Seems a day doesn’t go by without the media jumping all over another anniversary tribute about an unmemorable public figure or uneventful event. Meanwhile, the lateTom Bradley (1917-98), one of L.A.’s best mayors — he served a record-breaking five terms from 1973-93 — has been all but ignored as years, decades and anniversaries roll by.
2010 isn’t a silver or gold year for Bradley, but in the spirit of the fine online magazine The Bluegrass Special, which just honored composer Anton Dvorak’s 169th birthday, why not declare September 29, an even dozen years since Bradley left this mortal coil, as a time to remember the man and his amazing accomplishments? (Twelve is the silk anniversary, and even Bradley’s detractors had to admit he projected a smooth, lustrous quality.)
Ironically, some of the best appreciations of Bradley’s contribution come from the alternative press, which rightfully gave him a hard time while he was in power, especially toward the end. 2003 tributes by Howard Blume in LA Weekly (where I was publisher from 1983-2002) and Weekly alum and veteran City Hall reporter Marc Haefele in LA Alternative stand out as rare warts-and-all appraisals of Bradley’s career.
Bradley — dubbed “The most important political figure in Los Angeles in the last three decades” by Raphael Sonenshein, author of the 1993 book, Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles — is especially relevant during the 2010 campaign season. In 1969, just four years after the infamous Watts Riots, Bradley faced the racist Sam Yorty in a mayoral contest for the first time. My former LA Weeklycolleague Gary Horowitz and his partner Sid Galante developed a media plan that, according to Horowitz, “featured TV spots with celebrity endorsements that never ever showed a picture of Tom, because people would more likely vote for him if they didn’t know he was black. Tom finished first in the primary, ahead of Yorty.”
By the final runoff, Horowitz adds, “Everyone knew about Bradley’s race and Yorty won by painting a picture of a Bradley victory that would throw the city into a hotbed of anarchy and rape.” At least Yorty’s campaign didn’t claim Bradley was born in Kenya!
Four years later Bradley beat Yorty by putting together a coalition of Jewish, black and liberal communities. Howard Blume: “In his first weeks in office, Bradley set the post-Yorty city agenda that both he and his successors have struggled to advance ever since. Mass transit and pollution control were new priorities; social utility and open space became key aspects of land-use planning.”
As Bradley worked to shape L.A. into his ideal of a “world-class city,” he lobbied hard to bring the Olympics to L.A. in 1984, a triumph for the city. He ran for and narrowly lost the governorship in 1982 after leading in the polls. (Twenty-six years later, pundits predicted, incorrectly, that “the Bradley effect” would doom Barack Obama’s presidential bid.)
The Los Angeles that Bradley helped build for 20 years was, Blume notes, “proudly multicultural, a world-stage city, with one of the globe’s major ports, with tall buildings downtown — a bustling Pacific Rim flagship.” All this in a city whose charter gives its mayor far less power than those of other major urban centers.
But who remembers Bradley? Certainly many who worked closely with him. Maury Weiner, Bradley’s first chief of staff and a deputy mayor who also played key roles in several Bradley campaigns, recalls many occasions on which, “The mayor would call a council member to solicit support for a legislative proposal. He’d ask the member — who’d just said terrible things about him in chambers — to sponsor the measure and therefore secure credit as the author of that measure, yielding political benefit to his adversary to achieve the greater good for the citizenry.”
Kerman Maddox, who served a special assistant and legislative deputy for Bradley from 1985 to 1989, notes that despite his iconic status, “Bradley was incredibly humble. We were from vastly different generations but we bonded over our commitment to make a difference and our inability to swim. We went on a river-rafting trip on the tough rapids of the Kern River in Bakersfield, California to burnish our environmental credentials during the gubernatorial campaign and discovered neither of us knew how to swim. We laughed because we assumed we were the only people on the trip who were crazy enough to go river rafting without being able to swim. Until I worked on the Obama for President campaign my parents thought working for Tom Bradley was the most important work their son had ever done.”
Bearing in mind L.A.’s anti-cityish sprawl, its reluctance to look at its past and a culture that can barely remember the last Tweet, it will take a conscious effort to keep Bradley’s legacy in the forefront — an effort like that of Oscar-nominated producer Lyn Goldfarb and Emmy-winning producer Alison Sotomayor. The pair has spent the past two years developing a multi-media project centered around the first-ever feature-length documentary on Bradley entitled Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race.
It’s disheartening to see our current mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa — who, when he became America’s first major city Latino mayor in 2005, inspired the kind of hope L.A. hadn’t seen since Bradley’s early terms — ferociously pursue the elitist corporate emphasis of Bradley’s later years without the bravery and creativity of Bradley’s earlier service.
Tom Bradley had major shortcomings, especially in the late-’80s and early ’90s when scandals, corporate cronyism and the ferocious 1992 riots plagued his administration. But Marc Haefele said, “I consider Bradley to have been one of the very few great people I’ve met. Bradley was something bigger than mayor of Los Angeles, at least during the first two-thirds of his tenure.”
Bradley was a very good man and a very good mayor. How many of today’s politicians fit that description.
Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.
Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.