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Compton Caesar’s Rise, Fall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Omar Bradley’s wife wants him home, but he is too busy talking to sleep. Driving the streets of his hometown late at night, he does a riff on his relationship with Louis Farrakhan, quotes Shakespeare, volunteers praise for Hitler’s talents as an administrator and boasts about the monument he designed to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez (complete with a sky beam inspired by the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas).

All the while, he fiddles with a ring on his left hand, an ornament with the likeness of a Roman leader carved into it.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 06, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday July 6, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Compton politics--Political consultant Kerman Maddox did not grow up in Compton, as The Times reported Monday in a story about former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley. Maddox’s parents owned a store in Compton, but he grew up in Los Angeles.

“You know who was the greatest Caesar?” Bradley asks.

“Augustus,” he says, pointing to his ring. “You know why? Because he built an empire, and built roads that went to other places. And you know what I did when I got into office? I started working on the roads.”

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Compton’s Caesar will not rule his city of 93,000 as long as Augustus did Rome. On June 5, voters unexpectedly turned the 43-year-old mayor out of office after two terms. His replacement, prosecutor and political neophyte Eric Perrodin, begins work as mayor today. In many ways, Bradley had become a caricature, a small-city mayor inflated with his own importance. He famously attacked rap music’s obsession with Compton as an effort by Jewish record executives to make money on the backs of blacks, a statement for which he apologized. He declared himself a “gangster mayor” and lunged at a political rival. He advertised his relationship with Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan and rap mogul Suge Knight.

But there was a greater truth about Bradley and his antics: These same excesses--his brash statements and his undeniable cronyism--were the very things that made him such a powerful and effective leader. His career--including its ending--is a road map for any politician seeking to take over a California city, a dream so often hampered by state laws that limit political patronage.

Under Bradley, Compton built new housing, shrank its bloated municipal work force and made striking improvements in the cleanliness of its streets. Some of the mayor’s opponents now concede that even his most controversial decisions--such as dismantling the Police Department and contracting with the county Sheriff’s Department--were probably right, if poorly handled.

Bradley achieved what he did by building a team of workers loyal to him, often because they were relatives he had known since childhood or ex-convicts who could find jobs nowhere else. This shadow government was constructed with hundreds of checks kept just small enough to escape the scrutiny of the City Council and public employees unions.

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“Compton reminds me more than any other city in California of the gritty ward politics you see in New York or other cities in the East,” says Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles political consultant who grew up in Compton.

“People will sabotage you, even if you’re trying to help. For a mayor, that puts loyalty at an incredible premium. And I believe it has forced Omar and his supporters to do things that under normal sorts of circumstances they would never do.

“We will not see his like again. People like to say Omar is a crook, but they don’t understand the context.”

Intersection Tells Life Story

The intersection of Central Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard is the center of Omar Bradley’s universe.

He grew up a block to the south, in a three-bedroom house that Henry and Ovelmar Bradley, native Alabamians, bought after the birth of Omar, the youngest of their eight children. In 1965, when African Americans were coming into a white Compton that would not welcome them, Henry Bradley opened a gas station on the corner, the first in town to be owned by a black man.

For Bradley, the memory of that intersection represents a safer and cleaner Compton enforced by black men of conservative principles. At the corner, Bradley would visit his father’s gas station, the Chick N’ Fry and the Golden Bird fast food stands, a burger joint, a liquor store, a barbershop and a shoeshine parlor--each one with a black proprietor. When he returned home, Omar would be forced to read; his mother gave him “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” when he was 9.

On Sundays, the Bradleys would walk three blocks west to Greater Pearl of Faith, a tiny church the family had founded. When Omar Bradley was 8, he wrote a letter to the minister, his uncle, saying he wanted to grow up to be a preacher and the mayor of Compton.

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On the southeast corner of the Central-El Segundo intersection is Centennial High School. The future mayor was captain of the football team. He dated Robin Howard, the pretty head cheerleader at rival Compton High.

