Obituary: Tom Bradley

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WHEN TOM Bradley became mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, he upset a widely held establishment belief that the city should be run by a strictly white Protestant elite. Not only was he black, but a black liberal who believed fervently that the ethnic and racial diversity of his adoptive city should be the key to its development and future prosperity.

By the time his fifth and last term in office ended 20 years later, Bradley had endured more than his share of political knocks and disappointments - notably the riots that tore the city apart the year before his retirement - but his legacy proved to be remarkably consistent with his original vision.

Segregation, which had been rampant in the police department and elsewhere when he took over, was no longer officially tolerated. African Americans had gained access to key jobs in the public sector and city government. Los Angeles remained a city with shocking gulfs between rich and poor, and massive deprivations among its different ethnic communities, particularly its vast Hispanic and Asian populations, but at least Mayor Bradley had demonstrated that change was possible and had taken considerable strides to bring it about.

In part, Bradley was a product of his times. It might have been acceptable for Wasp supremacists to rule the roost when he was growing up in the rougher East Side neighbourhoods in the 1920s and 1930s, but half a century later Los Angeles was, in the words of the author Lou Cannon, "a salad bowl of cultures in which 106 languages were spoken, a fifth of the residents had been born in a foreign country, nearly half the public-school children conversed in Spanish at home, and the Roman Catholic Church was the city's most influential religious institution".

That massive expansion was, ultimately, what made Mayor Bradley possible; once in office, he also actively encouraged it. His political success relied on the unlikely alliance of poor disenfranchised minorities, West Side liberals (many of them Jewish), and powerful business interests, particularly property speculators, which have always proved the driving force in Los Angeles.

During the Bradley years, an effort was made to give some civic sense to the shapeless suburban sprawl of metropolitan LA; a dilapidated and largely ignored downtown was spruced up and graced with a shimmering array of new skyscrapers that grew up out of the flophouses and cheap motels of Bunker Hill; plans were set in motion to build an underground public railway; and, perhaps most symbolically, the city succeeded in hosting the 1984 Olympic Games.

Tom Bradley's cosy alliances with the business community were to sour the latter part of his career. Whereas his first downtown development project in 1974 was linked to the building of a big supermarket in Watts, the predominantly black neighbourhood hit by a major riot in 1965, similar linkages became increasingly rare. Indeed, in the late 1980s, the mayor became embroiled in a conflict of interest scandal after he accepted advisory positions at two financial institutions with business links to the city - a scandal for which he was ultimately exonerated of wrong-doing but admonished for his poor judgement.

So concerned did Bradley become to turn Los Angeles into a hub of international trade, with strong links to Mexico and the Pacific, that he neglected some of the deprivations and injustices on his own doorstep - arguably one of the factors that led to the 1992 riots that fanned out from South Central LA following the acquittal of the police officers who were seen on videotape beating Rodney King. For the same reason he failed to anticipate the recession that followed the end of the Cold War, another factor behind his decision not to run for a office a sixth time.

Bradley was born in 1917 into a poor family of Texas sharecroppers, the second of five children, and moved to Los Angeles when he was seven. In a childhood marked by frequent evictions and reliance on public assistance, Tom emerged not only as a bright child but a fine sportsman, too.

It was an athletics scholarship that got him into the University of California at Los Angeles - making him one of just 100 blacks in a student body of 7,000. But a craving for a steady living, something his family had never known, persuaded him to drop out a year before graduation so he could take up a job with the police department.

The LAPD was an eye-opener for Bradley the emerging politician. Blacks were not allowed out on the same patrols as white officers, and inevitably hit a glass ceiling that stopped them being promoted beyond sergeant. Bradley was a bit different, partly because of his skills in communication and diplomacy. He caught the eye of Chief William Parker and was hired to talk to community groups about the police's work - a job Parker thought would be a good way to counter accusations of racism and violence in police procedure.

Bradley became the only black man to be promoted lieutenant under Parker's long tenure, and immediately set about trying to integrate radio cars in his division. His scheme did not work because all the white officers called in sick and he received no back-up from his superiors. Shortly afterwards, he followed in the footsteps of many talented black fellow officers by taking a law degree in evening classes and quitting the force for the bar.

Law was soon taken over by politics, and in 1963 he was elected a city council member for an East LA district. Soon he was being tarred with every conceivable brush, notably being accused of Communist sympathies by the reactionary then mayor, Sam Yorty. The real issue, though, was the blatant racial injustice at large in Los Angeles, which Yorty sought to defend and Bradley to attack. As late as the mid-1960s blacks could not buy property in white neighbourhoods without a white intermediary and were frequently refused service in shops and restaurants.

It was the Watts riot that gave Bradley his chance. Clearly, the city was crying out for more conciliatory leadership and he was the obvious man to provide it. Yorty beat him for the mayor's seat in 1969, but was roundly beaten when they faced each other off again four years later.

The Bradley machine soon took effect. Blacks and minority groups gained admittance to city hall jobs and public contracts for the first time. And a long battle began to gain some civilian control over the LAPD. In particular, a strong personal rivalry emerged between Bradley and the long-serving LAPD chief Daryl Gates, a rivalry that exploded into open animosity during the tense days of April 1992.

After the Rodney King beating, Bradley openly called for Gates's resignation. After the acquittal of the four police officers in the case, Bradley became so emotional about what he called an unmistakable crime that he was later accused of inciting the riots himself.

As it turned out, both Bradley and Gates were undone by the unrest. Gates was barred from another term as police chief, and Bradley decided not to run in the 1993 mayoral election. Instead he returned to legal practice and an uncharacteristically quiet life. "I had enough exposure in 20 years to last a lifetime," he commented in 1994. "If my name was never printed again, it wouldn't bother me."

Thomas Bradley, police officer and politician: born Calvert, Texas 29 December 1917; member, Los Angeles City Council 1963-73; Mayor of Los Angeles 1973-93; married 1941 Ethel Arnold (two daughters); died Los Angeles 29 September 1998.