Sitting on the dais where he used to preside as mayor, Omar Bradley explained to Compton voters at a candidates forum why he should be elected again after his conviction on public corruption charges nearly a decade ago.
“I want to take you on a magic carpet ride 12 years ago,” Bradley said. “I want you to imagine the streets of Compton in 2001. Do you see any potholes? I want you to imagine the trees in Compton in 2001. Were they trimmed? I want you to think about the layoffs that are occurring now and the deficit now, and I want you to ask yourself, was it happening then?”
Bradley has returned to Compton politics somewhat more subdued than when he was known as the “gangster mayor,” but ready for another stint at City Hall. Never mind that he was sent to prison in 2004 on charges of misappropriating about $7,500 in public funds for items such as golf balls, cigars and in-room movies at a hotel.
An appeals court overturned his conviction last year, saying prosecutors had not proved that Bradley knew he was breaking the law. That left him free to run for office again — but prosecutors plan to retry him.
His next court date is eight days after Compton’s April 16 primary election.
Bradley is part of a crowded field running for Compton mayor. The slate includes Rodney Allen Rippy, a former child star who appeared in Jack in the Box commercials in the 1970s; B. Kwaku Duren, a civil rights attorney who once organized with the Black Panthers; ex-Compton City Clerk Charles Davis, who testified against Bradley in his first trial; and William Kemp and Lynn Boone, a pair of longtime Compton activists who have launched repeated recall attempts against the current mayor, Eric Perrodin.
The election comes as Compton faces a crossroads. The city, once notorious for violent crime and blight, has seen crime — particularly homicide — plummet over the last decade. There has also been much-needed economic development, with some chain stores moving to town. But a financial meltdown at City Hall threatened that progress.
Two years ago, the general fund had run up a $40-million deficit because for years, officials had raided the city’s water, sewer and retirement funds when the general fund ran short on cash. The city laid off 15% of its employees and cut back on services such as graffiti removal, tree trimming and street maintenance.
Unlike Stockton and San Bernardino, the city has so far avoided filing for bankruptcy. The crisis left many residents angry. So did skyrocketing water bills and a push by Mayor Perrodin — a former Compton police officer turned deputy district attorney — to reestablish the police department, which was dissolved by Bradley’s administration amid complaints of corruption and out-of-control violent crime. A ballot measure would force the city to keep its contract with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
Against this backdrop, Bradley is trying to make his return to the roughly $60,000-a-year job. Along with 10 other challengers running against Perrodin, he argues it’s time for sweeping change in Compton.
“I am the Moses that God sent to this community,” candidate Jacquelyn Deloatch, who owns a bail bonds shop and business training center, told voters at a recent forum. “I am saying to the leadership that thought they were leading us, let my people go.”
Newcomer Aja Brown, a young urban planner with support from labor unions and Perrodin’s opponents on the council, told the residents, “I’m not afraid to say it: We need a new generation of leaders in our city. Many of our city’s struggles are a direct result of … a legacy of corruption, poor leadership, nepotism and mismanagement.”
Rippy, the former Jack in the Box pitchman, moved to Compton in December so he could run for office. With Hollywood experience and a background in public relations, Rippy believes he can improve Compton’s image and attract businesses.
In an interview, he compared his “outsider” candidacy to the United States’ invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein.
Perrodin dismissed the heated rhetoric as “typical in campaigns” and said he expected to win handily.
Many in the community express support for Bradley, despite his past and pending criminal charges. Joe Brown, 57, said he thought the charges were a result of his brash leadership style.
“This city needs Omar now more than anything,” Brown said. “If there is anyone that truly understands what the city is going through, it’s Omar.”
Bradley, a tall, broad-shouldered, bald and bespectacled figure, still has a penchant for cigars and rambling speeches, but he says his ordeal over the last decade has humbled him.
“I don’t have a hair on my head, I don’t have a dollar in my pocket, but I do have a better understanding,” he said in an interview.
Some residents, though, are dubious.
“I like what he says, but I don’t know how much power is in his words,” said Tomas Carlos, 45, an architect who helped build parts of Gateway Towne Center, the city’s newest shopping complex. “Will his past affect his future?”
If Bradley is convicted again, he will not go back to prison, but he will be ineligible to hold office.
Bradley said he is not worried. “If they try me, they’re going to lose,” he said. “The citizens know it’s not an issue.”
The city’s last mayoral election had a different atmosphere, in which three candidates ran and less than 12% of registered voters turned out.
Compton’s demographics — and voting system — have changed since Bradley last ran for office.
In 2010, Compton was sued by a group that claimed the city’s at-large election system violated Latino residents’ rights by diluting their voting power. As a result, the city adopted a new by-district City Council voting system that could give Latino candidates a better chance of getting elected (the mayor will still be elected at large).
Latinos now make up about two-thirds of the city’s population, but they are still outnumbered by blacks among registered voters.
Latino residents said they were hopeful of getting representation. But some questioned whether the community would turn out and vote, or if their vote would be divided by multiple Latino candidates running for the two council seats.
The question of Latino representation has been an issue in Compton for at least 20 years. In 1993, Bradley promised to appoint a Latino to his old City Council seat if he was elected mayor. In the end, however, he joined with the rest of the council in appointing a young African American.
At the recent voter forum, the former mayor appeared to make another appeal to the Latino community, standing to give the first portion of his opening statements in broken Spanish: “La publica en Compton es mayoria Latino. Yo hablo en Español. Yo communico en Español. Yo comprendo en Español.”