Mayor for Life?
A WEEK BEFORE ELECTION DAY, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn called one of his community town-hall meetings on the ground floor of City Hall. Your typical civic-minded citizens — old men in suits, ladies in sparkly hats — showed up to listen to presentations on the city’s improving schools, massive development projects, public safety and recycling black dollars. Toward the end, when Dorn started talking, what began as a town-hall meeting morphed into a church service.
“I can never forget arriving in Los Angeles with $1.35 in my pocket,” Dorn said, his ministerial tenor rising in the wide room. “I shall never forget that, because, you know, God has been so good. Here’s a youngster from the cotton fields of Oklahoma . . .”
“That’s right!” women in the audience interrupted.
“. . . And they reached out and opened their arms here in the great city of Los Angeles, and then in Inglewood. It’s just, it’s amazing how great my God is.”
“Yes, it is!” they called out, applauding. “That’s right.”
“None of this would have ever happened without my heavenly Father, so when people hear me mention those things, and mention how proud I am of my heavenly Father, I don’t intend to offend anybody, that’s just how I feel,” Dorn said. “You can’t tell me that God is not good. God is good allllll the time.”
“Allllll the time,” the people said.
It went on like this, an out-of-nowhere political revival meeting that Mayor Dorn closed with a prayer and a resounding “Amen.” Not unusual for a guy who opens every Inglewood City Council meeting with a prayer as well — after leading the Pledge of Allegiance, of course.
ROOSEVELT DORN DOESN’T have constituents, he has a congregation. Whenever he speaks before the people of Inglewood, Mayor Dorn transforms himself into an appealing hybrid: politician and man on a pulpit, singing the praises of his rags-to-riches story and his abiding love of the Lord. His political enemies call his supporters “fanatical.” Spend a little time around Inglewood City Hall and you might be inclined to agree. Each week, especially near election time, his supporters crowd the City Council chambers and rise during public comment to offer open praise for the mayor and thinly veiled snubs at his opponents. Many wear Dorn T-shirts and baseball caps. When a fellow City Council member criticizes the mayor from the dais, Dorn supporters boo and hiss from the seats, sparking a temporary breakdown in decorum. Dorn takes it all in stride, leaning back in his tall leather chair, affecting a posture of being above it all.
An ordained minister and former judge and prosecutor — and he’ll remind you of it frequently — Dorn has been the center of gravity in Inglewood politics since 1997, when he inherited the Mayor’s Office from longtime Inglewood pol Ed Vincent, the city’s first African-American mayor. Dorn was re-elected in 1998 and in 2002 by comfortable margins. The well-financed incumbent had been looking forward to another clear mandate on November 7 from Inglewood voters for his all-business, all-the-time platform. He seemed pretty confident going into the election. “Blessed and highly favored as always,” he answers every time someone asks, “How are you?”
Alas, God faltered a bit for the mayor this time around. Dorn picked up 49 percent of the vote during last week’s mayoral election, just short of the necessary 51 percent required to avoid a runoff. Now, he’ll face Judy Dunlap, his archnemesis on the City Council, in a new January vote.
Dunlap can thank the other candidate in the race for her good fortune. Progressive activist Danny Tabor, who finished third on Election Day, received a $21,312 independent-expenditure contribution from a political-action committee that flooded the city with nasty mailers attacking Dorn’s ethics. The main assault was an allegation of unethical behavior on the part of Dorn for taking out a $500,000 low-interest loan from the city in 2004 to refurbish his home. His opponents accused Dorn of abusing a loan program meant initially as an incentive to attract competitive candidates for city administrative positions by making it easy and affordable for them to buy homes within city limits. As an elected official, detractors said, Dorn should live in the city anyway.
The independent PAC mailers featured images of pigs wearing sunglasses with dollar signs on them, some with illustrations of maggots. One particularly low piece, faulting Dorn for the recent rise in crime, was adorned with pixilated images of menacing Latino gangbangers. (The PAC shared the same office building with Tabor’s campaign, but he said he had nothing to do with the mailers’ content.) The attack mailers appear to have had an effect on the race. Tabor captured 22 percent of the vote, and Dunlap took 29 percent.
But the November 7 results weren’t only the doing of Dorn’s opponents. Besides the home-loan scandal, Dorn still carries the taint of a high-profile battle over a proposed Wal-Mart. In 2004, the surly multinational retail company sought to build a Supercenter smack in the middle of Inglewood, a move opponents argued would enable a competition-crushing, worker-cannibalizing mega-store to gain a foothold in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. A coalition of unions, community groups and elected officials built a grassroots campaign to defeat a ballot measure that would have allowed Wal-Mart to circumvent normal planning procedures for the proposed site.
Tabor was at the forefront of the movement, which drew national attention as a small-town-beats-back-big-corporation success story. Dorn was the only city official to support the measure. This prompted people to do some digging, and it was later revealed that Dorn received $2,000 from a developer tied to the Wal-Mart plan. Larry Aubry, a longtime community activist and Inglewood resident, raised the charges first in a column in the Los Angeles Sentinel. Dorn sued Aubry over the column. A judge threw out the suit, but bitter tastes remained for all the parties involved.
“The man is a charlatan as far as I’m concerned,” Aubry said. “I think he’s truly hypocritical. Anything resembling a progressive agenda is not his.”
