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Compton Mayoral Race Offers Political Theater

Election: Five of the six top contenders have held elective office, and the five challengers see incumbent Omar Bradley as vulnerable. He says he'll win again.

February 04, 2001|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Watch the characters run: a rail-thin prosecutor, a veteran political operative, a stationery salesman, a florist who does a stunning Martin Luther King Jr. impersonation, the school board member with the talked-about marriage and the confident incumbent who rages at the world.

It's not situation comedy, but rather the real-life cast of this spring's wide-open race for Compton mayor. The half-dozen leading contenders--the longest list of serious challengers in memory--are already indulging the city's taste for political theater.

The emerging race promises scenes of family betrayal, vengeance, religious warfare, sex, and--if you believe one candidate--violence.

"This is obviously the biggest race in the history of the city," said Mayor Omar Bradley, who is seeking a third four-year term.

In some ways, Comptonites face a slate of choices April 17 as daunting as Los Angeles voters, who will cast ballots in a mayoral primary a week earlier.

Four of the challengers have won elections in the city before. A fifth, Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Perrodin, is the brother of a well-known Compton police lieutenant and is already building union and ministerial support. All five say they intend to make the election a referendum on Bradley, 42, probably the most polarizing and outspoken politician south of the Century Freeway.

"He's vulnerable," said stationery store owner and former City Councilman Fred Cressel, one of the six leading candidates. "And when there's blood in the water, you get a lot of sharks."

Already, the lines of attack are clear. According to his opponents, the incumbent has used his office to liquidate city assets, shut down the Police Department, transfer valuable land and parks to politically connected developers, and give a no-bid trash contract to a businessman who once acknowledged passing bribes.

Challengers say Bradley's brash and sometimes bizarre style--his speeches at City Council meetings run from Roman history to road building--creates unnecessary litigation and hurts Compton's image.

Bradley and his supporters reply that his aggressiveness is essential to making changes in a divided city. The police shutdown and trash contracts saved money and increased cash flow, the mayor says. And he has used those funds to beautify thoroughfares such as Central and Rosecrans avenues, and has worked hard to promote new housing and retail development.

The mayor himself professes little doubt about his reelection. He sees this year's race as an opportunity to increase his power on the five-member City Council. He is strongly backing candidates for two seats now held by critics.

In the 3rd District, the mayor's spokesman, Frank Wheaton, is challenging incumbent Yvonne Arceneaux, who voted against Bradley's police and trash plans. In the 2nd District, Melanie Andrews, a colleague of the mayor's from his day job in the Lynwood schools, is seeking an open seat.

"The community must decide whether or not it wants to continue to progress, and progress with some irritation," Bradley said, "or whether they want to be stifled in place."

Clearly concerned about the mayor's organization, the five challengers met secretly last month at the Crystal Park Hotel and Casino. Brought together by local pastors who want to unseat Bradley, all five pledged to focus their fire on the incumbent.

In the event that no candidate reaches 50% on April 17, each of the five challengers agreed to back whoever emerges as the alternative to Bradley in the runoff election in June.

For now, many longtime political observers expect that alternative to be Councilwoman Marcine Shaw. A longtime aide to the late Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who is revered in Compton, Shaw is perhaps the best-known challenger.

And she has strong ties to public employees unions, which have criticized Bradley for using outside contractors and for issuing gag orders against city workers.

Shaw is also a longtime friend of Bradley's family, and the mayor has told associates that he finds her candidacy a puzzle, if not an outright betrayal.

Other candidates have raised questions about whether, at age 70, she has enough energy to beat the incumbent.

"Ronald Reagan was older than me when he ran for president," Shaw said. "Nelson Mandela was older than me when he took over South Africa."

If Shaw falters, the race might open up for Perrodin, a deputy district attorney in the Norwalk office, and former Councilman Cressel, 63. Both are portraying themselves as squeaky clean outsiders. But Cressel, who ran for mayor in 1997, has lost two citywide elections in a row.

And Perrodin, 41, must battle a perception in some quarters that he is seeking revenge for the treatment of his brother, former Compton Police Capt. Percy Perrodin, who was one of the Police Department's top investigators when Bradley shut it down.

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