Omar's Comeback

Photo by Ted Soqui

Hard to imagine. The phrase is uttered in Compton, where the unimaginable happens with almost mundane frequency, but this past week, if somebody with only hazy entrepreneurial instincts had collected a dollar every time a citizen remarked — or shouted, or hissed, or mumbled — “hard to imagine,” he or she would have been a millionaire. For the least likely of things has happened: Former Mayor Omar Bradley not only won his long-shot election-fraud suit against Eric Perrodin and the city of Compton, the judge ousted rookie Mayor Perrodin and reinstated Bradley. For good measure, rookie Councilwoman Leslie Irving was cited for election fraud and perjury, summarily tossed out, and replaced with Bradley ally Melanie Andrews, who had finished a distant second to Irving in the June runoff last year (Andrews had to hastily resign her seat on the Compton College board to accept the council post). This means that Bradley is not only back on the throne, he’s back with a supermajority on the council — four out of five — that virtually guarantees he’ll get anything he wants passed with zero resistance. The slight resistance he got before he either ignored or squashed in no uncertain terms; now Bradley won’t have to break a sweat. Life is good.

Of course, for Compton’s reformist camp, which built up precious momentum over a couple of years to help defeat Bradley last spring, this is bad news indeed. Bad doesn’t quite describe it, or demoralizing, but this latest twist is both those things in abundance. Mounting a serious challenge to Bradley, who had ruled for two terms as Compton mayor with an iron fist and the de facto support of entrenched voter apathy, was tough enough. To have barely unseated Bradley with Perrodin (the margin of victory last June was 280 votes) was a miracle still being talked about around town; unseating Bradley now, in the wake of a victory that will surely bolster an already famously outsize ego, will require a new word to describe such an effort. Yet the reformists say they’re not giving up or going away. The silver lining may be that they’re digging in just as it appears that Compton seems destined to be ruled by the most despotically inclined characters around. “It’s like the return of the Taliban,” says the Reverend Richard Sanders, a member of the reformist group Pastors for Compton. “I hope people will be brave enough to stand up, to continue. We’ll keep on doing what we’ve always done — ask questions of government, get answers.”

The reformists might start with questions about the ruling itself, which election-law experts are diplomatically calling unusual. Superior Court Judge Judith C. Chirlin found no official wrongdoing or evidence of fraud on Perrodin’s part; she nonetheless overturned the election results based on something called the primacy effect — a mathematical tendency for people to select the item listed first when presented with any list of choices. Perrodin’s name appeared first on the June runoff ballot, an advantage that Chirlin decided he was granted unfairly because City Clerk Charles Davis did not randomly place the names, as required by California law. (Davis, Compton’s city clerk for nearly 30 years who prides himself on fastidiousness, denies any improprieties.) By the judge’s reckoning, the primacy effect was worth 306 votes, just enough to overcome Perrodin’s margin of victory and make Bradley the winner. Observers say this is far too much speculation to swallow, that the most Chirlin should have done was nullify the election and order a new one. Even that would have been a stretch, they say, but overturning an election without hard evidence, or even some evidence, of fraud is incomprehensible. Though Councilwoman Leslie Irving was cited for fraud, the mayoral challenger, the focus of the case, was not. “This was a one-vote election,” says Hourie Taylor, a Perrodin supporter and Compton’s ex– police chief, who was deposed by Bradley two years ago. “In this case, the will of the people in Compton was thwarted by one person, the judge.”

In victory last week, even as he tried humility on for size, Bradley was typically over the top. He displayed a Bible, thanked God, and recalled the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. He declared that he had spent so much money on the 10-week trial he couldn’t afford to give his daughter lunch money. In a particularly loutish moment he thanked his Jewish attorney, Bradley Hertz (“A little Jewish boy from the Valley”), and apologized for having possibly cast any aspersions on the Jewish people in the past. He reiterated the same sentiments — plus a lot more about the oneness of humanity and the largess of America — before the television cameras at Monday’s swearing-in at City Hall. But Bradley may again prove to be his own greatest impediment. If his disingenuousness rankled Comptonites before, they are rankled anew, and they may have company. Eric Perrodin’s brother and chief supporter, Percy, says he’s fielded dozens of calls since the ruling from supporters inside and outside Compton who say they want to help in the next phase of the fight against Bradley (Eric Perrodin is appealing the decision and will need money for lawyer fees). Citizens plan to picket City Hall and the downtown court where Chirlin handed down her decision, he says. Even Johnnie Cochran called. Bradley may also have to contend with some unknowns of his own, including shifting alliances on the council that could upend the dream voting bloc: Councilman Amen Rahh, his staunchest supporter in the past, has lately attempted to distance himself from the Bradley camp. Observers say Rahh, who was among many Compton public officials served with search warrants last fall in an ongoing probe of the Bradley administration, has had a taste of media scrutiny and doesn’t like it.

Amid the hubbub that is more charged than usual, the Reverend Sanders emphasizes what he and the Pastors for Compton have stressed all along: accountability. If Omar has learned a lesson and is up to the task, says Sanders, that would be fine with him. “We didn’t agree with everything Eric said,” Sanders points out. “But there was communication. The difference with the mayors was the response to us and our concerns.” But the pastor couldn’t ignore the fact that in Compton, faith in change has become nothing less than spiritual. “The fight’s going to go on,” he says. “God did not mean for it to end this way.”

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