Bradley unsuccessfully ran for Governor of California in 1982 and 1986 and was defeated each time by the Republican George Deukmejian. The racial dynamics that appeared to underlie his narrow and unexpected loss in 1982 gave rise to the political term "the Bradley effect."
Visit the Tom Bradley Legacy Foundation at UCLA. Tom Bradley was born to Lee and Crenner Bradley in Calvert near Bryan-College Station in Central Texas. Bradley was a son of a sharecropper and the grandson of former slaves. The family moved to Arizona to pick cotton, and young Tom had to help. Half a century later, as he rode through California's Central Valley cotton fields on a gubernatorial campaign trip, Bradley looked out the window and recalled how he picked cotton as a young boy. "That was enough," he said. "I never did fill that 25-pound sack."
In 1924, the family moved to Los Angeles, near Temple and Alvarado streets. His father was a porter for the Santa Fe railroad and worked on crews that traveled the West Coast. His mother worked as a maid. The Bradleys were divorced and, at one point, their son recalled, the family went on public assistance. Bradley attended Rosemont Elementary School and Lafayette Junior High School, where he was counseled against going to college. But he was a promising athlete at the neighborhood Central Recreation Center, and he was recruited by Ed Leahy, track coach at Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, a mostly white school. His success there foreshadowed the accomplishments to come.
By the time he attended Polytechnic High School, Bradley starred in both American football and track. At the mostly white campus he became the first African American to be elected president of the Poly Boys' League and the first to be inducted into the Ephebians, a national honor society. Bradley also was captain of the track team and made the all-city football team as a tackle. He graduated in the winter of 1937. Later he attended University of California, Los Angeles on a track scholarship. One of the jobs that he had while at UCLA was as a photographer for comedian Jimmy Durante. He dropped out of UCLA during his junior year to attend the Los Angeles Police Academy, after placing near the top on a recruitment exam. He became a member of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1940 and became a lieutenant, the highest rank held by an African American police officer in Los Angeles at that time. While working on the force, he studied at night at Southwestern University School of Law and received his law degree. Bradley later passed the bar exam to become a lawyer.
His entry into politics came when he decided to join the Crenshaw Democratic Club. The club was part of the California Democratic Council, a liberal, reformist group organized in the 1950s by young Democrats energized by Adlai E. Stevenson's presidential campaigns. It was predominantly white and had many Jewish members, thus marking the beginnings of the coalition, which along with Latinos, that would carry him to electoral victory so many times.
His choice of a Democratic circle also put him at odds with another political force in the African American community, representatives of poor, all-black areas who were associated with the political organization of Jesse M. Unruh, then an up-and-coming state assemblyman. The early stage of Bradley's political career was marked by clashes with African American leaders like onetime California Lieutenant Governor and former U.S. Representative Mervyn Dymally, an Unruh ally.
He served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1963 to 1972. He ran twice for mayor. In 1963, he, along with Billy G. Mills, would become the first African Americans elected to the City Council in modern times. His 10th District was centered in the multi-ethnic Crenshaw area, the majority of whose voters were white. During his tenure, he spoke out against racial segregation within the LAPD, as well as the department’s handling of the Watts Riots in 1965.
Years later, when a student, commenting on Bradley's lack of personal charisma and his caution, wondered aloud whether Los Angeles had elected a black Gerald Ford rather than a black John Kennedy, Bradley replied: "I'm not a black this or a black that. I'm just Tom Bradley."
In 1969, Bradley first challenged incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty, a conservative Democrat (later Republican) though the election was nonpartisan. Armed with key endorsements (including the Los Angeles Times), Bradley held a substantial lead over Yorty in the primary, but was a few percentage points shy of winning the race outright. However, in the runoff, to the dismay of supporters such as Abigail Folger, Yorty pulled an amazing come from behind victory to win reelection primarily because he played racial politics. Yorty questioned Bradley's credibility in fighting crime and painted a picture of Bradley, his fellow Democrat, as a threat to Los Angeles because he would supposedly open up the city to feared Black Nationalists. Bradley did not use his record as a police officer in the election. With the racial factor, even many liberal white voters became hesitant to support Bradley.
