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Samuel William Yorty

From Academic Kids

Samuel William Yorty (October 1, 1909June 5, 1998) was an outspoken politician from Los Angeles, California. He served as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the California State Assembly, but is most remembered for his turbulent years as Mayor of Los Angeles from 1961 to 1973. The colorful "Mayor Sam" earned numerous nicknames from both admirers and detractors, such as Travelin' Sam, Shoot-From-the-Lip Sam, the Maverick Mayor, Scrappy Sam, Saigon Sam, and the Reform Republican

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Early life

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Yorty joined the westward migration to Southern California after high school. He retained his gravelly Midwestern inflection and was known for pronouncing his city "Los Ang-gah-leez." He enrolled at Southwestern University and later the University of California, Los Angeles, and worked for a time at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was admitted to the bar in 1939.

He was elected as a Democrat to the California State Assembly. He advocated state ownership of public utilities and strong labor unions, but also pushed for the creation of a California Un-American Activities Committee in imitation of the HUAC. After losing a 1940 bid for U.S. Senator, he left politics to serve in the United States Army Air Force during World War II in the Pacific Theater, but resumed his Assembly seat after returning. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1950 and returned in 1952, but again lost the race for U.S. Senator in 1954.

Mayoralty

In 1960, Yorty endorsed fellow Californian Vice-President Richard Nixon over fellow Democrat Senator John F. Kennedy for president, earning his party's scorn. Although municipal elections in California are non-partisan, the resources of the party were directed against him when he ran for Mayor of Los Angeles the following year against incumbent Republican Norris Poulson.

Yorty prevailed, however, running as a populist. He railed against "a little ruling clique" of "downtown interests" and promised to revise the city charter, which had become unwieldy with the city's growth from a quiet West Coast town to the third largest metropolis in the country. He was a strong advocate of expanding the freeway network. Perhaps his most popular promise, however, was to end residents' sorting of wet and dry garbage; dry garbage was typically burned in backyard incinerators, contributing to the city's notorious smog.

He made good on his waste management and highway promises, and oversaw the emergence of Los Angeles as a major city. He was a backer of the Los Angeles Music Center, business districts such as Little Tokyo, and of the Los Angeles Zoo. He also made frequent appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which boosted his popularity. At the same time, he was a passionate anti-communist, a critic of the Civil Rights Movement, and an outspoken opponent of busing and feminism.

Although he was the first mayor to have a female deputy, and the first to have a racially integrated staff, his appeal did not extend to most of the city's large African-American population. Disaffection with high unemployment and racism contributed to the Watts Riots of August 1117, 1965. Yorty's administration was criticized for failing to cooperate with efforts to improve conditions in neighborhoods such as Watts, but he accused other leaders of raising false hopes and of action by communist agitators.

After the riots and a failed gubernatorial bid in 1966, Yorty's politics drifted rightward. He had always categorically rejected any criticism of the city's police or fire departments, even after the riots. But support among the Anglo middle classes fell after he was embroiled in the controversy following the June 4, 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. In the 1969 mayoral primary, his popularity slipped well below that of Los Angeles City Council member Tom Bradley.

The ensuing campaign between Yorty and Bradley proved one of the most bitter in the city's history. Yorty painted his opponent as a dangerous radical, alternately of the black power or communist revolutionary varieties. While ludicrous—Bradley had spent much of his career in the Los Angeles Police Department—the charges resonated among fearful voters, and Yorty was re-elected.

After anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern won the 1972 Democratic nomination President, Yorty switched parties and became a Republican. Indeed, he entered the race himself briefly, challenging Nixon. But by then he was increasingly seen as a relic, and his previous race-baiting demagoguery backfired. He was soundly defeated in his 1973 re-match with Bradley, who became the first black mayor of a major American city.

Later career

After leaving office, Yorty hosted a talk show on KCOP, a local television station, for five years. He would later complain of being canceled in favor of Hee Haw. After leaving television, he failed in a bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1980. Yorty tried for the last time to unseat Bradley in 1981.

Afterwards, Yorty retired from public life, aside from being a rainmaker for several law firms. He suffered a stroke on May 24, 1998 and contracted pneumonia. After treatment at the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, he was sent to his Studio City home, where he died on the morning of June 5.

In 1997, a survey of urban historians and political scientists conducted by Melvin Holli at the University of Illinois at Chicago rated Yorty the third worst U.S. big-city mayor since 1960.

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