From the Archives: Three-Term L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty Dies at 88
Samuel W. Yorty, who served three contentious terms as Los Angeles’ mayor during the turbulent 1960s, died Friday at the age of 88.
Yorty—a perennial seeker of higher political office often derided as “Shoot From the Lip Sam” for his controversial opinions on issues ranging from recycling to race—died peacefully at home at 7:40 a.m., said his wife, Valery. He was hospitalized last week at UCLA Medical Center and later at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center after suffering a stroke. But he returned to his home, according to his wishes, on Wednesday.
The peripatetic old-style politician who played on the racial anxieties of the city’s mostly white electorate to initially defeat Tom Bradley, who ultimately unseated Yorty to become the city’s first black mayor, looked back early this year on his long career and mostly forgotten accomplishments. He told a Times columnist that he had few regrets—except perhaps that he was not named to the local committee for the city’s 1984 Olympics.
Tagged “Mayor Sam” for his folksy demeanor and “Travelin’ Sam” for his globe-trotting at public expense, Yorty was the city’s only mayor from the San Fernando Valley. He previously had served as a U.S. congressman and a state assemblyman.
He also tried—and failed—in one bid for president, in four campaigns for the U.S. Senate and two campaigns for governor. Altogether, Yorty ran for office about 20 times and lost about half those races. What propelled him into campaigns so often, he said with equanimity, was that he believed they provided a platform from which to state his position, no matter what.
He did so—loudly and often—as he moved from Democratic liberal to Republican hard-line conservative. His outspokenness landed him frequently on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” where he played the banjo. As ex-mayor, Yorty continued to attract fans for five years with a weekly KCOP-TV Channel 13 talk show.
Living quietly in Studio City obscurity, Yorty saw some of his achievements--such as banning the mandatory separation of trash for recycling—reversed, and others—such as charter reform—never realized.
“Any man who reads beyond the second paragraph of the Los Angeles City Charter would be out of his mind to run for mayor,” Yorty, a mellowed octogenarian, told The Times in the February interview.
But Yorty did run, and from 1961 through 1973 he put his hard-line imprint on the nation’s then third-largest municipality. He liked to say that he built the city skyline, or at least created the atmosphere in which it could go up.
It was not an idle boast. He was the moving force behind the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Los Angeles Zoo and the World Trade Center, and helped bring about construction of the Los Angeles County Music Center. And he took special pride in building up Barnsdall Park, particularly its facilities for children.
“I accomplished a lot more than people realize,” he said a decade after he left office.
But although Bradley has more than a dozen major structures named for him, Yorty’s name is preserved on a single meeting room in his convention center.
Criticism After Watts Riots
Yorty was a staunch backer of the police and firefighters, so much so that former Police Chief Ed Davis said that with the possible exception of Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, no civic chief could be as sure of so much support for law enforcement.
During the 1965 Watts riots, Yorty brushed aside minority community complaints about police brutality and, riding over the area in his official helicopter a few days later, seemed to delight in the array of troops below.
“It must make those policemen feel pretty good to have those troops behind them,” he said. “That’s the kind of force we’ve got to have.”
After those riots, Yorty appeared before the U.S. Senate’s subcommittee on government operations investigating urban unrest and was chastised by Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Abraham Ribicoff for failing to know Watts’ unemployment and welfare statistics.
A habitual red-baiter, Yorty was asked at one point if the riots were communist-inspired. “No,” he responded from the witness seat, “but the communists are in that area, and they are working all the time.”
Playing Upon Racial Fears
Like many in the political arena, Yorty could be enigmatic. And opportunistic. And vicious. The late Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. once called him “the cleverest concocter of phony issues I ever knew.”
In his 1972 bid for the Democratic nomination for president, Yorty played on the national reputation that he had established in his third-term run for mayor in 1969 against then-Councilman Bradley, the first black to seek mayoral office in the city’s history.
In both the primary and the runoff elections, Yorty spoke of a “black bloc vote,” saying that blacks would vote for their own and implying that Los Angeles’ vast majority of whites should do the same.
His comments were aired nationwide.
Los Angeles, he said in mid-campaign, is “an experimental area for taking over of a city by a combination of bloc voting, black power, left-wing radicals, and if you please, identified communists.” This coalition, he told one group of women, was “going to take over your city.” Many suggested that Yorty, in playing upon people’s racial fears, was appealing to the city’s lowest common denominator.
He became a leading spokesman for an emerging neoconservative faction that railed against “limousine liberals.”
In his last race for public office, a rather quixotic effort in 1981, when he tried to recapture the mayor’s seat from Bradley, Yorty said: “Black people are really racist. They vote for black people because they are black.”
But then he added that he meant only some of them. “A lot of them are for me, you know that.”
Oddly, Yorty began as a liberal defending labor unions and fighting for better working conditions, attracting left-wing support for the various offices he sought. But after 1938, when he lost that following to Fletcher Bowron, who had just been elected mayor, Yorty talked about “labor misleaders” and became a prominent communist hunter.
By 1972, when George S. McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination, Yorty had become a Republican.