And proudly so, it seems. Dorn’s campaign centered squarely on reminding voters of the kinds of large corporate chains he says he’s brought to Inglewood in the last 10 years. His literature and newspaper ads were covered with logos for Home Depot, Starbucks and others. He pointed to a huge new shopping development on Century Boulevard — the sort of complex normally seen in places like Tustin and Montclair — as a sign that Inglewood is “on the move.” Dorn believes that as long as people have places to shop, they’ll be fine with whatever goes on in City Hall.
“This is the only city in the U.S. that is predominantly black and Latino that has the type of retail makeup we have here,” Dorn said. “It’s unheard-of in the inner city, Bed Bath & Beyond, Red Lobster, Michaels, Marshalls, Ross, we have them all. The people love it.”
NOT ALL THE PEOPLE. Judy Dunlap thinks it’s not enough. A former Inglewood schoolteacher and a member of the City Council since 1993, Dunlap is a reliable “no” vote against many of Dorn’s council initiatives, such as the new city budget. Dunlap is a recognizable figure in Inglewood, known for her extensive knowledge of civic infrastructure and her fondness for straight-brimmed hats. (She’s never seen in public without one.)
“[Voters] want to see the city going in a different direction, they want more accountability,” Dunlap said last week.
She said the mayor regularly takes credit for initiatives and improvements that were put into motion before he took office, such as the city’s development surge. Dorn is too close to certain developers and shuns others, she and her supporters said.
“I plan to deal with developers fairly, equitably, always looking and negotiating from the standpoint of the people of this city, the people who call Inglewood home,” Dunlap said.
Most observers agree that whether Dunlap campaigns on accountability, a new direction or keeping open the emergency room at Daniel Freeman Medical Center, Dorn will likely win in the runoff. Not only is he widely endorsed by the state’s Democratic establishment and deeply connected in local power circles, he has loads more money than Dunlap. As of October 5, the last filing deadline with the Inglewood City Clerk’s Office, Dunlap had raised $40,500, while Dorn was sitting on three times that.
The mayor’s big-business, pro-business and business-first approach to campaigning may explain the large donations he’s received from firms and developers up and down California, and from coast to coast. Among them are companies like Capmark Finance in Horsham, Pennsylvania, which is apparently so excited about a mayor on the other side of the country serving another term that it sent Dorn $1,400 on July 22. Dorn also got $7,000 from Wilson Meany Sullivan L.P., in San Francisco, about a month later. Wyle Laboratories in Hunstville, Alabama, gave him $2,250, and a fireworks company in Youngston, Ohio, gave him $750. Dorn’s largest contributor is local — sort of. The Hollywood Park Land Co., which is based in San Mateo, has so far this year given the mayor $21,000. Not surprising, considering that Inglewood’s Hollywood Park racetrack has major business pending with the city over the track’s redevelopment.
Attempts to reach some of Dorn’s big out-of-town contributors were unsuccessful. Some, such as Wilson Meany Sullivan, had no phone number listed. Other contributors’ phone numbers appeared to be disconnected. Dorn’s ties to big business and big money provide fodder for Dunlap, who, like others hoping to see the 71-year-old mayor finally leave office, accuses Dorn of being crooked and authoritarian.
Dorn bristles at such talk, and recounts man-of-the-law bona fides.
“You have an individual that has become mayor that has the background of being an assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, Superior Court judge,” he said, referring to himself in the royal third person. “When he takes office, he lets everyone know he’s not for sale, and you cannot give him anything under the table. He makes that very clear. I don’t need to take money under the table. I’m a millionaire myself, I don’t need to take a dime under the table, and I don’t play that under any circumstances.”
But, Dorn added, “Like everybody else, I’ll have a fund-raiser, and whoever donates, it’s out on the table.”
Meanwhile, Tabor said last week he has not decided whom he would endorse in the runoff. In Inglewood circles, he is closely associated with Ed Vincent and Jerome Horton, the outgoing Inglewood state assemblyman. Both men are Dorn enemies, and both considered a run to replace him this year.
A lot is at stake in the runoff. Inglewood, the gateway city to LAX, is in a state of transition. Property values have risen sharply, and so has the city’s tax base. But Inglewood faces a consistent crime and gang problem. Voters last week passed a new sales-tax measure to increase funding for “vital services,” which presumably includes resources for more badly needed police officers. And, as Dorn has promised, more development is on the way. Aubry, Tabor and other activists in Inglewood worry that the type of development Dorn backs provides mostly low-quality jobs, and should be balanced out with investment in small and locally owned businesses. Since there are no term limits and no spending limits in Inglewood, someone as connected as Dorn could theoretically stay in office as long as the Lord allows it.
Which is fine by Dorn’s people, who believe all’s good in Inglewood under the man who leads prayer every week on the top floor of City Hall. At his campaign headquarters on lovely Market Street in downtown Inglewood, Dorn supporters kept arriving as election night wore on. The mayor, tieless with his shirt collar comfortably open, greeted them all. Even U.S. Representative Maxine Waters dropped by, riling up with the room with a brief “Dorn!” chant before ducking out.
“[He’s] the best thing that’s happened to Inglewood since they built the Forum,” said Michael Benbow, a city commissioner wearing a T-shirt with a color image of Dorn in a judge’s robe. Everyone in the city should vote for him, Benbow said, “unless they got something wrong with their eyes.”
Annie Copeland, a caterer, said Dorn should be mayor “as long as he wants. Plus, he’s a God-fearing man.”
Elsewhere in the room, Dorn greeted loyal clergy and said a few blessings. When it looked like he wouldn’t win outright, he growled, “Of course, I’d prefer to not have a runoff. But whoever I’m in a runoff with, I’ll destroy.”
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.