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Election Reversal Stirs Passions Even by Compton Standards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, there were promises.

Promises from all sides to abandon Compton’s ugly political past. Promises to temper the operatic rhetoric that has long defined Compton’s nasty elections. Promises to heal this poor city rocked by election scandal and a corruption investigation still underway.

But in a place where politics can be theater, if not a contact sport, all the promises among Compton’s political combatants evaporated in less than a day.

Scene: Mayor Omar Bradley’s living room the day a court verdict returned him to power. James Brown is on the stereo, a lively victory party is underway on the patio. Out front is a passing parade of cars with jubilant people honking and waving. On the sidewalk, Bradley’s teenage son is on a loudspeaker, joyfully shouting, “We won! We won! All you people who don’t care about Omar Bradley, we won!”

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Bradley is on his cellular phone. He’s just gotten word that some of his political foes had entered City Hall. And they appear to be leaving with filled boxes.

“Capt. Rhambo!” Bradley bellows to Cecil Rhambo, commander of the sheriff’s Compton substation, “I want you to stop those people immediately from leaving City Hall. They may be stealing city property. If they have left, I want you to stop them and take possession of those papers.”

It is a scene that raises two questions: How much more drama can this populace take? And what now for Compton?

“Chaos,” said Compton City Clerk Charles Davis. “You watch the next three weeks.”

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In a place like Compton, predicting the future can be dicey. But events on- and off-camera in recent weeks provide clues to what may be in store.

Two things can be forecast. One is the likely appeal by ousted Mayor Eric Perrodin, a deputy district attorney who, many legal experts say, has a decent chance of prevailing on appeal

Then there is the investigation by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, which became public Sept. 19, when his investigators served search warrants at Compton City Hall and the properties of several city leaders.

Cooley called the court verdict “irrelevant to the aggressive, ongoing investigation by this office’s public integrity division over allegations of public corruption in Compton.”

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Who’s Attending

to City’s Needs?

All the hubbub has distracted attention from Compton’s very visible urban needs.

Several business developers in the region say Compton’s political upheaval has discouraged business investment in the community.

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“As far as location, Compton is an ideal spot,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. “And if you go along the 91 [freeway] you see a lot of corporate presence....But the uncertainty about who will be in charge tomorrow may be a problem for business.”

Keeping track of events in the city can test even the most ardent Compton political devotee--of which there are legions.

For all the crime and scandal that gets reported, Compton does not get credit for an exuberant engagement in city government.

Residents knew of the court verdict in less than 30 minutes, and were soon on the street cheering, carrying picket signs and getting into debates on the City Hall steps.

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At the vortex of Compton’s current storm was June’s election. Perrodin promised to clean up politics, yet he also was accused of giving a two-fingered crude gesture to non-supporters on polling day. Perrodin denied the two fingers, stating that he was fairly sure it was just one finger.

He won the mayoralty in a stunning upset of two-time incumbent Bradley. Melanie Andrews was defeated by Leslie Irving for an open council seat. Both races were close.

Bradley sued the city, Perrodin and City Clerk Davis, alleging election fraud. On Feb. 8, a Superior Court judge concluded that the city clerk illegally put Perrodin’s and Irving’s names first on the ballot--instead of a randomly selected order, as dictated by law. The order gave them enough of an advantage to win the race, the judge ruled.

Coupled with testimony saying that votes were cast by nonresidents and even a dead person--whose remains were carried in an urn to the courtroom--the judge overturned the election. The judge also said Councilwoman Irving, her parents and her sister committed election fraud, and banned Irving from ever holding office in California.

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The verdict surprised many legal experts. Even Bradley’s attorney considered the odds against winning the case 99 to 1.

Perrodin and his supporters expect Bradley to swiftly squeeze out most of the city department heads, from city manager to fire chief--at least those Perrodin hired in the seven months before he was ousted.

Personnel Changes Ahead

The first hint of more change came Feb. 12, when City Manager Howard Caldwell offered his resignation. The council declined to accept it that night, but most city observers expect him to be gone soon.

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Another anticipated personnel change is the fire chief. Sources said Perrodin’s administration offered the job to an Alabama fire official, who quit his job to take the post. The court’s ruling came before he started work, and the City Council is now expected to hire someone else.

This comes as welcome news to the Compton Fire Department, which unabashedly backed Bradley.

Management and the rank-and-file workers want the city to contract service from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which they would like to join. Overhead costs would be cheaper, and several firefighters said in interviews that such a change might get them an added station and better benefits.

On the day of the verdict, a fire engine drove by Bradley’s house, firefighters cheering and waving as they passed.

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In the hours after the startling court decision, Perrodin seemed weary and even resigned to his fate.

To a pastor who urged him to appeal, Perrodin shook his head. Even if he were reinstated as mayor, he reasoned, the pro-Bradley majority City Council might well hire Bradley as city manager.

Aside from that potential civic nightmare, Perrodin added: “There’s another election in 18 months.”

But in character with the city’s topsy-turvy political nature, Perrodin changed his mind by nightfall, and vowed to appeal his ouster.

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For the time being, Bradley is firmly back in his seat of power.

The mood was giddy and theatrical last Tuesday afternoon as Bradley and Andrews attended their first post-verdict City Council meeting. They were met by an overflow crowd of perhaps several hundred people. Some clearly had vested interests, such as the firefighters. But there were others there as spectators.

A mother of seven, who works full time, brought three of her children.

“Let’s just see what happens, why don’t we?” a woman with a silver bun said with a wink, toting knitting needles to a seat.

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Apart from the celebratory nature of the event, it was distinctive for a City Council meeting.

For one, most cities don’t have official emcees like Frank Wheaton, a childhood friend of Bradley’s who is expected to be rehired in his old job of city spokesman.

Bradley the Star of Council Meeting

At the welcome-home council meeting, a five-hour valentine to Bradley with a few commercial breaks for Andrews, Wheaton introduced an array of people, dignitaries from neighboring cities, a raft of clergy from throughout the city and the extensive families of various council members.

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In the deep and modulated voice of broadcasters, he even introduced other introducers.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” he would say, “without further ado, let me introduce the lovely, Miss Melanie Andrews!” Virtually every woman was described as a “lovely lady.”

Reflecting the meeting’s mix of church fervor, solemnity and humor, Councilman Amen Rahh called for the city’s clergy to come together on the dais for “some powerful prayer.” He rhapsodized about Andrews being like an African queen, and the judge’s verdict “beyond history.... She knew there was something funky in the house,” he said, to considerable laughter.

All the council members promised to listen more, fight less, and try to patch up the divides and wounds of the city.

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“I love you, Compton,” Andrews said in closing.

Bradley, in a voice worthy of a pulpit, cast himself as a God-minded triumphant warrior, humbled by the second chance at the mayor’s office, eager to build community bridges.

But just when it seemed the meeting would end in peace, and after Rahh praised Bradley and urged him to change the minds of his detractors, sounds of the preelection Bradley returned.

“Some of you thought you knew,” he said, speaking slowly and carefully. “You” meant those he presumed to be political enemies, such as City Clerk Davis.

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Promising to find those he thinks undermined last June’s election, he warned: “Everybody, you know who you are.”

Then someone shouted the name of the city clerk, who shouted back, “What? Are you going to come surround me?”

Davis stood up. Sheriff’s deputies stood up. Some of the audience stood up. After a few tense seconds, everybody sat down.

Earlier in the meeting, Wheaton, the emcee, had observed that it was time for the city to heal and, “We shall do so with peace, love and honor.”

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