By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor-In-Chief

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena)
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) has been very successful during his 11 years in the California legislature. Before winning a vacant Assembly seat in 2009, Bradford was the first African American elected to the Gardena City Council and went on to become mayor pro tem. He first ran for Assembly in 2006, losing the Democratic primary for the 51st Assembly District to Curren Price Jr. by 113 votes. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

On April 19, the dapper gentleman made his way to the Senate Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, and fought hard for several bills he’s supporting.

As he glided through the Senate Office Building in a charcoal pinstriped suit, Steven Bradford — outgoing chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus and one of California’s most effective lawmakers — bantered with Democrats and Republicans, including one ardent Trumpster and others he has gone to war with over guns, policing, reparations, slavery and education.

By 8:30 a.m., Bradford was at the podium. He referenced Senate Bill 2, passed in 2021, which would prevent police fired for misconduct from being hired by other departments.

He advocated for SB 1021, which would not allow repeat DUI offenders to get diversion for misdemeanor DUIs — an option Bradford argued should remain available to first-time offenders only.

Bradford also supported SB 1000 by Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo), which compels law enforcement agencies to share real-time response information with TV and radio news teams “because news crews are increasingly targeted while on assignment,” testified Jennifer Seelig, news director for KCBS 740, an all-news station based in San Francisco.

Veteran Legislator Scores Knockouts On Many Fronts

Next, Bradford backed SB 1209, which would allow U.S. veterans incarcerated for felonies before 2015 to petition for resentencing if they were not allowed to present evidence suggesting the crime could be linked to sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or mental health problems resulting from military service. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law Sept. 28.

Bradford, 62, represents California’s Los Angeles-based 35th District, but the veteran of almost three decades of public service does far more. On July 21, Bradford wrote a widely published op-ed, “Why the California Legislature Just Failed to Vote Against a Remnant of Slavery,” criticizing fellow senators for not passing Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3, which would have removed legal language allowing for indentured servitude.

“The legacy of slavery and forced labor runs deep in the history of California, one of nine states that permit involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment,” Bradford wrote.

All his life, Bradford has plowed uncharted territory and shown an uncanny ability to work across the aisle. As he breaks new ground in the battle for reparations, he’s doing what many didn’t believe possible.

The former marketing executive, youth sports coach, nightclub promoter and record producer, who launched pop-up mobile discos for holiday dances to help pay his way through college at San Diego State University and Cal State Dominguez Hills, has become the state senate’s impresario for public safety reforms and reparations, racking up an impressive number of groundbreaking legislative wins.

Sen. Steven Bradford
Sen. Steven Bradford has been at the forefront of some of the most groundbreaking legislation in California history. Among his notable victories include legislation on cannabis equity, student-athlete compensation, police reform and reparations. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Bradford has had 94 bills signed into law by three governors during his 11 years in the legislature as an assemblyman and senator, said his veteran legislative director, Chris Morales.

Some of Bradford’s notable victories include:

  • SB 1294 (2018): The California Cannabis Equity Act, a first-in-the-nation bill, encourages equitable participation in the cannabis industry and fosters business opportunities for individuals who have been negatively impacted by the War on Drugs.
  • SB 206 (2019): A first-in-the-nation bill that allows college athletes, who generate billions of dollars for corporate sponsors and their universities, to also benefit from their skills and talents. After several states introduced bills modeled after SB 206, the NCAA supported rule changes allowing its student-athletes to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness.
  • SB 203 (2020): Requires children to consult with legal counsel prior to interrogation and before waiving their Miranda rights.
  • SB 2 (2021): Arguably the biggest police reform bill California has seen in the last decade, it creates the first statewide process to decertify police officers who abuse the public trust and commit serious acts of misconduct.
  • SB 796 (2021): Authorized L.A. County to return the stolen property known as Bruce’s Beach back to the descendants of the Bruce family.

Varied Background Built Unique People Skills

The Bruce’s Beach law — one of the most significant steps towards Black reparations in American history — passed unanimously in April 2021, two months after Bradford was appointed to California’s African American Reparations Study Task Force, the nation’s first.

“I am honored to be appointed by California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins to this truly revolutionary position,” Bradford said at the time. “Another year has passed filled with disgusting racial injustices. Government authorities have actively supported the institution of Black enslavement throughout history. Never has the trauma of 4 million enslaved people and their descendants, and the impact it continues to have, been meaningfully acknowledged or addressed by our nation.

