a staunch supporter.
Lindsay was always quick with brutally blunt remarks about the facts of political life. When public officials were complaining that they had not been provided tickets for the 1984 Summer Olympics, Lindsay, as president of of the Coliseum Commission, said he already had plenty of complimentary tickets stashed away.
“I want all I can get,” he told a reporter. “Who doesn’t?”
On another occasion he was quoted as referring to the derelicts that gather downtown as “bums” and suggested that they be put out of sight during the Olympics.
But no matter how many hackles his comments raised or how sheepishly he often apologized, Lindsay knew that time had made him untouchable; he was running for no other office and he could not be beaten in the seat he had.
Although during his last years on the council Lindsay was increasingly criticized for being out of touch with his constituents, when it came to downtown, he still knew how to play hardball.
In one of his last major coups, he pushed through a narrow decision in late 1988 that handed a $200-million project on city-owned land in Little Tokyo to a developer who had cut several of Lindsay’s political friends in on the deal. It was vintage Lindsay.
Often, politics was simply a matter of friendship for this crusty-yet-sentimental man.
He wept openly when council members honored him on his 80th birthday in a ceremony in council chambers. A few months later, he was asked if he planned to retire.
“Why should I quit? I love it,” Lindsay said. “Baby, I’m working for humanity.”
Lindsay will be eulogized in two memorial services: Thursday at the Angeles Funeral Home, 3875 Crenshaw Blvd., where his body will lie in an open casket for public viewing, and Friday at the Victory Baptist Church, 4802 McKinley Ave. Burial will follow at the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
Howard, his stepson, said several people have mentioned the possibility of having Lindsay’s body lie in state in the City Hall rotunda, though no city official has made such a proposal.
“If someone were to offer it, I’d accept,” Howard said. “I know Dad would love it.”
Times staff writers Jane Fritsch, Scott Harris, George Ramos and John Schwada contributed to this report.