Photo by Ted Soqui
The last time the media took the political temperature of Compton was way back in June, after machine-boss Mayor Omar Bradley was bested by challenger Eric Perrodin in a runoff that turned out to be about the most contentious election in the history of a town known for its contentiousness. But despite the pleasant-surprise victory and the vow of the new administration to restore civic order, anxieties ran higher than ever before: Bradley promptly filed a lawsuit alleging election fraud, promising not to go quietly; Perrodin supporters feared retribution by the Bradley camp, which had grown famous for getting its way by any means necessary; Perrodin himself had good intentions but zero experience as an elected official, making the prospects of a smooth transition dim, to say the least. Perrodin’s uncertainty in the aftermath of triumph — before a cluster of television cameras on runoff night, he looked more than a little dazed — loomed as large as Bradley’s wrath, and even the new mayor’s staunchest allies, including Compton’s small but determined band of reformers, wondered privately which would win out.
Fate is funny. The last couple of weeks, which has seen the country at large suddenly plunge into doubt about its future, has seen Compton just as suddenly turn a corner toward resolution of its turbulent past. On September 19, the District Attorney’s Office swarmed Compton City Hall and the homes and workplaces of several key Bradley allies — 11 sites total — to serve search warrants seeking financial records of city expenditures for the last two years. A week later, the city, Bradley, his ex-spokesman Frank Wheaton and longtime City Clerk Charles Davis were slapped by a former city employee with a $5 million lawsuit alleging sexual harassment. Later that day, during a regular City Council meeting, councilman and Bradley ally Amen Rahh heatedly attributed the D.A.’s actions to racism and to a lust for political revenge by the new mayor — something Rahh and others have been claiming for a while. It was at this point that Perrodin dropped his caution and his habit of saying few words. With his hands clasped tightly together, he delivered a long and fiery impromptu speech that felt like an inaugural address, albeit three months late, amid cheers and a few jeers in a packed council chamber. “Let’s get this real clear,” said Perrodin, a phrase he employed often in the roughly 40 minutes that he spoke. “I am the mayor. I’ve been trying to hold back, but here it is.”
It turned out to be Perrodin’s ardent detailing of crimes against the city he believes were committed by the Bradley regime. Perrodin made few specific accusations during the election and during his short tenure at City Hall, partly because he works as a deputy district attorney himself (in Downey) and partly because he wanted to sound a new chord of political restraint in Compton. Last week, however, the gloves came off; the mayor’s lengthy list of grievances spanned the abuse of public trust by Rahh and others to the psychological thuggery he says has held the city and its historically black citizenry hostage to the worst kinds of stereotypes. Criticizing the Bradley administration’s unilateral dissolution of the Compton Police Department, Perrodin coldly observed that “I find it ironic that we talk about the ‘white man’ when we dismantled a mostly minority police force [and brought in Sheriff’s deputies]. When you start talking black stuff, be consistent across the board.”
He hit hardest on fiscal irresponsibility that he says borders on criminality, alleging that council members used federal housing funds to secure cheap homes for relatives and friends, and that Rahh used public money for lavish breakfast forums featuring his own political agenda, with councilwoman and fellow Bradley supporter Delores Zurita (also Bradley’s aunt) doing likewise for a pet jazz program. Zurita and Rahh are thought to be among the chief targets of the corruption probe. Perrodin said that in his mind it’s clear that crimes have been committed whether anybody ever goes to jail or not. He refuted the idea that as a deputy district attorney he was expediting the Compton investigation. “My opponents apparently think I have more power than I do,” he said dryly. “But that’s a red herring. The real issue is, are you guilty or innocent of the charges against you?” He actually agreed with Rahh that the corruption probe is racist — not because it is being done, but because it wasn’t done for so long. “The only reason the feds haven’t come quicker is because we’re perceived as a black and brown city,” said Perrodin, speaking to a larger problem of communities of color. “We’re not worth the time.”
But, he added, “A crook is a crook no matter what color you are.”
In the middle of his remarks, Perrodin ordered security officers to remove Carol Bradley Jordan, the former mayor’s sister, who was talking loudly and incessantly from the audience. They did. Neither Rahh nor Zurita had any rebuttals. Perrodin said afterward that the speech “just happened, I didn’t plan it. I had been trying to avoid a confrontation with people who oppose me, trying to avoid any accusations of conflicts of interest with the D.A.’s Office, but it wasn’t possible in this case.” For those who may have thought Perrodin tentative or in over his head, “Hopefully I’ve put people’s minds at ease.”
Veteran City Hall watchdog Lorraine Cervantes says that while Compton is not out of the woods, the tide is turning: Finally, Bradley is no longer getting the last word. “I’ve been an activist for 32 years, more than half my life,” said Cervantes with a sigh. “Right now, Compton is activist heaven.” Percy Perrodin, Eric’s brother and Compton’s ex–police captain, reported a similar elation. The cable-access channel that airs Compton council meetings says it has gotten an unusually high number of requests for videotapes of this last session (in part because undoctored tapes are something of a novelty — during Bradley’s time, people complained it was often difficult to get a council tape that wasn’t edited to the mayor’s liking).
None of this, as Cervantes suggested, means Bradley or his vestiges are gone. The ex-mayor refused comment, but he and his alliance say that the day of reckoning will be October 22 — scheduled as the first day of the election-fraud trial that Bradley believes will expose his enemies, restore his reputation (such as it was) and maybe put him back in office. Perrodin said he is also looking forward to Bradley’s day in court so that he can break more silence and “tell the citizens about the real voter fraud.” Whatever happens, it is likely that the trial will be Bradley’s last hurrah in Compton, politically and professionally: After losing the mayor’s race, he lost a fat administrative contract with the Lynwood school district, and lost his bid for another with Compton College (among the sites served with search warrants two weeks ago). Sources in Compton say that for all his tough talk regarding the lawsuit, Bradley is feeling chastened and has kept a very low profile; one veteran political consultant said a recent visit to the ex-mayor’s house found him in tears. Those might very well be warranted, said Fred Cressel, a former city councilman and a civic watchdog since leaving office two years ago. Cressel thinks the probe has all the signs of a big bust, bigger than the federal sting that landed ex-Mayor Walter Tucker III and Councilwoman Patricia Moore in prison on extortion charges back in 1995 and 1996 respectively. “This will all come out in the next seven or eight months,” said Cressel. “I wouldn’t think that Omar’s sleeping too well these days.”
Cervantes said she’s glad justice, or at least closure, is imminent after years of battling the Bradley establishment, though she has some misgivings about more possible arrests damaging Compton’s already frail public image. “I’ve seen four elected officials go to jail with the last four administrations,” said Cervantes. “I almost hate to see it. Actually, those probes have been continuing since the Walter Tucker days. They never stopped. Eric had nothing to do with starting them.” On the upside, Bradley’s demise and waning influence has meant a new interest in civic life; everyone crowding the council meetings these days, not just Perrodin, appears to be finding a voice. “When you go to meetings, you see people you’ve never seen before. We’re awakening the citizens, and that’s a good thing,” said Cervantes. It’s also the fruits of a certain labor, she added. “I’ve been down, and I’ve always said, ‘I’ll be back, I’ll be back, I’ll be back. I’m not giving up.’ And I didn’t.”