“The consequences of these actions are felt today in many forms, not the least of which are the major disparities in life outcomes such as economic opportunity and quality of health care. This is not just about slavery, this is about paying back a debt to those who have been mistreated for so long. Awarding reparations to victims of violent, inhumane treatment is not a new or radical concept. If you can inherit wealth in this country, then it’s time to take ownership of inheriting the debt owed to African Americans. I look forward to working with my fellow Task Force members as well as all community organizations and members who have made it their mission to find facts and deliver promises on this matter.”

Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa)
Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) leaves the podium after presenting her bill. Seated is Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa) in the senate committee hearing led by Bradford. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

One of his adversaries, veteran Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of Butte County, said that while they often disagree strongly over police accountability and other public safety issues, “Steve is a real gentleman who’s very senatorial. He understands and respects the rules of the institution and has always been a pleasure to work with. We might differ, but in a very friendly way.”

Nielsen was first elected to the state senate in 1978 and served as chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms from 1992 to 2007, returning to the senate in 2008. “Our greatest differences are over law enforcement accountability — Steven has been overly critical,” Nielsen said. “I confess my bias: I’m a pro-law enforcement guy and in the last five years, there’s been a lot of anti-law enforcement legislation. He has been more critical than I would like anyone to be, but it’s important to his constituents, and I respect that.”

Nielsen, whose granddaughter is half Black and half White, said Bradford “has shown a lot of sensitivity in helping us understand the African American community. He’s not one of the more strident members of the senate. We’re aligned on economic opportunity and upward mobility.”

Bradford, who honed his unique people skills through a variety of jobs and careers, cites his dad, Booker T. Bradford II, and the late Nelson Mandela as key influences.

“My dad taught me to stand up and speak up, don’t be afraid to question authority,” Bradford said.

Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) greeting Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena)
Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) greeting Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) in the lobby between his office and the Senate Public Safety Committee hearing room. Colleagues from both sides of the aisle have lauded Bradford for his ability to advocate for his constituents in a successful manner. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

And Bradford, who lost his first few races, declared, “I love Nelson Mandela, who taught me the greatest joy in life lies not in never falling, but picking yourself up.

“I’m so thankful for those losses because I think, had I got elected at age 28, my first time running, I would have been one of these arrogant cocky folks we’ve seen on the local, state and federal level who think it’s all about them; they’re the smartest person in the room.”

As a senior in high school, Bradford dreamt of becoming a record promoter. He and his friends launched “mobile discos,” renting the ballroom at the famous Bonaventure Hotel for holiday dances. Bradford had his DJs play songs radio stations wouldn’t spin, gauging the crowd’s reaction. “That’s what I did for almost 20 years as a club and record promoter.” He ultimately ran “the holy grail of L.A. discos,” Osko’s Nightclub on La Cienega Boulevard, which had four dance floors.

After graduating from Cal State Dominguez Hills with a degree in political science and a certificate in paralegal studies, he sharpened his public relations skills, serving as public affairs manager for Southern California Edison, district director for the late Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald and program director for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. He also spent seven years as a marketing and sales representative for IBM.

Bradford, who has no children, also coached youth baseball, football and rec league sports for 16 years. In 1988, the man about town ran for the West Basin Municipal Water District Board and lost. In 1990, he ran for the Gardena City Council and lost.

He ran again for Gardena City Council in 1992 and lost by 33 votes. He lost a third time in 1994.

But Bradford has no quit in him. In 1997, at 37, he became the first African American elected to the Gardena City Council. He helped solve the city’s budget problems and went on to become mayor pro tem.

Bradford first ran for Assembly in 2006, losing the Democratic primary for the 51st Assembly District to Curren Price Jr. by 113 votes. He finally won in a special election for the vacant Assembly seat in 2009.

Senators, from left to right, Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa), and Scott D. Wiener (D-San Francisco)
Senators, from left to right, Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa), and Scott D. Wiener (D-San Francisco) are seen in the Senate Public Safety Committee hearing room at the start of their morning session. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

How did he find the fortitude to keep coming back, defeat after defeat? “I was trained as a marketing rep for IBM, and the first thing they tell you about sales is, ’No is not the end,’” he explained. “A lot of folks take ’no’ as ’OK, I’m done.’ But that’s only the beginning of the conversation; you have an opportunity to come back again. What ends the conversation is ’yes’ and that’s what we’re all trying to get to.”

