LA's Tom Bradley: cool, inscrutable, a quiet politician

By , Staff corespondent of the Christian Science Monitor

Some politicians give big speeches and make big headlines. Others rocket to embarrassing notoriety by placing one foot, or sometimes two, in their political mouths.

But Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who has just announced his bid for a third term in office, is said to win voters and influence friends by taking a tack somewhat uncharacteristic of his profession: He keeps quiet.

In 7 1/2 years in office, Los Angeles's first black mayor has grown widely popular and increasingly powerful both here and on the national scene. And he has become known more for what he doesn't say -- publicly, at least -- than for what he does say.

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It's not, of course, that Mr. Bradley doesn't talk, or even give an occasional opinion or two. He does, and often with great articulateness. But rarely does this former police lieutenant and city councilman say anything that places him on the fringes, let alone in the middle, of a hot political issue.

He has been likened to a sphinx, cool and inscrutable. However, it is precisely this withdrawal, this ability to avoid public controversy, that many observers say is the key to the mayor's tremendous political success.

Locally, Bradley enjoys the respect and election support of a broad cross section of the city, including the business community, blacks, liberals, and the news media -- most notably the Los Angeles Times, which does not have a reputation for aggressive coverage of Bradley.

On a state level, a recent California poll found the mayor enjoys a high name recognition and favorable rating among voters -- a finding which may bode well for what many see as Bradley's aspirations to a 1982 gubernatorial bid.

And nationally, he has gained wide visibility as a member of three presidential commissions, including the nine-member FBI Director Search Committee, and as chairman of a fourth presidential group. In addition, when nominating speeches were made at last August's Democratic convention, Bradley -- an early Carter endorser -- landed a plum spot, putting in his party pitch for Vice-President Walter Mondale.

The low-key approach apparently has worked. During Bradley's two terms as mayor, Los Angeles has maintained a relatively stable racial calm: "It is a city at peace with itself," says Bradley.

Businessmen have done well, and the local economy has remained fairly healthy during the nation's economic crunch.

In addition, this fall's introduction of court-ordered busing in public schools, while cluttered with a series of last-minute court appeals, at least was begun without incident.

In a city government which by charter accords greater power to the 15-member City Council than to the mayor. Bradley is considered to be particularly masterful in unifying the city's diverse factions. He is known for bringing together sharply divided groups and helping them to reconcile their differences.

"He's a defuser, not a confrontationist," sums up one California political strategist. "He's never involved in a controversy."

"You have to be a conciliatory, mediating force, first of all, to be able to keep a sense of peace and harmony that permits you to get things done," Mr. Bradley said in an interview with the Monitor shortly before his announcement, a move which reverses his long standing campaign promise to serve only two terms.

"That lack of flamboyance, the low-key style, is something that people find strange or different," he continued. "Some don't understand."

"All I can say to them is "look at the record and see that this low-key approach has produced results for me all of my life, and for the last 7 1/2 years has produced results -- staggering results -- for this city," he said.

He points with particular pride to his fight to land the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, although he has had considerable difficulty in securing federal funding for the event.

His aides also boast of an increase in federal aid from $80 million when he took office to a current total of $800 million. Although some of that aid is due to the initiation of new federal programs, even the mayor's opponents admits that hard work on Bradley's part has meant the reaping of a larger share of federal funds than the city would have had without him.

Despite the broad popularity he enjoys, and despite current predictions that his third mayoral run will be a successful one, there are problems for Mayor Bradley, problems which all-but-announced-candidate and city controller Ira Reiner hopes to turn to hiw own political advantage.

A substantially ineffective housing program, for example -- including documented reports by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the city has poorly handled millions of dollars in federal housing money -- is what one community activist predicts will be "a real time bomb" for the Bradley administration.

"Tom and I will be talking about the same things," says Mr. Reiner, referring partly to Bradley's beleaguered housing program. "He'll be talking about the increased federal funds coming into the city, and I'll be talking about where they went."

To date, the mayor has managed to keep the housing controversy away from his political doorstep, although his appointees were responsible for overseeing the program in question.

The situation, say mayoral observers, reflects Bradley's finely tuned ability to keep political imbroglios at arms-length from himself. While some city watchers speak admiringly of the mayor's ability to stay above the fray, others question such "aloof," and some say self-serving, leadership.

Bradley is criticized as well for what some called sidestepping a series of heated controversies involving the police department. And busing advocates have sharply denounced the mayor for keeping a low profile when court-ordered busing began last month, even though Bradley had done a number of television spots urging peaceful cooperation when an experimental busing program was begun two years ago.

"In all my life, I can't remember a conscious effort to try to duck something which is controversial," countered Bradley. "I don't look to the question of have we got a chance to win or lose, I'm in the middle of that fray.

"Just examine the record.There are a lot of people who thought I was crazy to try to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles. It would have been easy to duck that but I chose to lead the fight," he said.

Nonetheless, many observers agree the mayor's position is an ideal one. He can, if he chooses, make a statement on any issue he wants to get involved in, because he is, after all, the city's chief executive. On the other hand, if he wants to steer away from controversy, he has at his discretion the power to appoint commissions or task forces to which he can delegate sensitive issues.

It is a political advantage that obviously does not escape Bradley. When the subject was commented on by a reporter, for example, Bradley chuckled before quietly admitting:

"It's a good arrangement if you know how to work it. And I think I've learned how to work it."

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