Can Aja Brown, Compton's Hip, Refreshing Reform Mayor, Turn This Woeful City Around?
PHOTO BY TED SOQUICompton's Mayor Aja Brown
Here comes Aja Brown — pronounced “Asia” for those who haven’t heard about the 31-year-old mayor of Compton elected in a landslide vote last month. The young black men sitting at a shady picnic table in Wilson Park on North Rose Avenue know exactly how to say it. They’re stunned to see the cover girl–gorgeous, wonky USC grad, in high heels and a navy blue dress, walking past them with her trademark air of understated confidence.
“Hey! That’s Aja Brown!” one young man shouts, as if he’s spotted a film star.
“Hey! Mayor!” calls out another.
Brown smiles and says hello but maintains her purposeful stride past a pickup basketball game and toward the 12,000-square-foot skatepark that iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk helped finance nearly four years ago. There, young guys in long pants and T-shirts zoom up and down concrete embankments in the hard, hot sun.
The existence of the skatepark is a sign to Brown that Compton — L.A.’s culturally famous yet woeful and corruption-marred suburb — can be fixed. Keenan Louis, a bare-chested 22-year-old who has just finished a sweaty basketball game, has that very thing on his mind. “No offense,” he yells to Brown, “but don’t be like Omar!”
That would be Omar Bradley, the self-described “gangster mayor” of Compton, who served two stormy terms between 1993 and 2001 — presiding over the city’s devastating decline. Obnoxious, unpredictable, sometimes charming, Bradley behaved threateningly toward journalists and others. He was convicted of corruption in 2004 and did time, but last year Judge Madeleine Flier overturned Bradley’s conviction, citing a Supreme Court ruling that a politician wasn’t corrupt if he didn’t know the anti-corruption law.
“I won’t!” Brown responds to Louis with her easy smile. Then she murmurs, “Those are words I should put up in my office.”
Louis shouts back at Mayor Brown: “We got to build it back up!”
Don’t be like Omar. Build it back up. That’s exactly what many in Compton are praying Aja Brown will do.
“The Hub” or, in rappers’ parlance, “CPT,” is a 10-square-mile city of 97,000, whose 65 percent Latino and 33 percent black residents espouse a peculiarly hard-core form of pride and loyalty to place.
Sixteen miles southeast of downtown L.A., Compton produced such world-class rappers as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, The Game and Kendrick Lamar, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and Hall of Fame baseball player Eddie Murray. And there’s the groundbreaking album Straight Outta Compton by legendary group N.W.A.
Once dubbed the United States’ “murder capital” by Bloomberg News, Compton nurtures a deep, historical distrust of “outsiders” — yet it was the local Bloods (Pirus), Crips, Tortilla Flats and many others who bloodied and terrorized its streets, and its parade of inept, often scandal-ridden, homegrown politicians who helped drive out the middle class and shatter the town’s tax base. The state of California was forced to take over Compton Unified School District’s shoddily run schools in 1993, and in 2000 Omar Bradley controversially disbanded the police department, handing over law enforcement to the Sheriff’s Department.
Last summer the city, with a 25 percent poverty rate, teetered for a time at the edge of bankruptcy. Mayor Eric Perrodin blamed it on “possible fraud, waste and abuse.”
For years, the City Council and school board have been controlled by an ossified and often paranoid black old guard, which rebuffs the Latino majority. But after a long acquiescence to this arrangement, on June 4, the town’s mostly black voters chose reform candidate Brown, 63.7 percent to 36.2 percent over Bradley, who was trying for a comeback, thanks to Judge Flier’s ruling. Voters that day also elected Compton’s first Latino city councilman, Isaac Galvan, 26, like Brown a political newcomer.
Brown, who took office on July 2, is like no mayor Compton has seen before — nor, for that matter, any city in L.A.’s tattered old southeast suburbs.
Her grandmother Lena Young, a nurse Brown never knew, was raped and murdered in 1973 in a brutal home invasion — in Compton. Brown was raised in the 1980s and ’90s in Altadena by a single mom. But in 2009, after parlaying her undergraduate and graduate degrees in urban planning from USC into a successful career in municipal economic development, Brown pointedly chose Compton as her home — and her project. Her husband, Van, an oil industry safety inspector, backed her up.
