Tom Bradley

The first African American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley (born 1917) won election five times, serving a record 20 years in a city where African Americans constituted a small minority of the electorate. He was twice (1982, 1986) the Democratic candidate for governor of California.

Born to an east central Texas sharecropper family of Crenner (Hawkins) and Lee Thomas Bradley on December 29, 1917, Bradley was one of seven children. When he was only seven years old his family moved to Los Angeles, where his mother worked as a domestic servant and his father at various jobs including waiting tables and Pullman car porter. A talented athlete, Bradley excelled in football and the 440-yard dash at Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles. After high school he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles to become a track star.

Dropping out of college Bradley joined the Los Angeles police force for what turned into a 21-year career (1940-1961) and rose through the ranks to lieutenant. In the 1950s Bradley enrolled in night school and completed his law studies at Southwestern University, where he received an LL.B. degree in 1956 and won admission to the California bar the next year. In 1941 Bradley married Ethel May Arnold, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church which he attended and where he later became a trustee. He was the father of two daughters, Phyllis, a school teacher, and Lorraine, a secretary. After his police career, Bradley practiced law briefly and in 1963 won a seat as Los Angeles' first African American city councilman. Reelected in 1967 and again in 1971 from a biracial district, Bradley often spoke for larger citywide concerns including what he perceived to be poorly planned off-shore oil drilling and its possible negative environmental effects.

Tom Bradley challenged incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty in 1969. In a bitter campaign, and in the runoff which ensued, Yorty painted Bradley as a 1960s radical and defeated him. By 1973 the apprehensions of Los Angeleans had cooled considerably on the issue of African American urban riots, and in this election Tom Bradley hired New York media consultant David Garth to package an effective advertising campaign. Garth presented Bradley as the politically responsible and temperate moderate that he was and would become as mayor. Bradley won a stunning upset, carrying 56 percent of the vote in a city in which African Americans comprised only 15 percent of the electorate. Bradley won reelection four times, several of those with even larger majorities. He carried 59 percent of the vote in 1977, 64 percent in 1981, and 67 percent in 1985, achieving a precedent-setting fourth term.

Throughout his terms as mayor, Bradley led and guided his city through a series of problems including the first energy crisis of 1973-1974. The crisis prompted the mayor to develop a program to make Los Angeles a leader in energy conservation and the "solar city" of America. Although sensitive to environmental concerns, Bradley was also an aggressive executive in encouraging economic development and private investment in his city. Initiatives to improve public transportation, control freeway construction, and vitalize the city's core were also undertaken. Mayor Bradley worked diligently during his early administrations to overcome the impersonal quality of urban leadership by holding "open house" days in branch offices in various parts of the city where citizens could meet their mayor.

A physically imposing figure of more than six feet tall and robust in appearance, Bradley paradoxically projected a soft, low-key, in-control image to the public. A deft politician with a calming influence, Bradley seldom embroiled himself in racial and political turmoil (much to the displeasure of radicals) and adroitly sidestepped the issue of forced cross-town bussing of school children which the courts settled. In the first six years of his administration he avoided new taxes and balanced the budget for his tax conscious electorate. An area in which he suffered considerable criticism was the rapid increase in homicides in 1979. Notwithstanding his career as an ex-police officer, the mayor supported and implemented a civilian commission to oversee the police department.

Although he opened up more city jobs for minorities than any previous mayor, Bradley was colorblind on most public issues and came down on the side of merit and efficiency in personnel management. Bradley also prided himself on fiscal conservatism, which the mayor's office called "enlightened stinginess." In his third term Bradley cut back on city spending and public services (including street cleaning and library hours) when tax revenues were not sufficient to meet expenses. Tempted into statewide politics, Bradley ran as a Democratic candidate for the California governorship in 1982 and lost a hard-fought campaign to Republican George Deukmejian, an Armenian-American and former state attorney general. Mayor Bradley entered into the national slipstream of media consciousness in a large way when he won for his city the privilege of hosting the 1984 summer Olympic Games and played the role of official host. Although discussed in a preliminary fashion as a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, the party instead chose Geraldine Ferraro. Bolstered by favorable results in straw polls, Bradley in 1986 again challenged Deukmejian in a contest for governor of California. However, he lost the race to Deukmejian.

Bradley's later administration was marred by conflict and scandal, largely as a result of the Rodney King incident and the riots that ensued when the involved officers were acquitted. On March 3, 1991, King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers, and the event was recorded on videotape. Four officers were charged with assault and controversial police chief Darryl Gates was suspended, then reinstated. Mayor Bradley urged Gates to resign, and when he refused, communication between the two disintegrated. A year later, when the verdict in the officers' trial sparked riots in South Central Los Angeles, Gates was again at the center of the controversy. A panel led by former FBI and CIA director William Webster held Gates responsible for not having an adequate plan to deal with potential unrest. But Webster also blamed Mayor Bradley for poor relations between the police department and city hall. Bradley confessed that he and Gates had not spoken for over a year before the riots. The riots had a devastating impact on the city and on Bradley's administration: 58 people were killed, 2, 283 were injured, and there was over $750 million in property damage. The Economist wrote, "Since the 1984 Olympics, his [Bradley's] administration has been pockmarked by petty corruption, inaction, and, of course, last year's riots."

After the riots, Bradley was praised for forming "Rebuild L.A.", a task force established to put the city back in order. He also formed a program called, "L.A.'s Best", which provided afternoon activities for young people in an effort to keep them off the streets. In 1993 Bradley retired from the Mayor's office after a record 20 years and after 50 years of public service as police officer, city councilman, and then mayor. He was replaced by millionaire businessman Richard Riordan. Of his years as mayor Bradley said, "Everything that I set out to do 20 years ago, I have accomplished. The Olympics were the major event of my life…[the riots were] the most painful experience of my life."

In 1996, Bradley suffered a heart attack while in a fast-food restaurant, but recovered. A reserved man who was known as a hard-working and conscientious administrator, Tom Bradley was among the leading African American political figures in the United States.


Further Reading on Tom Bradley

For his early life, see The New York Times Biographical Service 12 (April 1981) and 15 (June 1984) and "Winning Mayor, " The Economist, 279 (April 18, 1981). For Bradley's mayoral and public career, see "Tom Bradley, " Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 1820-1980, eds. M. Holli and P. Jones (1981); Mayors of Los Angeles (1968, 1980); TIME magazine, (October 2, 1982 and November 15, 1982); and U.S. News and World Report, 96 (March 6, 1984). See also Contemporary Black Biography (Vol. 2) (1992).