To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.
--James Baldwin from Joan Didion's "The White Album"
The fury seldom seems to leave Omar Bradley. Sometimes, it is there in his eyes; other times, in how he moves. Most often, it comes out in his voice. Sharp. Scolding.
One moment, the 38-year-old mayor of Compton is calm, almost gentle. The next, angry and unforgiving.
In the five years since he first won public office, his outbursts have become a trademark. When he ran for mayor in 1993, his opponent claimed that he warned her, "Someone may die in this campaign." The night he was elected, he lunged at her campaign manager, ordering him "to get out of town." After a few months in office, he blamed Jews for destroying the image of African Americans through rap videos.
And just over a year ago, the longtime high school teacher and football coach created another uproar by defending a player--his nephew--for punching a referee who allegedly used a racial epithet. The allegation, state school investigators said, was unfounded.
Ask Bradley to name his political heroes and he will tick off a list that runs from John F. Kennedy to Malcolm X. Ask him why he is so often full of anger and he invokes another name.
"I try to pattern myself after another great leader and that is Jesus Christ," he says.
Just as Jesus wielded the jawbone of an ass to drive money-changers from the temple, Bradley says, he sees nothing wrong with lashing out against those he believes are wrong.
"Righteous indignation," he calls it.
If his style rattles others, it has not stopped Bradley's political ascent. In short order, he has gone from schoolteacher to city official poised--after an unsuccessful run for Congress--to seek his second term as mayor.
"He has the potential to one day be president . . . if he can just get it under control," says one of his fiercest critics, Compton activist Lorraine Cervantes.
Bradley puts it another way: "If I was white, I'd be a legend."
Some say that in America, we judge our politicians by two sets of standards. When black politicians are passionate, they run the risk of being called militant. When they are eloquent, they can be labeled slick. And when they topple in the political or personal scandals that can take down any public official, their fall seems the more precipitous. Because their numbers are so few. Because the hope that they will deliver is so high.
So how do we judge Bradley?
True, he is impassioned, but many believe he has split Compton apart with his actions and his rhetoric. And even as he claims the moral high ground, questions about his character are relentless.
Three years ago, a cocktail waitress claimed that Bradley, the married father of two, also fathered her twin sons--a charge that became an issue in the mayor's race but was later proved untrue by a blood test.
In 1995's extortion trial of Rep. Walter Tucker III, the Compton congressman and former mayor claimed Bradley pushed a casino project because he was promised cash and partial ownership by its promoters. And while authorities have never brought charges against Bradley, law enforcement sources say his activities have raised ethical questions.
Lies and smears, Bradley responds. The rantings of those out to destroy him because they fear him. Those are Bradley's answers. And they may be enough to keep his political career on track.
But if past is prologue, Bradley's political future will be one of triumphs tainted by controversy.
As Bradley told supporters when he was elected mayor: "People say we are mean, we are quick-tempered and we're fighters. And they are absolutely correct."
Some will tell you flat out that Omar Bradley is a liar. He will tell you they are lying.
Critics will say he is a bully. His response is that they want to deny him power.
And when others call him racially divisive, he'll suggest they are bigots.
"You know, it's amazing," Bradley says, smiling. "[Critics] really cannot say anything bad about me because I have never done anything bad."
Whether that is true is open to dispute. But what cannot be denied is that Bradley is never one to shrink from battle. And to be fair, how could he be? For if there is one city where the meek shall inherit nothing, it is Compton.
Trying to survive in the long shadow of Los Angeles, the city of 97,000 has struggled financially for decades. Racial tensions have simmered for years as Compton moves from predominantly black to Latino. And no city around, certainly none the size of Compton, has a more volatile political scene.
In 1991, after two unsuccessful bids for city office, Bradley was elected councilman, defeating businessman Pedro Pallan, the first Compton Latino to make a runoff for council.
"Compton is coming back," Bradley said, promising to bring the city more jobs and revenues.
Some of what he pledged has come true.