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Hard Man to Beat : Decked by absentee ballots for Tony Thomas on election night, Garland Hardeman moved his battle for Inglewood City Council to the courts and now works for a rematch at the ballot box.

January 31, 1988|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

It is a classic story: a house-to-house fight for political turf that became a courtroom battle over the democratic process.

It is the story of Garland Hardeman, the Inglewood City Council candidate who won't go away. It is the story of a crusade that got an election overturned and implicated a mayor in Election Code violations.

But it needs an ending.

The setting is a city incorporated in 1911 that ranks seventh in population in Los Angeles County, with about 104,000 residents. After undergoing turbulent racial change in the 1970s, Inglewood is about 55% black, 25% Latino, 15% white and 5% Asian and other.

Residents take pride in the city's civic spirit and economic revitalization. Construction hit a record high in 1987. Crime has dropped 30% in six years. The Forum, the Hollywood Park race track and nearby Los Angeles International Airport also contribute to an emerging sense of potential. Despite lingering pockets of urban despair, a once-dubious image is catching up to the reality: Inglewood is resolutely middle-class and on the move.

Inglewood politics, however, remain Byzantine and contentious. At the core of this story is a conflict between two tough politicians: Garland Hardeman and Mayor Edward Vincent.

City's First Black Mayor

Vincent, 53, is a county probation officer and a veteran of city politics with fierce critics and fierce supporters. His stocky build and political style reflect his background as a college football star--he is aggressive, upbeat and a nonstop promoter of Inglewood and what he calls his "team" concept of government. Opponents call it a political machine. The city's first black mayor, he easily won reelection in 1986. But his control of the council was at stake in last spring's election.

Hardeman, a 31-year-old Los Angeles police officer, was a comparative newcomer willing to challenge the mayor on his own turf. Hardeman--also athletic and charismatic, with a smooth, earnest style--looks the part of the reform candidate. Opponents say the image is a facade.

Vincent put his political muscle behind candidate Ervin (Tony) Thomas in the 4th District council election, and an aggressive absentee ballot campaign won the June 16 runoff for Thomas by a handful of votes.

But Hardeman would not accept defeat. He began a campaign to prove the election had been stolen.

Enlisting the help of several young public interest lawyers, Hardeman achieved what had seemed impossible: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leon Savitch annulled the election of Councilman Thomas in October and called for a new election.

City officials say it is the only such case they know of in Inglewood history. Court decisions annulling elections are rare, and state and county election officials say comprehensive records are not kept. Officials in the 10 largest cities in Los Angeles County say no council election has been annulled in their cities in at least 40 years.

Remains in Office

But Savitch did not declare Hardeman the winner. Instead, he ordered a new election, and Thomas remains in office pending appeal.

Both sides say the voters have been disenfranchised. That is the only point of agreement.

Hardeman and his supporters say the judge did not go far enough. They want further investigation and they want Hardeman placed in office immediately.

Vincent and Thomas insist they did nothing wrong. They and other city officials say routine irregularities are being wrongly portrayed as a criminal conspiracy. They say the judge punished the city for ambiguities in state absentee voting laws.

That debate, and possibly the balance of power in Inglewood, will ultimately be decided in the courts or at the polls.

SHOWDOWN

Hardeman came close to winning the April primary outright.

The 5-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran, a Detroit native with a master's degree in public administration, received 48.2% of the vote against three opponents. He had an array of endorsements, including support from councilmen Anthony Scardenzan and Danny Tabor and a good-size campaign fund.

Thomas, who got 29.6% of the primary vote, was a last-minute candidate who entered the race after Councilman Virgle Benson, a Vincent ally, failed to meet the filing deadline. Thomas was the mayor's candidate in the mayor's home district and had the endorsement of the other major political figure in Inglewood, Assemblyman Curtis R. Tucker (D-Inglewood).

The runoff promised to be a showdown that might decide whether Vincent would retain a majority of supporters on the council.

Heated Argument

Vincent and Hardeman had already had a heated argument outside a polling place during the primary. The next confrontation came on May 5: Vincent told a press conference that Hardeman--who had lived in Inglewood since 1984 but moved into the 4th District in September, 1986--was a "carpetbagger" and did not live in the district.

But both the city attorney and the district attorney determined that Hardeman was eligible to run.

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