The Big Time


"SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" a few nights ago satirized a gallery of pre-election hopefuls around the country. When it came to the governor's race in California, a photograph of candidate Tom Bradley was accompanied by the quip, "Bradley if elected, will be the nation's tallest governor." The line was a playful poke at the carefully subdued atmosphere in which California will probably make Los Angeles Mayor Bradley America's first Black governor.

With one notable exception, no one has made race an issue in the campaign. Bradley and his opponent, conservative state attorney general George Deukmejian, agreed not to bring it up and the press simply remarked at how smoothly things were progressing. But the bubble burst a few weeks ago when Deukmejian's campaign manager said that polls consistently showing Bradley ahead did not account for a five percent "hidden anti-Black vote that might prove decisive in the election. "Anti-Black" voters, said the aide, would not reveal their prejudices to pollsters, but nevertheless would vote for Deukmejian.

Bill Roberts, the campaign manager, stirred up memories of Bradley's unsuccessful first bid for City Hall in 1969 when his 16-point lead in the polls eroded after incumbent mayor Sam Yorty announced that Bradley wanted to set up a "Negro and left-wing militant bloc to take over the city." Such overt pandering to the latent fears of many voters worked then, but failed badly this year, even though Roberts was less blatant. Deukmejian fired Roberts immediately after the "anti-Black vote" statement come out, but Bradley continued to pull ahead. A feature on Bradley in this week's Village Voice says his lead ranges from 14 to 23 percent.

BRADLEY, now in his third term as mayor of Los Angeles, has never relied exclusively on the Black vote. The city is 15 percent Black, and the figure for all California is only 7 percent. Bradley's precious successes were only possible with the support of a coalition that includes Chicanos. Blacks, liberals and white moderates. To keep the coalition together, Bradley has combined keen political maneuvering with a scrupulous attention to being fair and "balanced."

This concern for evenhandedness has gotten the mayor into trouble in the past. Liberal supporters have criticized his often conservative stances--Los Angeles has a severe housing shortage and is undergoing rent takes, yet Bradley supported an expensive down-town tax abatement program for corporations and hotels. Insult was added to injury when Bradley moved into a mayoral mansion given to Los Angeles by the late J. Paul Getty. But more cautious observers note that Bradley has not let the liberals down, since he never gave his explicit loyalty to any ideology. His claim of running as "mayor of all the people" is Bradley's way of explaining to minorities and liberals alike why he enjoys so much support from large banks and corporations. Bradley is already seen as a possible 1984 vice-presidential candidate.


In a curious paradox, race actually has been an issue in the California governor's campaign. Last month, a Black leader triumphantly shouted. "We will elect a governor for this state who happens to be Black!" He expressed the national importance of the contest, which was obvious as early as a year ago. Bradley long ago mastered the delicate art of reassuring white voters of his competence and intentions of fairness. After long years of honing his skill, Californians seem to be saying Bradley is ready for the big time.