Los Angeles — Although the Democratic primary race for governor has been California's election-year sleeper, its likely winner--Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley--may be making history by November.
A Bradley win this fall would make the city's low-key mayor the first black to be elected governor in United States history. (Although a black man served as governor in the South during the Reconstruction period, he was appointed, not elected).
Such firsts are nothing new for Mr. Bradley, a fiscally conservative Democrat and son of a Texas sharecropper who became the first black to rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department to become a lieutenant, and, in 1974, LA's first black mayor.
A recent California Poll puts Bradley's primary standing at 75 percent of the Democratic vote--a margin of support which poll director Mervin Field terms ''phenomenal.'' The mayor's leading opponents - state Sen. John Garamendi and former state Health and Welfare Secretary Mario Obledo--trail at 11 and 3 percent respectively.
In addition, the same mid-May poll shows bright prospects for Bradley in November; both Republican candidates, Lt. Gov. Mike Curb and state Attorney General George Deukmejian, fall behind him by 17 and 13 percentage points, respectively.
In the coming months, such leads may vary dramatically. And it is likely that a good measure of Mayor Bradley's success will depend on who emerges as the victor of the Republican primary--where the lead, unlike the Democratic primary, has seesawed back and forth.
Although Bradley is known for maintaining a very low public profile, and is not expected to pull any hard campaign punches, observers such as pollster Field agree that the general election is likely to be a more sharply defined race if Lieutenant Governor Curb squares off with Bradley.
Mr. Curb, a youthful, relative newcomer to politics, has been known to make sometimes serious political gaffes, unlike Bradley, who rarely shows any emotion. What's more, observers say that voters looking for a change from the flashy politics of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. may be put off by Curb's background as a Hollywood record company executive--and may turn instinctively to the quieter Bradley.
On the other hand, it's unlikely that the mayor would hold any such edge over Mr. Deukmejian. In terms of temperament, the attorney general shares many similarities with the mayor.
Mr. Bradley's commanding lead is due in large part to the very high and favorable name recognition he holds among California voters--an advantage not enjoyed by Senator Garamendi, a conservative northern Californian, and Mr. Obledo, who draws his support from Hispanic voters.
Bradley is sometimes criticized for not being a forceful public leader.
''He's never in the middle of controversy,'' says a local political strategist. ''He doesn't get involved with issues like (former San Francisco Mayor Joseph) Alioto.'' He has ''buffers'' around him to keep controversy away, she adds.
Though he does not like to be drawn into comparisons with Governor Brown, Bradley is, in many ways, more conservative than Brown. Both support the controversial Peripheral Canal, a project designed to bring water from northern to southern California.
But unlike Brown, Bradley supports nuclear power (with the caveat that it be proven ''safe''); says he will enforce the state's voter-mandated death penalty; and has said he would have immediately authorized malathion spraying of Mediterranean fruit flies last spring--a stand applauded by the state's agribusiness community, which was infuriated by Brown's delay in ordering spraying of the destructive pest.
Bradley, however, can be expected to face his share of challenges in the months to come. One of the most delicate is that of race. It is an issue that Bradley is not unfamiliar with; former LA Mayor Sam Yorty played heavily on it in defeating Bradley's first challenge to him in 1969.
Bradley is hardly a ''black power'' politician, observers point out. In fact, pollster Field has described him as ''the kind of guy that a lot of whites who fear they might be prejudiced would like to vote for.'' Still, longtime politcal reporters speculate that it may play a subtle role in the final election.