Tom Bradley Dies at 80
By Richard Pearson
Tom Bradley, 80, the Los Angeles Democrat who spent 20 historic and tumultuous years as mayor of the nation's second-largest city before retiring from office in 1993, died Sept. 29 at a hospital in Los Angeles.
He had been in ill health since suffering a debilitating stroke in 1996 while recovering from surgery for a heart ailment.
Mr. Bradley, the son of a former Texas sharecropper, became a police officer, lawyer and City Council member. In 1973, when he won the first of five consecutive races for the office, he became the first African American to serve as the city's mayor.
In 1982, as the Democratic Party nominee, he lost the race for California governor to Republican George Deukmejian by less than 1 percent of the vote. Four years later, the two squared off again, with the Republican incumbent rolling up a victory of 61 percent to 37 percent.
For much of his career as mayor, Mr. Bradley walked the stage like a champion. To much of the country, he seemed a living symbol of the successful transfers of power taking hold in much of society.
Los Angeles, which many pictured as being under the sway of a largely white, conservative and Protestant power structure, elected a liberal mayor who put together a coalition of what a Washington Post reporter described as "inner-city blacks, westside Jews and downtown business interests."
Mr. Bradley began putting together a government that doubled the number of women and minorities in high-level city posts.
And the city, under its surprisingly low-key mayor, seemed to take off. During his mayoralty, Los Angeles overtook San Francisco as the financial capital of the state and much of the West. The City of Angels sprouted a skyline of new and impressive office buildings, and with a booming airport and port of Los Angeles, it became a transportation hub and gateway to the "Pacific Rim."
In 1984, amid a chorus of people predicting disaster, the mayor championed Los Angeles as the host of the Summer Olympics. The games were a huge success, bringing the city not only great publicity but a profit as well.
Then things began to go wrong.
In 1989, the mayor was rocked by financial conflict-of-interest charges. The city attorney issued a report detailing the mayor's secret acceptance of a consultancy from a Los Angeles bank that received an unexplained $2 million from the city. Although no criminal wrongdoing was found, the report attacked the mayor for ethical insensitivity and poor judgment.
Then in 1991, the United States was rocked and the city seemingly racially riven by a video of a black motorist, Rodney G. King, being beaten by four white police officers. Later that year, the Christopher Commission, a study group chaired by diplomat Warren Christopher, found a pattern of police brutality in the Los Angeles department.
In 1992, after the acquittal of officers on nearly all state charges involved in the King incident, the city erupted in three days of riots that cost more than 50 lives and $1 billion in damages.
The mayor seemed to lose control of the situation and seemed unable to coordinate or even communicate with a city police force viewed as an enemy by many residents. And the world became aware of the ongoing battles between the mayor and his controversial and combative police chief, Daryl Gates, a white man who was a vocal defender of his officers.
Mr. Bradley also was wrestling with events largely beyond his control. The federal government was cutting back on aid to cities, California's famed Proposition 13 tax breaks were drying up other revenue sources, and record numbers of immigrants were flooding the city and overloading its social services.
In September 1992, announcing that he would not run for reelection, Mr. Bradley said: "The April unrest tore at my heart, and I will not be at peace until we have healed our wounds and rebuilt our neighborhoods. Let us all, every one of us, pledge to make Los Angeles a beacon of mutual respect, justice and tolerance from this day forward."
He also said that "racism is America's greatest evil," vowing that "we in Los Angeles must be the first to slay that demon."
In 1993, he was succeeded by Republican Richard Riordan.
After learning of his predecessor's death, Riordan told the City Council: "This is a very sad day for Los Angeles, but also a very happy day as we think back on the memory of this great leader."
He went on to recall that "after the Watts riot in the '60s, Tom Bradley came into office and united a city that was divided. He has left a great legacy for all Angelenos, from the Olympics to the skyline to diversity that's united."
Mr. Bradley, the grandson of a slave, was born in Calvert, Tex., and grew up in Los Angeles. He starred on the track team at the University of California at Los Angeles and joined the Los Angeles police force in 1940, becoming a lieutenant. Having received a law degree in 1956 from Southwestern Law School, he left the force in 1961 to practice law.
In 1963, he was elected to the City Council, and he won reelection in 1967. He made his first try for mayor in 1969, going down in defeat to incumbent Sam Yorty (D). He was reelected to the council in 1971, and he challenged Yorty again in 1973 and won.
After leaving office, Mr. Bradley joined the Los Angeles offices of the San Francisco law firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where he specialized in international trade matters.
Survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Ethel Arnold, of Los Angeles; and two daughters.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company