“Our entire lives surrounded that little corner,” Bradley recalls. “You lived in a day when your daddy said, ‘Get me a pack of cigarettes,’ and you just walked over and did it. And if you spent the money on candy, your daddy would give you a beating.

“I’m a ‘60s kid. I loved ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ And the neighborhood outside our front door, it was disciplined like that. It was Mayberry.”

Except that it wasn’t. Gangs were a fact of life in Bradley’s neighborhood. The Bloods-affiliated Pirus were founded not five blocks from that corner while the future mayor was in junior high.

Later in life, Mayor Bradley, when it suited his purposes, would hint at affiliation with the Bloods. Such talk intimidated political opponents, but it also bore no relation to the truth.

“Are you kidding? He might like to fantasize about being that tough. In reality, he was a student, a nerd,” said City Councilman Amen Rahh, who attended Centennial a decade before the mayor and spent time in gangs.

After graduating from Centennial in 1976, Bradley earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at Cal State Long Beach. Soon afterward, he married Robin Howard, the mother of his two children, Omar Jr. and Jasmine. He got a job as a math and English teacher and discovered the joys of a captive audience of students.

Omar and Robin Bradley eventually settled into a house half a mile from his childhood home. Bradley often drove through the El Segundo-Central intersection, and as the ‘80s became the ‘90s, he grew angrier and angrier at what he saw. Most of the businesses were gone. The street was filled with trash. The lights sometimes went out. Dandelions choked the fields at Centennial High.

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In 1991, Bradley won a seat on the City Council. Two years later he was elected mayor, by only 349 votes.

The city he inherited was badly broken. Dozens of vacant lots held charred rubble from the 1992 riots following the acquittal of four LAPD officers involved in the Rodney King beating. Bradley soon found that as a part-time mayor, he had little power compared to the city manager. The city government’s status as one of Compton’s largest employers gave public employees unions almost unquestioned power.

At City Council meetings, he was merely one of five votes and often in the minority. By the end of his first term, Bradley began to put together a team of loyalists independent of the unions, the city manager and the council. He re-created in City Hall the same group of friends and family that he would have seen on a summer day at the corner of El Segundo and Central.

Eventually, the city would hire one of Bradley’s older brothers as a contract compliance officer; a nephew as a construction trainee; another nephew who had been in trouble with the law as a senior administrative intern; a cousin as a special project coordinator; and a brother-in-law as a management analyst. Another brother-in-law received a city contract to do recreation work. The daughter of Bradley’s aunt, City Councilwoman Delores Zurita, was paid for maintenance on city buildings.

His brother Henry, a onetime bookie well-known to police in South Central Los Angeles, worked on the mayor’s campaigns and eventually joined the company that handles Compton’s trash pickup. A sister won a seat on the school board with the mayor’s backing.

Friends from the corner also returned. One, Melvin Stokes, became his top aide. Frank Wheaton, another Centennial athletic star and friend, would receive a contract to be the city’s official spokesman.

Bradley insists he did not formally recommend family members. But he did not oppose their hiring. “You could call it nepotism, you could call it cronyism,” he says. “Or you could call it building a team from the old neighborhood, people who are loyal to Compton and can get the job done.”

Still, Bradley continued to feel stymied until June 1999. Then Rahh, who was a friend from the corner, unseated a Bradley foe on the City Council. Rahh’s vote, combined with that of Zurita, gave the mayor three reliable votes on the five-member council. Three weeks after Rahh’s victory, City Manager Lawrence Moore, a key check on Bradley, died of undiagnosed diabetes.

With Rahh’s new vote, Bradley could handpick his own city manager and run Compton without interference.

“Those who have the majority in democracy,” he says, “rule absolutely.”

Gag Order Issued on City Employees

To cement his control over the city, Bradley made several aggressive moves. He starved city departments to save funds, forcing police officers to buy their own office supplies and furniture. He evicted parks staff from their offices and offered to sell city parkland to private housing developers. He used connections and city money to extend his reach to Lynwood, whose mayor received generous subsidies to develop housing in Compton, and to Compton Community College, where Rahh taught and Bradley’s son received a job. To quell complaints, the city issued a gag order for every employee.