Actually, the disaffection started much earlier. In 1960, Yorty, still nominally a Democrat, backed Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy for president. In a widely circulated pamphlet, “Why I Can’t Take Kennedy,” Yorty said that the Democratic nominee’s wealthy father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was buying the election. The stance further alienated him from his former allies.
In his first Senate campaign in 1940, when he was only 30, Yorty, an outspoken interventionist, plastered the state with billboards stating, “Elect Sam Yorty--Stop Hitler Now.”
Far less grandiose was the issue that first won him the legally nonpartisan mayor’s job in 1961 over two-term Mayor Norris Poulson, a Republican.
Sorting Through the Trash
Yorty became the first Democrat elected mayor in more than 50 years by siding with the city’s homemakers over how they should dispose of their rubbish. The City Council had passed an ordinance requiring citizens to separate tin cans from the rest of the family garbage, which would then be collected once a month. Yorty championed the cause of a once-a-week, combined trash collection. (In 1992, the City Council ordered trash separated once again for easier recycling. By then, the retired Yorty said recycling was worth a try.)
Yorty’s successor, Bradley, once was asked by a national magazine to list Yorty’s accomplishments. He paused and then replied: “Well, he integrated the rubbish.”
Yorty also boasted that he brought a lot of foreign trade to Los Angeles--and to do that he engaged in a lot of travel. During his administration, Los Angeles acquired no less than eight sister cities abroad.
Los Angeles, it was said by Yorty’s detractors, was the only city in the nation with a foreign policy. After the 1965 Watts riots, those detractors noted that he had spent more time in Saigon than in South-Central Los Angeles and dubbed him “Saigon Sam.”
In the first three years and seven months of his third term, he was out of the city 372 days, including 260 working days.
A joke sprung up around City Hall: “Have you heard about the Sam Yorty diet? . . . You eat only when he’s in town.”
But the editorial writers of the Los Angeles Times took his absences seriously. At one point, while Yorty was in Israel, one editorial writer asked: “What the hell is the mayor of Los Angeles doing in Eilat?”
After his foreign trips, Yorty often would offer Washington unsolicited military and political advice.
This habit and other Yorty traits produced an almost nonstop war between the mayor and the press, particularly The Times. Before former Vice President Spiro Agnew made press-baiting nationally popular, Yorty was a well-known practitioner of the art.
He sued The Times for $2 million--litigation he pursued to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately lost--for a cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Conrad in which he was shown seated behind his desk while attendants in white coats, one with a straitjacket behind his back, were waiting to take him away. “I’ve got to go now,” Yorty is saying on the phone. “I’ve been appointed secretary of Defense and the Secret Service men are here.”
Another Times cartoon, also by Conrad, was printed during Yorty’s run for the White House, showing Yorty campaign posters hung on tapped sugar maples and captioned: “The sap is running in the maple trees of New Hampshire.”
The press, however, was not Yorty’s only problem.
Although he had campaigned on a platform of honesty in government, widespread corruption was exposed in the Harbor Department during his second term. Four of his commissioners were convicted (though two of those convictions were reversed), and another was found dead under suspicious circumstances, though the police called it an accidental drowning.
And although one of the main issues of his first campaign against Poulson was that two terms as mayor were enough, Yorty changed his mind when his third-term decision came in 1969. He became the first mayor in this century to serve three terms, a record ultimately surpassed by Bradley, who served four terms.
An Early Interest in Politics
Politics was part of Yorty’s life from the start. Samuel William Yorty was born Oct. 1, 1909, in Lincoln, Neb., the only son in a family with three children. The family was poor. His mother was an Irish immigrant who moved from the East Coast to the Great Plains when she was 16. His father, of Dutch descent, was a farmer, an ardent Democrat and supporter of William Jennings Bryan.
“I don’t think I ever had any other idea but to go into politics,” Yorty once said. “I was reared in a very political atmosphere. My father was a very strong Democrat in a Republican state and my mother, although an Irish immigrant, was very interested in politics.”
After high school, Yorty left home with $80 in his pocket and came to California. He held many odd jobs, from floor man in a men’s clothing store to auto salesman. At night he went to USC and Southwestern University Law School.
His first taste of local politics came when he got a job with the Department of Water and Power purchasing land to increase the city’s water resources. From this grew a lifelong interest in Southern California water rights.
Six years after he was old enough to vote, Yorty won his first election. He was 27 and was elected to the state Assembly with the assistance of his sister and her girlfriend, each of them going to virtually every home in the 64th District. Flushed with victory, he wrote his father that he would “rather make a speech than eat.”
In Sacramento, Yorty upheld the liberal traditions of his district, where Upton Sinclair’s reform movement was powerful. He either worked for or wrote legislation for an old age pension act, anti-sweatshop legislation, shortening the legal work week and curbing of loan sharks.
He was reelected in 1938 and had his eye on the mayor’s job. But his former supporters backed Bowron, believing that Yorty was too inexperienced. It was then, many observers said, that Yorty began rethinking his political loyalties and philosophy.
