Edward Vincent, mayor of Inglewood, is usually all over town. He's shaking hands at banquets and lunches. Rubbing shoulders at sign raisings or store openings. Schmoozing people at early morning business meetings. Hamming it up at evening networking sessions.
In fact, it can be difficult to get away from Vincent--unless you're running against him for office.
At the mayoral debate last week at the Mayflower Ballroom, Vincent was absent. His opponents, Garland Hardeman, a five-year veteran of the Inglewood City Council, and Judith Dunlap, a councilwoman for 18 months, sat side by side, occasionally sparred with one another and attacked Vincent for not attending.
Vincent, who did not once debate his opponents during the campaign, sent a letter to the Beach Cities League of Women Voters apologizing for his absence but saying his record stands for itself.
Indeed, Vincent has entirely ignored his opponents throughout the campaign and has focused on driving home his accomplishments and goals. In conversations about the campaign, he rarely mentions either Hardeman or Dunlap. That strategy has helped make this election season one of the calmest in recent Inglewood history.
"Why should I be bothered with them?" Vincent said at a fund-raiser last month.
In previous years, Inglewood elections have been anything but quiet. In 1987, Hardeman lost his first council race in a bid to unseat one of the mayor's allies, Ervin (Tony) Thomas. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge, however, threw out that election, ruling that Vincent and other Thomas supporters had invaded voters' rights to ballot secrecy during a house-to-house ballot drive. Ultimately, Vincent was fined $16,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The mayor denied any wrongdoing.
Vincent's political luster was briefly tarnished, but he weathered the scandal and has remained the city's head cheerleader. Inglewood, he often says, is unfairly disparaged by outsiders who have been influenced by media-perpetuated stereotypes of cities populated by blacks and Latinos. In fact, in a video put together for his campaign, the narrator refers to Inglewood as almost a paradise. His primary job as mayor, he says, is to fight a never-ending barrage of wrong perceptions about Inglewood.
Vincent, 60, was a football star at the University of Iowa in the 1950s and played briefly with the Los Angeles Rams until an injury stymied his career. His conversation is filled with football analogies and calls for teamwork. He became the city's first black mayor 12 years ago and has been easily reelected since then. He is particularly well-liked by many in the business community, who say that Vincent's positive spin on events can only help the local economy.
Crime, though high in Inglewood, remains on a 10-year downward trend, according to Inglewood Police statistics. And Crime Watch Consultants, based in Marina del Rey, recently praised the city for being among the top 10 cities in California in which crime has dropped between 1992 and 1993.
"Everything's great! The city's great! All anyone has to do is look around!" Vincent said recently at a $100-per-person "Monday Night Football" fund-raiser for his campaign at Hollywood Park. "I feel very confident. Why shouldn't I? Inglewood is better today financially than it's been at any time in its history."
About 30 business leaders in Inglewood, nearly half of them residents, gathered for the event; others had contributed but did not attend.
"When I became mayor, crime was at an all-time high," read a statement at each table. "We had to beg developers and home builders to consider us. Unemployment was high, graffiti and prostitution plagued the city. More importantly, our community spirit was nonexistent. Using teamwork we've turned all that around."
The major criticism leveled at him by his opponents is that he is unduly guided by City Manager Paul D. Eckles. Vincent treats it like praise.
"I'm proud to be connected with Paul Eckles," Vincent said. "Eckles has this city a Triple A bond rating with Standard & Poors--and they don't go on personality." Vincent was referring to the highest possible municipal bond rating, which allows a city to borrow money at lower rates of interest.
To run against Vincent is to allege that Inglewood has problems, which can be a touchy election theme.
Hardeman has walked a careful line, pointing out that Inglewood is a great place, but saying it could be a lot better. Vincent, he said, lacks vision, and even if he had it, Eckles wouldn't let him use it.
"His leadership of the city has left a lot to be desired. For example, the poverty rate in Inglewood is the highest in the South Bay. Why, when we have more assets than most?" Hardeman said, referring to Hollywood Park, the Forum and other major businesses in town.
Hardeman decries the same crime rate that Vincent touts.
"First of all, do we know that it's falling? We've seen an increase in our population, especially our immigrant population, (which doesn't) traditionally report crime," he said.
He pointed out that, although overall crime has dropped nearly 12%, murders have been on the rise. In 1982, the year Vincent took office, 17 people were killed in Inglewood, police statistics show. In 1993, 47 people were murdered. "Is that an improvement?" Hardeman asked.
Hardeman, 37, holds a master's degree in public administration. A Los Angeles police officer for 15 years, Hardeman now serves as a field representative for Rep. Walter R. Tucker III (D-Compton).
He proposes bringing technology-based industries to Inglewood, such as those developing rail cars and alternative fuels. Among his accomplishments he counts his work to help start after-school programs in his district, as well as the Late Night Basketball program at Darby Park for at-risk teen-agers. Hardeman also promoted community police centers and worked to enact an ordinance prohibiting the proliferation of small motels, a move intended as a deterrent to drug dealing and prostitution.
If elected, he said, he would work to attract more restaurants and specialty stores to the city's commercial corridors. "We should have a Third Street (Promenade) here like in Santa Monica or an Old Town Pasadena," he said.
Recently, about 125 Hardeman supporters, some of whom also attended Vincent's football fund-raiser, gathered at a $15-per-person party in the Hollywood Hills.
Rhythm and blues hits, soft raps and funky tunes kept the youngish crowd dancing until about 1 a.m. Hardeman, sporting black leather pants, a black shirt and a red jacket, talked and danced with guests and raffled off tickets to his Oct. 29 fund-raiser at Hollywood Park.
Actress Jackee Harry of the television show "Sister, Sister" mingled with guests and then took a microphone and urged the crowd to get "that old man" out of Inglewood, referring to Vincent, and to "let somebody young do the job."
Whereas Hardeman calls for change to revitalize the city, Dunlap goes several steps further and says only a change in leadership can save the city from peril.
Dunlap, who taught for 25 years in Inglewood's schools before leaving on disability, charges at council meetings and wherever she speaks publicly that Inglewood's administration, staff and even some council members, are dishonest. She has not accused anyone by name.
"There is a rising tide of fiscal mismanagement, a rising tide of corruption in City Hall and a rising tide of moral deterioration," Dunlap said at the League of Women Voters debate last week.
Her allegations infuriate city staff and her council colleagues. The charges, however, resonate with some voters in her district. When she called upon supporters in February to protest what she said was an effort by Eckles to keep city staff from providing her with information, more than 100 people packed a City Council meeting on her behalf.
Eckles strongly denied that he has behaved improperly or discourteously to Dunlap, saying at that time that her constant requests for documents and research into the minutiae of running government were wasting city money and staff time.
In addition to her promise to try to oust Eckles if elected mayor, Dunlap says she will ensure that local minority businesses receive more city contracts. Businesses outside Inglewood often are given thousands of dollars in contracts to perform jobs that could be fulfilled by local contractors, Dunlap said. Vincent and other city officials, however, say bidding for contracts is fairly applied to all businesses.
"I have been a staunch supporter of recycling dollars in our community, and that's fallen on deaf ears," she said. " We have a $160-million budget, and I believe we can generate our own local economic development."