His team set to work building a parallel government he could run day to day. His administration’s favorite method was the $4,900 check.

City rules require any city expenditure of $5,000 or more to be publicly debated and approved by the council. So from June 1999 through March 2001, Bradley’s city manager, John D. Johnson, who had attended Compton High with Bradley’s wife, had the treasurer’s office issue 170 checks just under $5,000 in value. Total value: slightly more than $800,000.

Most of the checks went to Bradley confidantes for projects close to the mayor’s heart.

The memorial Bradley designed to honor King and Chavez in downtown Compton (complete with a prominent quotation from the mayor himself) was partly paid for with checks of $4,900 to $4,999. A meals-on-wheels program founded by Councilwoman Zurita also received such payments. Centennial classmate-turned-city-spokesman Wheaton received four checks for $4,999 in the last year--in addition to his regular $6,000-a-month contract--for hosting various special events and producing TV programs promoting the mayor. A consulting firm whose chairman is a Bradley brother-in-law got checks for $4,000 in November 1999 and $4,500 in June 2000 to put on temporary recreation programs in the city.

The balance of the $4,900 checks went to maintenance of the city, its buildings and its streets--an area where even critics concede Compton has made vast strides. The largest beneficiary was Compton businessman Aaron Ennis, a high school classmate of Bradley’s wife. From October 1999 through March 2001 Ennis received $301,000 in checks of between $4,900 and $4,999.99. With that money, Ennis formed a team of about 15 parolees, ex-cons and out-of-work men to plant new medians and clean streets. The members of the team are not city employees but rather subcontractors, who serve at the pleasure of Ennis.

“You’ve now solved a mystery for me: This must be why all the mayor’s projects seem to get funded and completed,” City Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, a Bradley critic, told a reporter when he explained the pattern of $4,900 checks.

Bradley himself says conflicts of interest in a small city like Compton are unavoidable. He should be judged by his accomplishments, he says.

Three new private housing developments, including more than 1,000 owner-occupied homes, are being built--part of Bradley’s dream of enlarging Compton’s middle class. Ennis’ crew of ex-con subcontractors has beautified the medians along Rosecrans and Central avenues, all the way up to the all-important corner with El Segundo Boulevard. Along the Long Beach Boulevard corridor, three restaurants, a pharmacy, an Auto Zone and shoe and clothing stores have opened recently. Compton’s warehouse and industrial area, along the Gardena Freeway, appears to be thriving.

“When Mayor Bradley wants a project that has economic consequences to Compton, he focuses everyone in the city on it,” says Jeff Morgan, senior vice president at property broker CB Richard Ellis.

Even Bradley’s most notorious deals seem to have borne fruit. Last fall, the city awarded a no-bid trash franchise to Michael Aloyan, a longtime political supporter of the mayor, who once admitted to passing bribes to Compton officials. (He was never charged.) Aloyan has been criticized for employing two Bradley relatives in the trash company. But after early logistical difficulties, trash service has improved, residents say.

For many, the mayor’s aggressive network has meant income they never had before.

“I got paroled, and I was hustling bottles and cans for money,” says 48-year-old Winston Gardner, an ex-con who now cleans the street as a subcontractor paid through Ennis, the recipient of so many $4,900 checks. “I don’t know about rules and contracts and stuff. What I know is that the mayor wanted the streets clean, and so now I can feed my family.”

‘Omar Likes People to Think He’s Crazy’

By the time Omar Bradley arrives at the golf course in nearby Downey for a 7 a.m. tee time, he has been sleepless for 36 hours. In addition to the major’s job, which paid $70,000 a year, Bradley works in the Lynwood school district overseeing night instruction. (His contract there was not renewed for the fall.) His nonstop routine as mayor took him to offices around the city during the day, to his job in Lynwood in the evening and to crime scenes and casinos later. An early morning round of golf--the mayor will hit as many as five balls on a hole (“mayoral privilege,” he calls it)--sometimes precedes a morning nap. Nearly every waking hour he spends talking.

