L.A. 's Tom Bradley; A Nice Guy Who May Finish First

The scene was City Hall, Los Angeles, one morning in 1973. It was just a couple months into Thomas Bradley's first term as mayor. Aides in his press office were reading the Los Angeles Times when they noticed something which, to them, was particularly significant.

Not much was said at the time, but Bob Kholos, who was then Mr. Bradley's secretary, felt just then that he had worked for Tom Bradley - through two tough campaigns for the mayoralty - for all the right reasons.

True to the Bradley style, Mr. Kholos recalls no more than a grin from the mayor when he pointed it out to him, a grin ''like the cat who got the cream.''

''The black mayor'' of Los Angeles had finally become, in the columns of the Times, simply ''the mayor.''

Perhaps the understated Mr. Bradley, as usual, was careful not to put too much stock in symbolism. But today - early in his third term as mayor - he calls this shift in how he is perceived one of the great accomplishments of the last eight years ''for this city and, I think, for this country.''

Bradley, a modest man but not without political ambition, now is ready to spread his wings. His goal: the governor's chair of the nation's largest state. With incumbent Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. running for the US Senate, polls rank Bradley an early favorite by wide margins for the Democratic nomination. If he gets it and is elected, he might have another racial label to wear down. For Bradley would become the first elected black governor in American history.

The California governorship would automatically bring status as one of the nation's most prominent Democratic politicians. And Los Angeles Democrats are already chatting casually of Bradley's potential for ''higher national office.''

The mayor himself - son of a rural Texas sharecropper and a former police lieutenant - refuses to speak in such grand terms. He has yet to formally enter the governor's race, and he won't brook any discussion of thinking past it. ''Each of my new adventures has been a step at a time,'' he says.

The Bradley method is like his manner - calm and methodical. He is a tortoise among political hares. His heavy-lidded eyes speak sincerity and suggest an impassive competence. Six-foot-four with the strapping leanness of his days on the UCLA track team, Bradley wears a demeanor that seems to say ''I understand, and we can work it out.'' There is no drama, no climax, no turning point, no face-off or last-ditch all-or-nothing showdown. Tom Bradley is not likely to take the podium and make peoples' hearts beat faster. He knows this. And he doesn't mind it. He's a different kind of politician altogether.

He is not, for example, preocccupied with ideology - liberalism or conservatism. ''I don't think we can waste our time'' on it, he says.

He is known as a peacemaker. Ever since he can remember, back through his days at a mostly white high school in central Los Angeles, he has been called on to mediate disputes and solve problems. He sees himself as ''a healer'' who works 15 hours a day, seven days a week, to bring conflicting interests to the table to find common ground.

This has meant that to some his leadership has often appeared to be bland. There has been sharp criticism over the years - especially from liberal Democrats and civil-rights activists who once expected strong public stances from the mayor on sensitive issues like school busing. A Los Angeles newspaper has said he has ''an absolute horror of controversy.''

But Bradley good-naturedly scorns ''the kind of public confrontation that gets a lot of headlines but doesn't really solve anything.'' He talks instead of working behind the scenes for resolutions where often, ''except for the parties directly involved, nobody else may know about it.''

Recently, Bradley was caught in the tug of war in the controversy over bringing the Oakland Raiders football team to Los Angeles. Here in southern California, he has been seen as a strong advocate of moving the franchise. But on a recent trip north, he reportedly told a group of Raiders' fans, ''We want to leave your Raiders alone.'' This brought scathing commentary from Los Angeles sports columnists.

Bradley is unruffled by the seeming inconsistency: ''That is one of the better examples of how my interest in solving a problem is paramount, and the public perception for the moment is less important,'' he says. He charges that the press hasn't told the whole story. ''But that doesn't really bother me because in the end it's going to come out. . . .''

The voting public apparently is not put off by his approach.

Bradley is better liked by more people than any politician in California, the highly respected Field poll shows. And what is ''remarkable,'' notes analyst Mervin Field, is that Bradley is favored for the upcoming governorship by 30 percent of the state's Republicans - unusually high esteem for a Democrat. In his recent successful third term bid for the mayor's office, Bradley carried every district in the city: white, black, brown, conservative, and liberal.''

He doesn't seem like a politician,'' says John Mack, president of Los Angeles's Urban League, ''just an honest, decent guy.''