“There’s a new optimism in Compton that I sense,” says Kerry Allison, pastor at Church of the Redeemer, “that Compton can become something. And by electing [Brown], Compton was saying that.”
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose sprawling district covers Compton and who backed Brown for mayor, offers, “She’s a breath of fresh air, and Compton needed that. And the people wanted it.”
The old guard sees things differently. After all, the woman is an outsider.
“It’s one of the things that’s scary about Aja Brown,” says retired Compton Police Department Sgt. John “Rick” Baker, a Latino who lived and served in Compton for 50 years and wrote Vice: One Cop’s Story of Patrolling America’s Most Dangerous City. “She’s only been there for four years. She doesn’t know the culture of Compton.”
Longtime community activist Royce Esters cites the fear that Ridley-Thomas, Congresswoman Janice Hahn and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — “outsiders,” to the black old guard — will have Brown’s ear. “She has good vision,” Esters says, “but she can’t listen to the ‘outside people,’ who have no idea of what’s happening in Compton.”
Julius Franklin, 31, who attends Compton’s raucous City Council meetings and understands the city’s cutthroat political culture, says, “She has to have strong opinions, and she has to stand by her word. She needs to be educated. If she comes to a meeting unprepared, they’ll eat her up.”
Brown faces far-reaching problems that go well beyond coping with the city’s racially driven, insider political class.
Stanford University history professor Albert Camarillo, a Compton native, notes, “Their infrastructure has been battered for 30 years. … They aren’t that far from bankruptcy.”
USC urban planning professor Martin Krieger says Compton has “major problems in creating revenue for the services they need to provide.”
Brown could be the start of Compton’s transformation. Or another target for a stifling class of politicians and bureaucrats steeped in nepotism and cronyism who have long refused to share meaningful power with the Latino majority.
Will Brown, and the young Isaac Galvan, be any different from past leaders like Bradley, who positioned themselves as change agents?
“I’m from a totally different generation than the old guard,” Brown says as she stands at the Metro Blue Line station down the block from City Hall. “The things I want to do are new. … The city really needs somebody who can bring people together.”
Aja Brown never met her maternal grandmother, longtime Compton resident Lena Young, the registered nurse who was brutally raped and strangled in her home nearly 10 years before her granddaughter was born. Compton police never found her killer, and Young’s murder is a longtime Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s active unsolved homicide. “Growing up,” Brown says, “there was a big void in my life and my mother’s life.” Running for mayor is “part of rectifying a part of my past tragedy.”
Brown and her twin brother, Jonathan, were born in Los Angeles, and their mother, Brenda, was divorced from their father when the twins were children. He was rarely around. “There’s no animosity there,” Brown says. “People make choices.”
Despite the family situation, Brown excelled as a straight-A student at Pasadena’s John Muir High School, where she played varsity volleyball and was elected senior class president. Facing tuition costs alone of about $30,000 a year at USC in 2000, she won academic scholarships and grants to study urban planning and public policy as an undergraduate and graduate student.
“I didn’t have a traditional college experience,” says Brown, who didn’t join the partying and networking for which USC students are famous. Despite the scholarships, she still had to work. “I didn’t have a social aspect to it. I was always involved in working and going to school.”
Her master’s thesis focused on Walmart’s controversial and ultimately unsuccessful attempt, in 2004, to open a supercenter in Inglewood and the long-term effects the major retailer has on small businesses in nearby cities.
“It was a big deal at the time,” Brown says.
During that period, Compton was mired in turmoil under Mayor Eric Perrodin, a former Compton police officer and L.A. County prosecutor, who was elected in 2001 as a reformer after eight long years of gangster mayor Bradley. Perrodin “meant well,” Stanford’s Camarillo says, “but he was facing enormous challenges.”
In 2004, Brown landed a job as an economic development analyst for Gardena — the same year Bradley, former Compton Councilman Amen Rahh and former City Manager John D. Johnson II were convicted of misappropriating taxpayer money.
Brown saw the inner workings of two other municipal governments before turning her focus to Compton. In 2006, she was a senior economic development planner for Inglewood, and in 2007 she quickly rose in tidy, well-managed Pasadena, a city that could be described as Compton’s polar opposite. There, Pasadena city leaders appointed her to the powerful planning commission.
