In Search of Fairfax

The 1969 Mayoral Election

The 1969 Los Angeles mayoral campaign featured two non-Jewish candidates — incumbent Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley — with two very specific and distinct political outlooks. While initially entering public life as a populist with strong liberal tendencies, by 1969 Yorty had become a symbol of the city’s white conservative leadership and a protector of the status quo. Bradley was an African-American liberal, who assumed the role of Yorty’s primary liberal critic on the Los Angeles City Council. Given these choices, the 1969 mayoral election—described by political scientist Raphael Sonenshein as “symbols of social order versus ideals of social justice"—operated as a contest over the future of race relations in post-Watts Los Angeles and the city’s ideological soul. 

The two campaigns envisioned the Jewish community as an essential part of their electoral strategy and placed a special emphasis on mobilizing Fairfax’s Jewish voters. The Yorty campaign, which established a headquarters at 420 N. Fairfax Avenue, tapped into the anxiety about the racial integration of Fairfax High School and black migration into nearby residential areas.  For example, the Yorty campaign circulated leaflets throughout the neighborhood that linked Bradley with the Black Power movement, social unrest, anti-Semitism, and the decay of Fairfax as a Jewish space; the campaign also dispersed flyers throughout the neighborhood that read, “Today New York! Tomorrow Los Angeles! Stop the Militants Now!” to remind Jewish voters of  the black-Jewish tensions that grew out of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school crisis in New York.

Bradley also set up a headquarters in and heavily campaigned throughout the Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood. Indeed, a Bradley rally in late May of 1969 in front of Canter’s Deli drew a crowd of 1,000 supporters. Highlighting the appeal of Bradley to Jewish liberals, journalist Herb Brin explains that “there is a built-in-radar within men and women of the Jewish faith, one created by a very special history, which allows no alternative but for us to support the ‘good guys’ in any confrontation….[Bradley’s] election will ennoble our city and will go far in eliminating the divisive feeling of distrust which have unfortunately taken root.” While Bradley’s appeals to the Fairfax voters emphasized the importance of black-Jewish cooperation, they did little to court those who felt threatened by the rising tides of integration or the perceived decline of Fairfax as a Jewish space. Problematically, Bradley never fully articulated why or how a Bradley mayorship could help to preserve the Jewish character of the Fairfax neighborhoods, the locus of politically cautious, communitarian, lower middle class Jews.

Yorty defeated Bradley with 53% of the popular vote.  Much to the surprise of Jewish leaders--rabbis, attorneys, public officials, activists that tended to live on the Westside and assumed that Los Angeles's Jews would overwhelmingly support the liberal Bradley-- the Jews in the Fairfax neighborhood split their vote relatively evenly between the two candidates. In the aftermath of the election, commentators trying to explain Yorty’s victory often pointed Fairfax neighborhood; as one astute observer of the local political scene noted, “many in Fairfax felt that the future of the community as a secure ethnic neighborhood was at stake. Racial fears and rumors added to the importance that Fairfax residents imputed to their votes.” Moving forward, local liberal politicians campaigning in the Fairfax neighborhood tended to discuss how their policies would help to preserve the Jewish character of the area. 

Sources: A Letter To Our Friends, We’re For Yorty!—Here’s Why,” May 23rd, 1969, B’nai B’rith Messenger; Richard Bergholz, “White Voter Made the Difference: Precinct Tallies Show How Bradley Lost,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1969; Robert L. Blumenthal, “Fairfax as a Gray Area Ethnic Community” (University of Southern California, 1973); Herb Brin, “L.A. Jewry All-Out for Bradley,” May 22, 1969, Heritage Southwest Jewish Press Special Election Supplement. Allen S Maller, “Class Factors in the Jewish Vote.,” Jewish Social Studies 39, no. 1/2 (1977); Raphael Sonenshein, Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); “Today New York! Tomorrow Los Angeles!,” folder 2, box 13, Manuscript Collection 727, American Jewish Archives.

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