On a sunny fall morning recently in Los Angeles's Triforium outdoor plaza next to City Hall, a speaker calms the modest crowd with promises that the mayor is on his way; that he should be here by now; that he is coming now; that he is here. Is he here? Yes, he is here now.

Mayor Bradley strides up stage left and takes his seat on the stand. He rises to accept a can of clean air, an award from the local antismog coalition. He sits.

He is asked to rise and say a few words to the audience. He extemporizes on the virtues of carpooling and those who have made Share-A-Ride Day possible.

He sits.

He rises to present a series of awards to local businesses and agencies who have done their part. ''With ride-sharing,'' he wraps up, ''you can have your cake and eat it too.'' He cuts the cake.

First one, then another TV reporter - neither really interested in ride-sharing - pulls the mayor over to a camera to comment on the Sadat assassination earlier that morning.

Finally, he breaks free and strides off, the picture of towering dignity, his security guard a step behind and a press aide running to catch up.

These are the little pieces Tom Bradley's popularity is made of. No ceremony, meeting, or dedication in the city is too small for him to take part in, he says , and he is known for staying until the end.''

I work very hard at my job.'' So the deep-voiced Bradley forthrightly, but not immodestly, explains his wide popularity while sitting in his formal office.

The hardest work, he claims, is the one day a month he holds ''open house'' and the people of Los Angeles can come see him without an appointment.

''All that, I think, gets across the message that City Hall cares about you. If you have a problem, you can talk directly to the mayor.''

Several state governors, Bradley claims, have called him to ask how the ''open house program'' works. Some have followed suit and later reported that it works at the state level, too.

It is also the only day of the month, even at Bradley's grinding pace, that he admits to going home truly weary. A former UCLA quarter-miler, he is usually still in good form in the after-dinner part of the workday.

''But on those (open-house) days, I think because you literally carry the weight of all those people who come in to see you - 80 to 150 people - you sort of pick up all their burdens. And when you've done a day of that - 9 o'clock in the morning until 6, 7 at night - you begin to feel a sense of burden.''

Whatever else Tom Bradley feels, he keeps well in check.

''He's the most reserved man I've ever met,'' says Charles E. Lloyd, a longtime Bradley ally and his former law partner.

Bradley lost his first bid for the mayor's office in 1969 to Sam Yorty in a campaign smudged by the racial issue. Afterwards, Bradley and some of his friends took a trip to Las Vegas. ''We were all complaining about the dirty tactics used against us,'' Lloyd remembers. It had only been two years since Carl Stokes in Cleveland had become the first black elected mayor of a major American city.

''Tom was so calm we almost felt betrayed. He just said he was going to get started right away for the next time, and next time it was going to be different.''

Next time, in 1973, Bradley won with 56 percent of the vote in the final election. A key to that victory, analysts say, was in pointing up his 21 years on the Los Angeles police force which countered any soft-on-crime image that a black Democrat might be heir to.

Mervin Field predicts that race is not expected to figure strongly in next year's run for the governorship. In fact, he says, ''Bradley is the kind of guy that a lot of whites who fear they might be prejudiced would like to vote for - a kind of reverse chauvinism.''

If Democratic State Controller Ken Cory decides not to run for governor - still an uncertainty - Bradley could sail into the general election unscathed by the kind of primary fight that is almost certain to weaken his Republican opponent, either stolid state Attorney General George Deukmejian or the more mercurial Lt. Gov. Mike Curb.

Barring new developments, Field notes, this would send Bradley into the general election campaign the favorite.

The Los Angeles mayor is well-supported by the traditional constituents of the Democratic Party: labor, minorities, and affluent liberals. Republicans like him, says Mickey Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer prominent in Democratic politics, ''because they have access. And because it's the cleanest, best-kept, best-run city in the country.'' And he has balanced the budget.

Bradley, in fact, has as many good friends at the Chamber of Commerce as he does among local labor leaders. The common ground here has been the 200,000 new jobs in the city the mayor claims have opened up, and the revitalization of old and deteriorating parts of town. (''Downtown Los Angeles today is a far different section of our city than it was when I took office,'' he notes.) And the mayor's conscientious lobbying work in Washington and Sacramento has seen the city's public grants grow from $81 million a year to over $800 million.