Brown and her husband, who are devoted members of Compton’s Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church, later moved from Pasadena to Gardena, five miles from the Baptist church.
In 2009, she and Van finally decided to move to the city of her grandmother’s tragic end. “We wanted to be somewhere where we could make a difference,” Brown says.
There was plenty to do. In 2005, as the nation and L.A. enjoyed the lowest crime rates in decades, Compton suffered nearly 70 homicides — a worse murder rate than derelict Camden, N.J. Community activist Royce Esters, who has lived in Compton since 1956 and heads the local group National Association for Equal Justice in America, says that in 2007, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department was “beating people up” and “out of control” in an aggressive attempt to restore law and order.
When Brown and her husband arrived two years later, they took part in community outreach programs organized by Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church, such as street cleanups and mentoring kids. She soon was hired as a project manager for the Compton Community Redevelopment Agency and helped dramatically renovate the city’s Blue Line station.
“From a planning perspective,” Brown says, “I thought Compton was phenomenal. It has a huge potential to be a great city, and I always bet on the underdog.”
In 2011, the recession hit Compton hard. Widespread layoffs hit city workers. Under then–Mayor Perrodin, Brown was going to be spared, but that meant taking the job of a longtime employee. “I wasn’t comfortable with that,” Brown says. She says she volunteered to leave and founded her own company, Urban Vision Community Development Corporation, which offered revitalization consulting to Compton city officials, private companies and developers.
A new, bizarre municipal scandal rising from an incident that year shows the problems Brown faces.
In 2011, $1.1 million in police radio and communications equipment — weirdly squirreled away in a racquetball court at Compton’s Fire Department headquarters — suspiciously went up in flames. The equipment was part of the Compton City Council’s and Perrodin’s odd, cart-before-the-horse plan to resurrect the Compton Police Department — by buying costly equipment years before hiring any cops.
After a 17-month investigation, ex–Fire Battalion Chief Marcel Melanson, a one-time TV reality star whose firefighting derring-do was seen in BET series First In, was arrested eight weeks ago and charged with arson. He now faces trial. The L.A. County District Attorney says Melanson set the blaze in order to cover up a greedy scheme in which he sold online dozens of stored police radios — worth $2,500 each.
The scandal was another embarrassment for Compton City Hall, where politicians who approved the equipment purchase, and fiscal bureaucrats who were supposed to keep track of it, looked like hopeless bunglers. Says author and former cop Baker, “They bought radio equipment for a police department that was never in existence. And then it gets burned up.”
Last year, as the 2013 mayoral election approached, political heavyweights in L.A. Democratic circles decided enough was enough.
Residents and others “were tired of Eric [Perrodin],” says county Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who endorsed Brown. “Plain and simple. His leadership was no longer effective. … Compton couldn’t pay its bills on time for the Sheriff’s Department, and [city] workers were generally fed up with him.” Perrodin did not respond to queries from L.A. Weekly.
According to Rodney Allen Rippy, the popular 1970s black child star who was a regular on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, one city leader — city manager G. Harold Duffey — was so desperate to get rid of Perrodin that he convinced Rippy to jump into this year’s mayor’s race.
Rippy had no real chance, as a true outsider who lived in Pasadena and rented a room in Compton in order to run. Rippy tells the Weekly that he found Compton’s political scene marked by “so much infighting going on — and insider pockets.” He says, sympathetically, of Brown: “She’s got to have her hands full. There’s a lot of people in the community who are upset about a lot of things.”
For Brown’s part, she considered running for two years before finally jumping in. “I knew we needed different leadership to bring about the change we needed in Compton,” she says. Her husband thought she should go for it.
The “outsiders” mobilized. With strong backing from political and union heavyweights Ridley-Thomas, the County Federation of Labor and the L.A. County Democratic Party, Brown placed first in the mayoral primary ahead of Bradley and Perrodin (who finished third). Then she trounced Bradley in the runoff.
Ridley-Thomas and California state Assemblyman Isadore Hall III are thrilled.
Describing her victory as a “mandate” for change, Ridley-Thomas says, “She’s different. She’s honest. And she’ll let the sun in.”