In the Legislature, Yorty worked to set up a state conciliation system for the National Labor Relations Board. His main efforts, however, involved the state’s Un-American Activities Committee, which he created and modeled after the congressional version. Yorty was its first chairman. One of its major activities was purging the State Relief Agency of alleged communists.
In 1942, Yorty dropped out of politics and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. For a time he served on Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines.
Campaigning again for mayor at war’s end, this time in uniform, Yorty ran sixth in a field of 13 and resumed his law practice. In 1949, he returned to the Assembly in a special election held after the Republican incumbent died.
A year later, when Helen Gahagan Douglas ran for Senate against Rep. Richard Nixon, Yorty ran for her congressional seat and won. He won a second term in 1952. With another Los Angeles congressman, then-Rep. Poulson, Yorty was actively involved in a House subcommittee studying Los Angeles’ water needs.
In 1954, he gave up his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate against moderate Republican Thomas Kuchel, but lost.
He was next heard from in 1960, when he publicly endorsed Nixon over Kennedy for president. Although many considered that act political suicide, Yorty soon announced for mayor against his former congressional colleague, the Republican Poulson, and won.
Yorty inherited a strong City Council/weak mayor form of government and for the rest of his administration sought to change it. He was unsuccessful.
Frustrated at home by his own council, he turned to national issues. By the summer of 1964, he was complaining that “civil rights extremists” were picking on the big city mayors. “I’m not suggesting that all this agitation is by communists, but it’s certain that the communists are involved.”
At the state and local levels, he fought against changing brush fire protection restrictions on wood roofs near the foothills, and he clashed with Gov. Pat Brown over delays in ordering anti-smog devices for automobiles.
He resurrected the issue of communism and, in 1965, before winning reelection handily over Rep. James Roosevelt, son of the late president, argued that “left-wingers and mercenaries” were working to defeat him. “Never before in the history of Los Angeles have I seen left-wingers and mercenaries working together, hand in hand, to take over the government of the city.” The Times, not yet a full-blown nemesis, endorsed him.
In 1966, he sought to defeat incumbent Pat Brown in the Democratic primary but lost. However, he had gathered enough votes to establish the governor’s vulnerability. Although Yorty essentially stayed neutral in the election battle against Ronald Reagan, which Brown lost, Yorty had damaged the governor considerably.
In 1968, he neither endorsed Hubert H. Humphrey nor Nixon for president, but afterward allowed that if he had his choice he would have liked to be secretary of Defense in the Nixon Cabinet. In 1969, in his crucial and unprecedented race for a third term, Yorty lost the primary 42% to 26% to Bradley, and the racist rhetoric really began.
“If Bradley won [the runoff],” Yorty warned, “the militants could come down and intimidate the City Council. . . . And then what could the police do?”
Yorty won the runoff 53% to 47%.
It was to be his last term. Yorty blamed his 1973 loss on the fact that the predominantly white residents of the Valley did not turn out and vote as anticipated. Bradley, the black winner, was to call that contest “the most scurrilous racist appeal I have ever seen in the city of Los Angeles. . . . You can’t serve the city by dividing it.”
Yorty’s first wife and Los Angeles’ former first lady, Elizabeth “Betts” Yorty, died in 1984, a year after their son, William Egan Yorty, died of cancer. Also widowed by his second wife, Gloria, Yorty then married Valery. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two granddaughters.
At Yorty’s request, there will be no services.
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Highlights From a Political Life
Oct. 1, 1909: Born Samual William Yorty in Lincoln, Neb.
1927: Arrives in Los Angeles; over several years attends night classes at USC and Southwestern University Law School, employed as clothing store clerk and car salesman, and with Dept. of Water and Power.
1936: At age 27, elected to state assembly as a Democrat.
1938: While vacationing in Palm Springs, meets Elizabeth “Betts” Hansel, they marry after a two-week courtship.
1940: Loses a bid for U.S. Senate seat to incumbent Hiram Johnson,
1942-1945: Serves in Army Air Corps.
1949: Returns to state assembly in a special election after Republican incumbent dies.
1950: Wins congressional seat; reelected in 1952.
1954: Gives up House seat to run again for Senate, loses.
1960: Still nominally a Democrat, he resurfaces to endorse Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in presidential election.
1961-1973 Becomes first Democratic mayor of Los Angeles in more than 50 years.
1965: Nicknamed Yorty “Saigon Sam” by critics, who claim he is more concerned with South Vietnam than South Central L.A.
1966: Runs against Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in Democratic primary, loses.
1969: Defeats Tom Bradley in a racially charged runoff election, goes on to win unprecedented third mayoral term.
1972: Begins five-year stint as co-host of “The Sam Yorty Show” on Television.
1973: Defeated by Bradley in run for fourth term.
1981: Makes a last run for L.A. mayor as a Republican at age 72, loses.
1984: Elizabeth, his wife of 45 years, dies of emphysema. He later remarries.
Late ‘80s: Continues to travel extensively overseas.
1998: Dies in Studio City home at the age of 88.
Compiled by STEVE TICE / Los Angeles Times
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