Photo by Ted SoquiFour years ago, Compton was in a fight for its life. Omar Bradley, the
self-styled gangsta mayor of the ’90s whose public antics and penchant for hiring
friends and relatives made the city a staple of local news and political theater,
was running for re-election for the second time. His chief opponent was Eric Perrodin,
a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and former Compton police officer
who pledged to bring order and civility to City Hall, to institute transparent
government, to be fiscally responsible, to rule by consensus — in short, to be
the anti-Omar. Perrodin squeaked out a victory in ’01, and though an incensed
Bradley challenged that victory in the courts and almost got his way, the hubbub
eventually passed, and Compton settled into a new era. Settled isn’t quite
the right word; Bradley still had his loyalists on the council and in City Hall
who fiercely opposed change, especially coming from Perrodin. But fate finally
caught up with the former mayor: In 2004 he and a couple of his cronies were tried
and convicted for spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on personal items like
golf, dental work and limo rides while they were in office. Though he’s nearly
done serving his time, Bradley has been barred from ever seeking elected office
again, and Perrodin has pretty much cleaned house. A reformist group of Compton
clergy who were routinely shunned — and worse — by Bradley now have a regular
audience with the mayor, who they supported four years ago. Perrodin won re-election
this past April without incident. The threats and tensions that once were a fact
of life at City Hall have all but disappeared.
To read Judith Lewis' story of nature
in Compton,
click here.

And yet Compton is a long way from where anyone wants it to be. Overshadowed by the drama of its politics were always the dull realities of poverty, gangs, poor schools and rising tensions between blacks and Latinos, all exacerbated by the absence of jobs or an economic base. Compton Community College, long a source of civic pride, was recently taken over by the state after audits found its finances some $300,000 in arrears. The Los Angeles Times headlines last month about the spike in Compton’s homicides — on pace this year to exceed New Orleans, the murder capital of the country — distressed people in town but did not surprise them. Mayor Perrodin went into crisis mode; one of his goals since taking office has been to repair Compton’s frayed image, and news of the killings didn’t exactly help. The council promptly hired a public-relations consultant with a Beverly Hills pedigree to counter-spin the bad publicity that Compton has in fact endured for decades. But many Comptonites say that the image consciousness is so much distraction from real issues, one point where Perrodin, however good his intentions, is already going wrong.“It’s almost a $100,000 contract, but the city already has a media person and a photographer,” says Lorraine Cervantes, a longtime Compton activist and former College Board trustee who backed Perrodin for mayor in ’01. “We don’t need it.” Overall, she says, “Eric [Perrodin]’s been making a lot of promises, but I don’t see anything different than when Omar was in office.”
To be fair, Perrodin has not been mayor long enough to make much of a dent
in any of Compton’s most intractable problems, especially in light of the fact
he had no help in the beginning. But he caught heat early on for the Bradley-esque
maneuver of hiring his brother Percy, the former co-captain of the old Compton
Police Department and one of Bradley’s biggest critics, to run the city’s municipal
code enforcement — a department of dubious merit and one that Eric Perrodin himself
characterized as practically illegal during Bradley’s tenure. This would not be
such a big deal if other programs were materializing, but they’re not, at least
not yet. Father Stan Bosch of the reformist clergy coalition says the $100,000
that had been earmarked for a youth resource center instead went to pay for Percy’s
salary. “We’re seeing the fruits of that now,” says Bosch, who pastors Our Lady
of Victory and Sacred Heart Catholic churches and is just about the only white
activist in town. “Everybody knew it was going to be a hot summer. I buried a
15-year-old last week.”
The irony is that Compton would appear to have the perfect person in charge now: Perrodin has spent a career in law enforcement, including many years in his hometown as a police officer on gang detail. But that experience, coupled with his years as a prosecutor, seems to have made the mayor less sympathetic to the needs of the “thugs,” not more. The clergy coalition says Perrodin is most concerned about Compton’s good kids, its best ambassadors, getting lost in the discussion about solutions to violence that center on gang members, and not on achievers. And of course violence is the worst kind of publicity, which is why Perrodin called an emergency session with the clergy coalition last week as part of his response to the, er, news that Compton has too much killing.Coalition president Bishop R.D. Sanders, pastor of Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, says Compton’s real problem is not the mayor but the black and brown community’s historic ambivalence about law enforcement itself. “When you have a drastic problem, you have to have a drastic response,” he says. “You can’t have it both ways — complain about crime, and then cry out against police brutality every time. We talk about having prevention and intervention, but you also have to talk about being tough on enforcement — imposing curfews, that sort of thing. It’s not a popular point of view.”But Sanders agrees with his fellow pastors that the most important agenda will be set by Compton residents, who are more apathetic than active at this point. “Citizens, not law enforcement, must set the pace,” he says. “We have to make up our minds about what we want to be and what we want to do.”It’s always easy to forget that good things do happen in Compton, and that more than a few of them have happened on Perrodin’s watch. A much-needed housing complex is under construction, a development spearheaded by a pro-Perrodin church that had seen its funding stalled by a hostile Bradley. William Johnson, presiding elder of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, is hopeful about finally getting a youth center built next to a site where a Kmart used to be; the mayor is receptive to the idea, if unspecific about details so far. Like most people in Compton, Johnson is cautiously optimistic about the future, politically and otherwise. “The whole police issue is secondary to the fact that we the people don’t take a stand,” he says. “We need to march on the city government, like people did in South America. We need to demand things. It’s about accountability.” The growing question of Latino involvement in a city government long dominated by blacks is part of that accountability. It didn’t help that Bradley, always mindful of threats to his own power, quashed any attempts at Latino representation as well. But that representation will be key, especially as gang violence reasserts itself as Compton’s number-one problem. Alex Leon, pastor at Victory Outreach Church and a veteran gang counselor, says it won’t happen overnight. “Realistically, Eric took four years just to get set up,” he says. “I believe he wants really good things for Compton. I believe he’s an open-minded guy.” But part of that open-mindedness must include giving Latinos seats at the table. “There’s always that fear among black politicians about that, and I understand it, but that can’t be an excuse,” he says. “Hey, we’re 65 percent of the population now.”

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