At her July 2 inauguration, Hall declared that Brown would “restore the integrity of our community.”
Now she has to convince others. One longtime activist, Joyce Kelly, says she’s watching to see if Brown helps vulnerable constituencies the Compton City Council has ignored. “They address no issues about youth,” Kelly says. “And seniors? They’re on their own.”
And Julius Franklin draws on the old Compton paranoia, saying, “Technically, [Brown] is an outsider coming in, and it’s hard for some people to accept that.”
Since its founding in the 1800s, Compton residents have been wary of outsiders. When its middle-class white residents left between the late 1950s and late ’60s, the black politicians and residents adopted their old attitudes. “It’s a gatekeeping mechanism,” explains Church of the Redeemer pastor Allison, an effort to resist “people who would use the challenges against Compton and throw the city in a negative light.”
In a region where termed-out career politicians regularly move from one Southern California neighborhood or city to another to seek their next office, Compton’s anti-outsider mentality marks the tough inner-city patch, even now, as a small town. That could mean problems for the other new City Hall upstart, Isaac Galvan, the first Latino council member in a city of about 63,000 Latinos. “I haven’t seen him at any City Council meetings,” Franklin says, echoing a common sentiment. “He hasn’t really talked. I don’t know where he stands.”
Born on Valentine’s Day in 1987, Galvan is the youngest person ever elected here. He is eager and sincere but defensive about being tarred as an outsider. Almost humorously, Galvan avoids admitting he was born some 14 miles away, in L.A., instead pumping the fact that he sometimes lived with his grandmother in Compton.
Raised by a single mother after his father died in a car accident when he was 12, Galvan says his mom, Esther, taught him not to “take my responsibility lightly. … My mom told me to not betray the people’s trust.”
Galvan studied business management at Santa Monica College and now owns a printing business in West Los Angeles. Three years ago, he moved to a small apartment in Compton across from Cesar Chavez Park and started working as a youth pastor at Victory Outreach Church. Seeing trash dumped in the streets, gangbangers hanging out and city workers failing to perform such basic services as trimming overgrown trees, Galvan decided to run for office.
“I prayed about it,” he says, “talked with my family — and here we are.”
Galvan defeated Compton City Councilwoman Lillie Dobson, 74, a deeply entrenched member of the black old guard. Before he took office on July 2, Galvan says, he’d already gotten the city to trim trees in his neglected neighborhood, organized two street cleanups and installed a red-white-and-blue basketball net at Cesar Chavez Park.
His election is largely thanks to two activist Latino residents, Felicitas Gonzalez and Flora Ruiz, who sued the city in 2010, alleging a California Voting Rights Act violation. A settlement required Compton officials to put forth a ballot measure that would create geographical city council districts instead of “at-large” seats, which led to continual election of black politicians — and kept out the majority Latinos. “The lawsuit is what got me here,” Galvan says.
During a recent tour of his council district, Galvan zipped from one spot to another in a white 2006 Acura TL, brimming with ideas of what to do. “You know what’s a big problem that I want to tackle someday?” he asked at one point. “Compton has a big gopher problem.”
It remains to be seen whether Galvan and Brown — very young outsiders with a fresh vision for Compton — will become allies. Galvan is so new to the game that, he concedes, even Latino community leaders told him “I was too green and too young and didn’t deserve to run for office. They went against me. They even started a rumor that I was Filipino.”
After he won, those unnamed Latino leaders gave him some troubling advice: Keep a safe distance from black political leaders, who, they warned, would “use” him. Galvan says he is having none of it. “If someone tells me to stay away from the blacks,” Galvan says, “I will never talk to them again. Period. I have a lot of passion about that.”
One Latino community organizer, who insists on anonymity because he fears racial retribution, says, “If Isaac tries to placate the African-American leadership, he’s not doing what needs to be done for the Latino community, and that will be the end of him.”
Though the city’s political establishment was built by black civil rights leaders who fought for equality, black leaders “didn’t give the Latinos a string of power in the last 43 years,” former sergeant Baker says. That created “an impasse” between blacks and Latinos, Stanford’s Albert Camarillo says.