After a round of golf and a city meeting, the conversation turns to a local minister who has just denounced him as “a Hitler.” The mayor appears amused.

“You know, I’m a voracious reader,” he says. “I’ve read ‘Mein Kampf’ 12 times.” Without a breath, he continues: “It’s very interesting. Hitler didn’t really hate the Jews. At least not the most. He hated communists. And most of the big communists were Jews. You know--Marx, Engels, Weber.” (In fact, social scientist Friedrich Engels was not Jewish, and the German economist Max Weber was neither a Jew nor a communist.)

If Bradley’s family and friends were granted one wish, it would be for the mayor to shut up. But to know Bradley is to understand he will say whatever is on his mind, consequences be damned. He is fond of insisting that the county Board of Supervisors has a secret plan to tear down every house in Compton and create an industrial zone by 2020. He claims he first suggested the idea of the Million Man March to Farrakhan. (The Muslim leader’s accounts of the march’s beginnings do not mention the Compton mayor.) He alleges thousands of Latinos who voted against him “were not really citizens.”

Some of Bradley’s outbursts reflect genuine anger at people--often white people--who criticize him without knowing anything about his efforts to improve his city. Yet many of the mayor’s most outrageous statements appear to be carefully calculated.

“Omar likes people to think he’s crazy so they won’t cross him,” says former Police Chief Hourie Taylor.

“He’s a young, strong black man, and I love the way he says what he thinks no matter who condemns him,” says Roosevelt Beatty, a retiree who voted for Bradley in all three of his mayoral campaigns. “It shows his fight, that he’ll stand up for us. He’s forceful.”

But Bradley’s mouth made his job harder outside Compton, reinforcing the city’s image as a crazy place to live and work. He was unable to persuade the state to grant Compton an enterprise zone, offering tax credits to employers, even though every community surrounding the city has such a designation. A leading Los Angeles banker said in a recent interview that he would open a branch in Compton only if Bradley left office. Despite ceaseless badgering, Bradley was never able to force the end of the state takeover of the local school district.

“I understand why the mayor gets upset and says certain things,” Wheaton says. “But sometimes he only wounds himself.”

Ultimately, Bradley’s behavior helped persuade the unions representing Compton’s city workers to organize against his reelection bid this spring. Union funds paid for an extensive absentee ballot program that added about 800 votes, many from newly registered Latinos. A diverse team of local ministers, who had heard tales of Bradley’s City Hall hardball, held meetings and vigils that rallied the faithful against the mayor.

The unions also helped pay for fliers that repeated unsubstantiated rumors about Bradley’s involvement with murders, a sexual harassment case and voter fraud. The mayor protested, but Bradley’s eight years of strange statements allowed some citizens to believe the worst.

‘When I Was the Most Humble, I Lost’

Bradley took the attacks so hard that he had trouble listening to constructive criticism, even from sympathetic community leaders who merely wanted a slightly more open government. “I have always supported the mayor as mayor--he is a borderline genius who did a lot of wonderful things for the city,” says the Rev. Richard Sanders, who reluctantly joined the ministers opposed to Bradley. “But things reached the point where you offered advice and he treated you as just another enemy. I think it’s tragic the way things have turned out.”

In the last few weeks of the campaign, Bradley uncharacteristically began to take friends’ advice and tone down his words.

On election night he lost by 261 votes.

“I should have just been myself, out there fighting like crazy,” he says. “In the election, when I was the most humble, I lost.”

He will probably spend months contesting that result in court, alleging election fraud. After that, there is speculation he could run for an Assembly seat or join his sister on the school board. Friends say he has spent much of his time driving down Compton’s streets, pointing out medians and bus stops and buildings he fixed. For visitors to his home, he trots out pictures from his days as mayor, highlighting his lost hair and aging face.

“I thought I had given the people of Compton a better city,” he says. “I thought I would be mayor for much longer.

“Tell me, please tell me, how the job I did was not good enough.”


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