Thursday, January 10, 2008

Before and after Bradley

Courting the racism vote

Hillary Clinton's upset victory over Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary has some pundits muttering about the Bradley effect, the possibility that a significant number of white voters lied to pollsters about their willingness to vote for a black candidate. It's named after Tom Bradley, the former mayor of Los Angeles, who was pipped at the political post in the California gubernatorial election in 1982, despite having led his opponent by a significant margin in the polls immediately preceding the balloting. Thus did California miss its chance to elect the first post-Reconstruction African-American governor in history.

Since it was a surge in Clinton's vote share rather than a big drop in Obama's pre-election strength that led to the New York senator's triumph, it seems unlikely that the Bradley effect was at work in the Granite State. Nevertheless, racism sometimes lurks under the radar and in especially egregious cases politicians try to appeal to it.

That was Mayor Sam Yorty's ploy in 1969, when City Councilman Tom Bradley nearly defeated him outright in the mayoral primary election. Yorty pulled out all the stops in the run-off, warning the white citizens of Los Angeles that black power was threatening to take over city hall. The smear campaign worked and Yorty won one more term. Defeated but not despairing, Bradley regrouped and came back to oust Yorty in 1973, inaugurating a distinguished two-decade tenure as mayor of Los Angeles.

It's possible, therefore, that Bradley experienced the baneful impact of the so-called Bradley effect in two separate elections. That first defeat in 1969 perhaps suggested to some people that California's white voters were still sufficiently prejudiced against minority candidates to be exploited for political advantage. This lesson was taken to heart the very next year when the state superintendent of public instruction ran for re-election.

Max Rafferty was a harbinger of the future right-wing era. He had been elected in 1962 to California's highest elective educational post by harping on the evils of progressive education and espousing the “back to basics” movement. He spent his time in office railing against liberals and trying to ban textbooks and reference materials of which he disapproved. Rafferty also harbored further political ambitions. In 1968 he ran for the U.S. Senate, denying incumbent Thomas Kuchel renomination in the Republican primary. However, the abrasive and combative campaign he had run in the GOP primary did not work for Rafferty in the general election, which he lost to Alan Cranston.

Since he was in the midst of his second term as state superintendent of public instruction when he lost the U.S. Senate race, Rafferty has time to lick his wounds and prepare to seek the consolation prize of another term as education chief. He began the 1970 campaign as a strong favorite. However, Rafferty's senate campaign had damaged his image as an educator in a nonpartisan elective office. He drew opposition in the primary election, one of them his deputy superintendent. Wilson Riles decided to seek the top post himself, as did educator Julian Nava. Neither one came close to defeating Rafferty in the primary, but their combined vote managed to deny Rafferty a majority vote by the thinnest of margins. The election would have to be decided with a run-off vote in November between the top two candidates, Rafferty and Riles.

The aftermath of the 1970 primary election was one of the most racist campaigns in the latter half of the 20th century. It lacked only the overt, explicit race-baiting rhetoric of such politicians as George Wallace, Lester Maddox, or Orval Faubus. It was a discreet sort of racism, but it was scarcely subtle. Rafferty's campaigns paid for a series of newspaper advertisements that contrasted his record with his rival's, much to the incumbent's advantage. That, of course, was to be expected. The unusual part was that every Rafferty ad featured pictures of both the incumbent superintendent and his opponent. Rafferty appeared as a smiling, open-faced white man, looking as avuncular as could be. Wilson Riles, by contrast, was difficult to see. His portrait was rendered in such dark tones, exaggerating his actual complexion, that only gleaming teeth and spots of white in his eyes could be distinguished from the black blob that was his face. The message was completely obvious: “Vote for whitey and beware the darkie!” Rafferty's campaign people were too genteel to include the actual words, but the words would have been redundant.

Despite the incumbent's best (or worst) efforts, each California Poll published between the primary election and the run-off showed Riles building his share of the vote while Rafferty continued to fall short of a majority. On election day, Wilson Riles was elected as the new state superintendent of public instruction by a vote of 54.1% to 45.9%. It was the end of Rafferty's career in elective office.

The rejection of Max Rafferty's unsubtle appeal to white racism in 1970 was a hopeful sign that the state electorate was outgrowing old prejudices. It was a moment of triumph and satisfaction, but it was also premature. The election of 1982, for which the term Bradley effect was coined, still lay in the future. And we still have plenty to learn.


Kristian said...

It has been a long time since your last post now. How long will I have to wait?

Zeno said...

My apologies, Kristian. It's been a busy time and I'm teaching at two different school this term (and both are back in session). Nice to have a loyal fan, though.