It would be another four years in 1973, when Bradley would unseat Yorty.
Mayor of Los Angeles
Powerful downtown business interests at first opposed him. But with passage of the 1974 redevelopment plan and the inclusion of business leaders on influential committees, corporate chiefs moved comfortably in behind him. During Bradley's tenure as mayor, Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympic Games and passed Chicago to become the second most populous city in the country. The 1992 Los Angeles riots and the formation of the Christopher Commission also occurred on his watch. Tom Bradley helped contribute to the financial success of the city by helping develop the satellite business hubs at Century City and Warner Center. Bradley was a driving force behind the construction of Los Angeles' light rail network. He also pushed for expansion of Los Angeles International Airport and development of the terminals which are in use today. The Tom Bradley International Terminal is named in his honor.
Bradley served for twenty years as mayor of Los Angeles, surpassing Fletcher Bowron with the longest tenure in that office. Bradley was offered a cabinet-level position in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, which he refused. In 1984, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale considered Bradley as a finalist for the vice presidential nomination, which eventually went to U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro of Queens, New York.
Although Bradley was a political liberal, he believed that business prosperity was good for the entire city and would generate jobs, an outlook not unlike that of his successor, Riordan. For most of Bradley's long administration, the city appeared to agree with him. But in his fourth term, with traffic congestion, air pollution and the condition of Santa Monica Bay worsening, and with residential neighborhoods threatened by commercial development, the tide began to turn. In 1989, he was elected to a fifth term, but the ability of opponent Nate Holden to attract one-third of the vote, despite being a neophyte to the Los Angeles City Council and a very late entrant to the mayoral race, signaled that Bradley's era was drawing to a close.
Other factors in the waning of his political strength were his decision to reverse himself and support a controversial oil drilling project near the Pacific Palisades and his reluctance to condemn Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim minister who made speeches in Los Angeles and elsewhere that many considered anti-Semitic. Further, some key Bradley supporters lost their City Council reelection bids, among them veteran Westside Councilwoman Pat Russell. Bradley chose to leave office, rather than seek election to a sixth term in 1993.
Bradley ran for Governor of California twice, in 1982 and 1986, but lost both times to Republican George Deukmejian. He was the first African American to head a gubernatorial ticket in California.
In 1982, the election was extremely close. Bradley led in the polls going into Election Day, and in the initial hours after the polls closed, some news organizations projected him as the winner. Ultimately, Bradley lost the election by about 100,000 votes, about 1.2% of the 7.5 million votes cast.
These circumstances gave rise to the term the "Bradley effect" which refers to a tendency of voters to tell interviewers or pollsters that they are undecided or likely to vote for a black candidate, but then actually vote for his white opponent. In 1986, Bradley lost the governorship to Deukmejian by a margin of 61-37 percent.The concept eventually fell into disrepute with the subsequent growing number of African Americans being successfully elected into public office.
Bradley joined the law offices of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, specializing in international trade issues. Bradley suffered a heart attack while driving his car in March 1996. Doctors performed triple bypass surgery and he appeared to be recovering, but suffered a stroke the next day that left him unable to speak clearly for the rest of his life. His condition limited his public appearances.
Bradley died of a heart attack at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles at age eighty in 1998.
Bradley married Ethel Arnold in 1941. The two remained married for the remainder of his life. The couple had two surviving daughters, Phyllis and Lorraine, and a third daughter who died shortly after birth. Ethel Arnold-Bradley, widow of the late Los Angeles mayor, died Tuesday November 25, 2008, at Kaiser Permanente W.Los Angeles Medical Center. She was 89. In the years before her death, in 2003, The Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation was created, and in 2006 the Ethel Bradley Early Education and Health Career Center opened in Watts. Tom & Ethel Bradley were interred in Inglewood Park Cemetery, in Inglewood, Ca.