Losing is part of life, Bradford says. 

“If you’re paying attention, you’re going to learn something from those losses,” he said. “Not only does it humble you, but it teaches you where your weaknesses are and how to improve, just like in sports.

“When you hear the words ’no way,’ remember there’s always a way if you’re willing to find it and work for it.”

That’s the way it went down at Bruce’s Beach, a Black beach resort at 26th Street and Highland Avenue in Los Angeles County. Because Black people weren’t allowed access to public beaches, Charles and Willa Bruce formed a partnership to purchase the beach. After they opened their resort in 1912, it quickly caught on.

But the beach was targeted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1924 the Manhattan Beach City Council used eminent domain to shut it down, saying it was to be turned into a public park. That didn’t happen until the 1960s. After some of the land was turned into a park, it was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2007.

Reclaiming Bruce’s Beach

When Bradford was on the Gardena City Council, Manhattan Beach’s first Black mayor, Mitch Ward, brought Bruce’s Beach to Bradford’s attention and in 2006 demanded justice for the descendants of the original owners.

“When I got appointed to the Reparations Task Force last year, I could see this would be a good way of righting a wrong,” Bradford said. “This property was taken from African Americans who had worked hard, bought this property and followed the rules, only to have the city use eminent domain to break the law. Giving this property back would be a great example – it’s not necessarily reparations, it’s atonement.

Sen. Steven Bradford
Steven Bradford has lost elections at the municipal and state levels, however he has persevered. “If you’re paying attention, you’re going to learn something from those losses. Not only does it humble you, but it teaches you where your weaknesses are and how to improve,” he says. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

“That’s when I sunk my teeth into it and called L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, since the county was now in control of the property. Hahn agreed to move forward.”

Although Manhattan Beach originally used eminent domain to seize the property because the council claimed it was needed to build a park, “a park wasn’t built for over 40 years and if you go there today, there isn’t much of a park, just a couple of benches,” Bradford said. “And because it’s on a slope, you can’t play football or baseball.”

Bruce’s Beach was seized by authorities, Bradford said, because of racism. “They wanted to get rid of this family and the six other ones who had acquired the land and the local community was clear: the KKK harassed their guests at the lodge on a regular basis,” he said. “They flattened the tires on their automobiles, set mattresses on fire at the lodge, trying to burn them out. But the Bruces and other Black families who had bought property there were unyielding, so in 1924 the city of Manhattan Beach said enough is enough and used eminent domain to take the property.”

The Bruces, who had paid about $2,500 for the original three acres of beach property in 1912, went to court and were ultimately paid around $14,000 plus court costs, but the settlement didn’t come until years later, “and the Bruces didn’t live much longer than that,” Bradford said. “They really died of a broken heart because they had to give up their business, their livelihood and had to go back to work for somebody else. They moved out of the area to never return.”

Perhaps the saddest part of the story was “that people didn’t know this wrong had existed, that in 1912 a Black couple bought a piece of land, built a resort, a café, a bath house, a lounge, then six or seven other Black families bought property in the surrounding area, and they too lost their property because the city took all of it.”

The city of Manhattan Beach never supported the give-back, even though it had deeded the property to the state, which deeded it to L.A. County in the mid 1990s, Bradford said.

Thanks to Bradford’s bill, on July 20 the L.A. County Board of Supervisors officially transferred the Bruce’s Beach parcels — five miles from Bradford’s house — to the great-grandsons of the original owners.

“I drive by it on a regular basis,” Bradford said.

The Bruce’s Beach victory was heralded nationally. “That was truly a hallelujah moment; it gave such a boost to those of us battling the naysayers who claim it’s probably too late for reparations,” said California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber, an accomplished former state legislator. “Bradford didn’t give up. He proved there can be justice — there just has to be courage.”