Camarillo believes Galvan and Brown could represent a new generation of “multicultural” and “transformative political change,” but only if they steer clear of racial political battles and focus on what’s best for Compton as a whole. They must bring Latinos and blacks together, he says, to “marshal the political will to go through redevelopment and put Compton on the path of economic recovery.”
Pastor Allison says the city is filled with hardworking people who “want the best for their families. They want a family structure. They want the American dream.”
That’s where Brown and Galvan may try to find common cause as they begin to cope with a municipal government in which the efforts of the well-meaning — a term often used to describe Perrodin — are easily, and usually quickly, turned aside.
Brown often talks about wooing new businesses to Compton and changing the perception of it as a breeding ground for gangs and stubborn poverty. Tooling around Compton’s streets one day, much as Galvan had done, the mayor stops her silver Audi SUV at the recently renovated Metro Blue Line depot, not far from her own Compton townhouse, where middle-class families and young professionals have moved in.
In big steel letters set in planters beside the track, the word “COMPTON” is boldly spelled out for passing trains. A multifunctional, modern-looking office building sits nearby. The redeveloped site, with its clean, streamlined appearance, is an example of what Brown hopes could be Compton’s future, even though the office building is empty. When she worked for Compton’s redevelopment agency, she helped push through the transit-oriented project, or TOD, and she has high hopes that Southern California’s improved economy will bring tenants to the attractive development.
“The transit center is iconic of what Compton could be as a whole,” the new mayor says.
But USC urban planning professor Krieger says decades of neglect of Compton’s most fundamental municipal infrastructure must be addressed.
Even the city’s website is from a bygone era, its most recent demographic information dating from the 2000 U.S. Census and showing a Latino population of just 57 percent. Its election division never bothered to post Aja Brown’s June 4 election as mayor — leaving that important job to website 2urbangirls.com, which on June 5 posted a time-stamped government printout with “unofficial” scrawled in pencil along the top.
Galvan talks a lot about fixing the basics, while Brown discusses such hipster ideas as “better use of public space,” updating the zoning ordinance and a “downtown revitalization” — including a new City Hall. “It’s one of my main initiatives, to bring more redevelopment,” she says. “I think the entire City Council will be responsive to what I want to do.”
Maybe, maybe not. Of the three Compton City Council members contacted by L.A. Weekly, only Councilman Willie Jones emphasized fiscal responsibility. “We have to stabilize our financial situation,” he says. “We have to provide more services.”
City Councilwoman Janna Zurita, Omar Bradley’s cousin and a charter member of the black old guard, refused even to discuss the new mayor or the city’s future. And Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, an old-guarder elected in 1993, twice would not answer when asked to cite three policies Brown should pursue. Arceneaux says Compton has “a lot of policy in place, but implementing has been an issue.”
To be sure. During Arceneaux’s five terms in office, the City Council bought $1.1 million in radio equipment for a police department that didn’t exist, spawned a $40 million deficit and ignored, chronically, the trash-strewn streets and sidewalks. Latinos had to sue for a fair shake at elective office, and youth programs go begging. Yet Arceneaux says proudly, “You see all of these cities that have had bankruptcy. We didn’t. We acted.”
After snapping pictures of each of them with Aja Brown, Keenan Louis and his buddies at Wilson Park huddle around their young mayor and ask her about her favorite basketball team. “The Clippers,” she says, displaying nerves of steel. They all boo loudly. “The Lakers!” says one of the guys. “That’s the team around here!”
Eugene Parker, a young guy with dreadlocks who was raised in Compton, tells Brown, “Make sure you go out to the community.” Pointing to the Compton City Council chambers nearby, he says, “I don’t see too many of them doing that. All they have to do is come to the closest park. Their office is right over there.”
If Zurita, Jones and Arceneaux and newcomer Galvan do venture into Wilson Park, Parker and his friends likely will tell them to focus on their greatest failures, addressing the basics: Take on the gangbangers who make everyone feel unsafe, provide summer day camps for kids, challenge the anti-reform Compton Unified School District Board and clean up the filthy streets. “Make the city workers do their jobs,” Parker says. “Have them fix the potholes.”
Aja Brown walks away from that impromptu constituent meeting impressed.
“People are very cognizant of the social issues and what’s happening in the city,” she says, “and they care.” As she hops in her car, Brown adds, “The things people are looking for are not impossible to give.”
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.