Garland Hardeman pulled his car into a gritty Inglewood neighborxood near 104th Street and Dixon Avenue where graffiti mars low-rise stucco apartments and jets bound for LAX roar overhead every minute.
The two-term city councilman, who unabashedly calls this troubled area "the armpit of Inglewood," says his efforts on behalf of poor constituents here have made him a pariah to the city administration.
"I have by far the most challenging and toughest district in the city," he said during a recent campaign stop. His sometimes contentious relationship with city administrators, he adds, is due to his determination to "fight for things in the district they don't want to give," such as expanded day-care services for working mothers and improved maintenance of city parks.
After six eventful years on the City Council, Hardeman is facing a tough reelection fight. His foes say that his challenges have less to do with the district or city staff than with himself. They paint a picture of an incumbent who is hotheaded and out of touch with voters.
"He is always having confrontations with city staff and with his colleagues," said Ervin (Tony) Thomas, a longtime Hardeman nemesis and one of three challengers for the council seat in the April 4 election. The others are Almeda Thomas (no relation), a 60-year-old personnel clerk for the Inglewood Unified School District, and Virgle P. Benson, 52, who served a term on the council from 1983 to 1987.
"It's hard (for him) to get something passed on the council because he doesn't have the votes," Tony Thomas added.
A 53-year-old marketing representative, Tony Thomas narrowly beat Hardeman for the 4th District seat in 1987, but lost a court-ordered election two years later after a state judge found that the Thomas campaign had violated rules on absentee ballots.
The 4th District race is just one of several that Inglewood voters will decide next month. Jose Fernandez, who represents the 3rd District, is running for reelection against Michael Stevens and Mary H. Bueno-Flores. There are also contested races for school board seats and city clerk.
But none of these has attracted as much notice as the 4th District showdown, in which Hardeman is hoping to resuscitate his political future. Last fall the councilman was trounced in a bid to unseat Mayor Ed Vincent. With 18% of the vote, Hardeman finished a distant third behind Vincent and Inglewood Councilwoman Judith L. Dunlap.
Even after that defeat, Hardeman remains philosophical. "I saw that as an opportunity to challenge a longtime incumbent and effect change," he said. "People weren't ready for change."
A 38-year-old former police officer, Hardeman makes for an intriguing study in opposites. Trim and handsome, he cultivates a gentlemanly image, favoring neatly pressed oxford shirts with monogrammed cuffs. In his office he proudly displays photos of himself shaking hands with singer Stevie Wonder, Washington Mayor Marion Barry and TV star Tim Reid.
Yet he has shown a combative streak that has sometimes landed him in trouble.
The councilman has frequently jousted with Vincent and with City Manager Paul D. Eckles over city finances. During a budget crunch in 1993, he urged Eckles and other staff members to take a permanent 20% pay cut. The council finally compromised with an 11% temporary cut for Eckles and 6% temporary cuts for other staffers.
Assistant City Manager Norman Cravens said that Hardeman physically threatened him last year during an argument over Inglewood's participation in a sister-city program, which Hardeman avidly supported. "I could kick your scrawny ass to the floor," Cravens quoted Hardeman as saying.
Hardeman conceded that he and Cravens have disagreed in the past but denied making the threat. "I would never use that kind of language," he said.
During his 15 years as a police officer, Hardeman had publicly criticized the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged racism. In 1992, he abruptly quit the LAPD after claiming that fellow officers had threatened his life. Divorced and the father of a 7-year-old son, he now works as a public-policy consultant.
An LAPD spokeswoman confirmed that Hardeman left the force but could not immediately provide specifics.
This will be Hardeman's first council race since the 4th District was redrawn in 1991. Hardeman's council foes, acting while he was out of town, changed the district borders to exclude the Forum, Hollywood Park and Centinela Hospital Medical Center, substituting instead Darby-Dixon, the poor neighborhood adjacent to Morningside High School.
When Hardeman objected to the redistricting, Vincent, himself a former 4th District councilman, told a reporter: "He is serving people no matter what geographic area. . . . The horses (at Hollywood Park) don't vote."
Hardeman bemoans the lack of strong political involvement in his new turf, which covers much of southeast Inglewood. According to the city clerk, the district has 6,435 registered voters, but only 847, or 13%, cast ballots in the 1991 election.
Hardeman believes he can overcome voter apathy and a sometimes hostile city administration. In the current race, he is counting on strong support from Imperial Village, the tidy middle-class community where he lives. His supporters, who admire his scrappy temperament, believe he can pull off a win.
"To me, he's a politician for the people," Imperial Village resident Tyrone Davis said as Hardeman stood by, grinning sheepishly. "He's had some bumps, but it's because of his efforts for the people."