''Race, in my judgment, was not a relevant issue,'' says Bradley in reviewing his career thus far. ''Never should have been. But it took the experience of the people to be convinced that it should not and would not become a factor in how you serve the interests of this city. And having seen that demonstration, I don't think that anybody can make a case now or in the future that the color of a candidate's skin is a factor and should be of any significant concern.''

Even Mayor Bradley's critics, says John Mack of the Urban League, ''have to admit that he has the universal interests of the city at heart. . . . I think he truly sees himself as the mayor of all the people.

''He doesn't wear his blackness on his sleeve.''

On the other hand, some blacks think Bradley should be more vocal and aggressive on civil-rights issues, Mack says, notably on school integration and police violence.

Blacks without jobs who are growing frustrated are especially likely to lose patience with the low-key Bradley approach of laboring in corporate meeting rooms to bring jobs to the city. He's not on TV or a street corner firing people up.'

'He won't be a folk hero'' for the frustrated and impatient, Mack says. ''They're not going to be turned on by a Tom Bradley who says, 'Come, let us reason together.' '' But he gets things done. And he carried some 90 percent of the black vote in the city last spring.

Bradley himself was brought up poor. He was 7 when his family moved from Calvert, Texas, in the early 1920s. When Bradley's father left his mother a couple of years later, she had to earn her living as a domestic. By the time Tom reached high school, he was a talented athlete and a campus leader. As president of a mostly white student body, Bradley says the school faculty would call on him to help mediate conflicts between races or feuding groups. He rejected the advice of his counselors and pursued academic course-work, and used his athletic skills in both track and football to win himself a scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

''All I knew at the time was that I wanted to get a college education,'' he says. Education, he felt, ''was going to open the doors that I felt surely were going to be open at some point.'' Blind faith, he calls it, as there was little evidence in the mid-'30s that racial barriers would tumble.

He became UCLA's premier quarter-miler with what was then an impressive best time of 48 seconds flat. Jackie Robinson, the first black to break professional baseball's color barrier, was his teammate.

In 21 years as a policeman, Bradley became an expert on the numbers racket. Charles Lloyd, then a police science -major at L.A. City College, remembers hearing Bradley lecture. ''I was impressed then,'' Mr. Lloyd says, chiefly because it was so rare to have a black lecturer. Bradley was a lieutenant, but in those days blacks didn't become captains, so he earned a law degree in night school and left the force.

Bradley practiced law for only three years before winning a city council seat in a district that was only 20 percent black. He began his partnership with Lloyd at about the same time.

Lloyd says his partner was very methodical, very well prepared, and very articulate. He cared less about making money in his practice than Lloyd did, Lloyd recalls. ''We had disagreements over that. He would send me cases with a note: 'These people have no money' and expect me to do what I could for them.''

Bradley was a councilman until he became mayor in 1973. Since then, nearly everyone who has known him agrees, his confidence has grown tremendously - to the point where he now effortlessly shuttles from one impromptu speech to the next.

''He wouldn't even tell a joke in public in 1969,'' says Bob Kholos, who served both as the mayor's press secretary and as communications director for Bradley's first two mayoral campaigns. Now Kholos is writing a book, ''The Private Life of a Jewish Press Secretary,'' which includes an account of his years with Bradley.

The mayor will be capable of breaking out of his reserved manner more in the coming year, Kholos suggests, as the governor's race heats up. ''He sees a campaign as a campaign and government as government.''

If Bradley wins, Kholos foresees the kind of governor who, in a few months, will know where every dollar is going. The often rough relations between the executive suite and state legislature would almost certainly improve, if Bradley's diplomatic success with the L.A. City Council is any indication, his backers insist. These are the kind of nitty-gritty details of administration Bradley is best at.

''He sees himself as a sort of scientist of the city,'' Kholos says - knowing the intricacies of the budgets, and making sure all voices are heard, if not his own.

''He grew up in an era where he was held back a lot. Now his idea is that everybody gets a piece of the action. Everybody who is interested in the city gets a say.''

Ira Reiner, city attorney here who almost made a bid for the mayor's seat in the last running, has been a critic of Bradley's pacifist brand of governing in the past. Now he hedges. Everyone has their critics, he says. ''The significant thing is that you have to search so hard to find a critic of a man in his third consecutive term as mayor of a major metropolitan city.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.