Combative Politician Sam Yorty Dies at 88
By Richard Pearson
Sam Yorty, 88, the colorfully cantankerous California politician who gained fame as the combative mayor of Los Angeles in the whirlwind years of the 1960s, died of pneumonia June 5 at his home in Los Angeles. He had a stroke May 24.
Mayor Yorty served as mayor for three terms from 1961 to 1973. He led the city through its boom years, when it grew from a medium-size city to a world-class metropolis. He was largely credited with expanding the city's freeway system into one of the world's largest and most famous.
He also has been cited as the driving force behind everything from the Los Angeles Music Center to the Los Angeles Zoo.
Or as he once modestly summed it up: "I was really responsible for building this city."
His years as mayor also included the historic and horrific 1965 race riots in Watts and the 1968 assassination in his city of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), as well as the usual varieties of natural disasters from fires to mudslides to earthquakes that plague that part of the West Coast.
Mayor Yorty's shoot-from-the-hip style of politics was one that evoked emotion more than ideology. By turns, he baffled, angered and supported both conservatives and liberals and made enemies, and some friends, in both major political parties. His take-no-prisoners political style also made him something of a national figure.
One part of the mayor's legacy was cited by his former press deputy, Yet Lock, who told reporters that Mayor Yorty was the first Los Angeles mayor to have an integrated staff that included Hispanics, blacks and Asian Americans, and the first to appoint a woman as deputy mayor.
But he failed to take criticism with any grace, attacking anyone who had anything bad to say about his fire or police departments. He also counterattacked state and federal officials, who took his urban renewal efforts to task, for simply adding to urban problems by falsely raising the hopes of those trapped in poverty. He also had been known to claim that his powerful enemies included communists.
In 1969, he was opposed for reelection by Tom Bradley, then a city councilman. Mayor Yorty angered many when he shrugged off the black vote by saying that blacks usually voted for members of their own race. Although Mayor Yorty won in 1969, he was defeated four years later by Bradley, who became the city's first black mayor.
In addition to his years as mayor, he also served in the California State Assembly and in the House of Representatives, from 1951 to 1955, in a political career that spanned nearly 40 years in the city he insisted on pronouncing "Los An'gah-leez."
But throughout his life, Mayor Yorty seemed to relish the heat of political combat. The political maverick ran in an estimated 20 campaigns, including a brief plunge into the 1972 Democratic presidential primaries, a primary race for governor in 1966 and four unsuccessful quests for a Senate seat from 1940 to 1980.
He started his political life as a Democrat and was attacked during his years in the legislature, before World War II, as a left-winger for sponsoring pro-union legislation and fighting for state ownership of utilities. He began to move toward the right while in Congress, when he became known for his support of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
In 1960, he alienated many Democrats when he endorsed Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a fellow Californian, for the presidency over the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
In 1972, when the Democrats nominated George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) for president, the mayor changed his party affiliation to Republican. By that time, Mayor Yorty's nicknames had grown to include "Saigon Sam" for his vocal support of the Vietnam War.
He gained a degree of fame greater than that of the average big-city mayor, not only for the size of his city and his own political acumen but through frequent television appearances on Johnny Carson's enormously popular "Tonight Show," the late-night NBC talk program. The mayor was so successful -- displaying a unique skill on the banjo for a big-city mayor -- that after leaving office, he was given his own local television talk show, a program that ran for five years before it was replaced, as Mayor Yorty often loudly complained, by "Hee Haw."
Samuel William Yorty, a Lincoln, Neb., native, went to Los Angeles after high school. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles, worked for the city's water and power department, and was elected to the State Assembly while in his twenties.
He left the legislature to serve in the Army Air Forces in World War II. After service in the Pacific, he returned to Los Angeles and was reelected to the legislature. In 1950, he was elected to the first of two terms in the House of Representatives. He gave up his House seat in 1954 when he made an unsuccessful run for the Senate.
His first wife, Elizabeth "Betts" Yorty, died in 1984, a year after the death of their son, William Egan Yorty. He also was widowed by his second wife, Gloria.
Survivors include his wife, Valery King Yorty of Los Angeles; and two granddaughters.
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