Before Bruce’s Beach, everyone knew the seizing of Black property through eminent domain “was so wrong, we didn’t know how to correct it,” Weber said. “The bottom line is, they stole our land from the beginning, and this give-back was really an affirmation to those of us who have experienced various kinds of discrimination, including the redlining of our property.” Redlining is the practice of denying various financial services, including loans, mortgages and insurance, on the basis of skin color. It wasn’t outlawed until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) leads the Senate Public Safety Committee.
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) leads the Senate Public Safety Committee. Bradford has had 94 bills signed into law by three governors during his 11 years in the legislature as an assemblyman and senator. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

“Steve is a hardworking senator, he’s tenacious, consistent and persistent, he doesn’t wibble-wobble, he always lives up to his values, he’s not influenced by external factors that sometimes make legislators do questionable things,” said Weber, who worked with Bradford when she served as chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC). “We’ve always been able to work as a team and were able to raise record amounts of money for scholarships. He fights for the issues that are extremely important and I’ve been truly blessed to have him as a colleague.”

Mel Assagai, who has spent 40 years in and around state government and has owned his own lobbying firm, California Policy Solutions, since 1997, said that when he learned Bruce’s Beach was to be returned to the heirs of the rightful owners, “I leapt into the air, clenched my fist and came down, as if my team, Ohio State, had just won the national championship. I was so proud, just ecstatic, thinking how rare it is to get a win like this to solve a lingering unsolved problem.”

Bradford “has amazing charisma that generates consensus,” said Assagai, 73. “He demonstrates respect for his colleagues in ways that engage them, whether it’s in the CLBC or the state legislature. He’s an extraordinary human being who has demonstrated a tenacity and leadership instinct that has changed California.”

Assagai cited Bradford’s “legendary” efforts to increase diversity among contractors and in the energy and utilities sectors, “a huge part of our economy.”

And Bradford’s leadership of the CLBC “gave us both police accountability at a level that was thought to be inaccessible, then brought reparations to the forefront.”

The CLBC, now composed of 12 members who represent a significant number of the state’s 2.3 million African Americans, successfully backed Bradford’s efforts to curb police brutality and get reparations.

When it comes to reparations for 246 years of slavery — 4 million slaves were freed in 1865 — and another 150 years of discriminatory Jim Crow laws, “I don’t think it’s a one size fits all, because over 400 years or so, since African Americans or Africans were stolen from their native land and brought here, put in bondage and chattel slavery, there’s been a lot of evolution,” Bradford said. “There are still generations of African Americans who have never been to college, who’ve never owned homes that live in housing projects, you know, four and five generations, rented apartments.”

How To Make Reparations For Centuries Of Oppression

One solution could be no-interest loans for Black homeowners in California. Another could be free tuition at UCs and CSUs “for those who have never obtained a college degree,” Bradford said. “But not everyone’s going to want to go to college.”

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena)
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) stands at the podium during the Senate Public Safety Committee hearing delivering information in support of his bill SB 1021. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

In certain cases, Bradford would support cash payments, something Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other big city mayors are exploring. Policymakers “often say we can’t afford it, but I think we can if we set aside a half percentage point of our state budget every year into an annuity or some type of trust fund that builds over time,” he said. “You could pay these Californians who could show direct lineage to slavery in this country.

“There could be a cash payment of significance, because we’re not talking about $20,000 or $30,000. That doesn’t change anybody’s life. And it doesn’t even come close to addressing the wrongs of over 400 years.”

There’s a historical precedent, Bradford said. “We’ve provided restitution for Japanese Americans who were wrongly interned during World War II, provided GI benefits to our Filipino brothers and sisters who were not yet U.S. citizens and fought in World War II.”

Reparations “could approximate the GI Bill — services and support for U.S. veterans,” Bradford said, noting the original GI Bill and Social Security were never meant for Blacks. When Roosevelt developed Social Security, “it was for poor Whites coming out of the Depression. And, again, they discriminated against us. We can show points in history where former military people came home and couldn’t access the GI Bill in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”

Bradford noted the growing assault on teaching the sad truths of American history. “Despite all we say as Americans about this being the greatest country in the world, in many ways it is, but it still has a horrible dark past that we often choose to overlook or deny.

“And that’s what we hear when you ask about critical race theory, which is American history. This is the bedrock of what this country was founded on — it was founded on annihilating the Red man, enslaving the Black man and exploiting the Brown and the Yellow man. Read our constitution where we were three fifths of a human being [and] Native Americans were identified as savages. If we want to come from a historical standpoint, we realize again: this is who America has been, and continues to be, despite all of our wonderful accomplishments.”

Instead of failing to tell the truth, “if you aired the dirty laundry about what a horrible history and past this great country has had, I think that would help with the healing. But to continue to put a Band-Aid over it and act like it doesn’t exist, that’s why we still have a level of division, mistrust and hate.”

‘We Have To Start Somewhere’

Donald Trump’s ascendance and his racist proclamations about people of African nations and Latino immigrants — along with some of the extremists who have ridden his wake into Congress — suggests America’s racist history “has been buried and suppressed and is now coming to the surface again.”

The idea that people of color are jeopardizing this country is absurd, but, said Bradford, “That’s the lie and narrative we continue to tell in order to justify our biases, our racism, our hatred.”

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), left, Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa), center, and Sen. Scott D. Wiener  (D-San Francisco), right, listen to Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine)
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), left, Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa), center, and Sen. Scott D. Wiener  (D-San Francisco), right, listen to Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) during a hearing. Bradford is one of the most respected members of the California legislature no matter what side of the aisle. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

He said the next step for the Reparations Task Force is to develop a way “to show a person’s lineage back to slavery — those individuals who came before 1900, those who were subjected to Jim Crow and segregation laws that denied equal access to homeownership, education and services.”

Some type of reparations need to be made to “folks who can show ties to this country during this most hateful and racist period,” Bradford said.

There are well-documented historical examples, such as the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street on May 31 and June 1, 1921, by a White mob. Thirty-five blocks were burned and bombed, 1,115 homes and 190 businesses destroyed, 10,000 Black citizens left homeless and as many as 300 killed in the massacre. The losses of property were in the tens of millions; no price can be put on the loss of livelihood and life.

Tulsa and more than a dozen other recorded acts of mass terror against Black Americans “could be the starting point,” Bradford said, even if not all Black Americans can trace their lineage back to records of slaves in the 1700s or 1800s, including those who were murdered.

More recent examples include freeways that were built through predominantly Black neighborhoods, such as L.A.’s Sugar Hill, which was gutted to make way for Interstate 10, or in Sacramento with Interstate 5 or Highway 50. “Everywhere you see a freeway in California in an urban area, you best believe it’s through a community of color,” Bradford said. “If you can show people who were displaced, that too could be a starting point for reparations. Again, it’s hard to quantify something like that because how do you measure what the generational cost and loss has been?”

But “we have to start somewhere. I’m excited where we’re going with the Reparations Task Force. If we can get it right, we can be the blueprint for the rest of the nation or at least in those Southern states.”

Reparations have faced some pushback in California, which didn’t enter the union as a slave state in 1850 even though California had a fugitive slave law that returned runaway slaves to their masters, Bradford said. And slave owners who moved to California often kept their slaves as property. “So we didn’t practice slavery per se,” he said, “but we certainly didn’t discourage it or stop it.”

In his private life, Bradford still lives right down the street from his mom, Wilma Bradford, in Gardena.

He’s passionate about live music, starting with the Gardena Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 19th year last summer.

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) stands at the podium as he listens to  information in support of his bill SB 1389.
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) stands at the podium as he listens to  information in support of his bill SB 1389. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Bradford also enjoys late-night talk shows. He’s a devotee of “Sanford and Son” and made sure to watch the last episode of “Black-ish,” a show he praised for its humanistic lens on African Americans while showing Blacks are “not monolithic.”

“It’s a revolutionary show that opens many eyes to how Black Americans really live,” he said. “We live just like everybody else. ‘The Jeffersons’ was the first peek into that middle-class lifestyle. Many say “Good Times” was the opposite of that — African Americans who still live in the projects or low-income housing, but are still surviving and doing the right thing and struggling to make their way.”

Bradford had this advice for young Black Americans who want to enter politics: “You run for office for two reasons: to be something and to do something, to make your short time on this planet mean something.”

To be a successful public servant, you have to want to serve your constituents and be engaged with your community, Bradford said. “If you’re interested in public service, volunteer or intern in an elected official’s office, get involved with a campaign, whether it’s for a candidate or for issues, so you understand the mechanics of persuading voters. I started out as a club promoter, so if I can fill a nightclub, I can get folks to go to the polls, but you’ve got to have a story to tell.”

Bradford offered another key piece of advice: “A wise man told me it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. Make sure the people who know you know your character.”