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Compton Caesar's Rise, Fall

Two-term Mayor Omar Bradley's controversial reign ends with his results grudgingly admired even by many of those who reviled his tactics.

July 02, 2001|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Omar Bradley's wife wants him home, but he is too busy talking to sleep. Driving the streets of his hometown late at night, he does a riff on his relationship with Louis Farrakhan, quotes Shakespeare, volunteers praise for Hitler's talents as an administrator and boasts about the monument he designed to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez (complete with a sky beam inspired by the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas).

All the while, he fiddles with a ring on his left hand, an ornament with the likeness of a Roman leader carved into it.

"You know who was the greatest Caesar?" Bradley asks.

"Augustus," he says, pointing to his ring. "You know why? Because he built an empire, and built roads that went to other places. And you know what I did when I got into office? I started working on the roads."

Compton's Caesar will not rule his city of 93,000 as long as Augustus did Rome. On June 5, voters unexpectedly turned the 43-year-old mayor out of office after two terms. His replacement, prosecutor and political neophyte Eric Perrodin, begins work as mayor today. In many ways, Bradley had become a caricature, a small-city mayor inflated with his own importance. He famously attacked rap music's obsession with Compton as an effort by Jewish record executives to make money on the backs of blacks, a statement for which he apologized. He declared himself a "gangster mayor" and lunged at a political rival. He advertised his relationship with Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan and rap mogul Suge Knight.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday July 6, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Compton politics--Political consultant Kerman Maddox did not grow up in Compton, as The Times reported Monday in a story about former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley. Maddox's parents owned a store in Compton, but he grew up in Los Angeles.

But there was a greater truth about Bradley and his antics: These same excesses--his brash statements and his undeniable cronyism--were the very things that made him such a powerful and effective leader. His career--including its ending--is a road map for any politician seeking to take over a California city, a dream so often hampered by state laws that limit political patronage.

Under Bradley, Compton built new housing, shrank its bloated municipal work force and made striking improvements in the cleanliness of its streets. Some of the mayor's opponents now concede that even his most controversial decisions--such as dismantling the Police Department and contracting with the county Sheriff's Department--were probably right, if poorly handled.

Bradley achieved what he did by building a team of workers loyal to him, often because they were relatives he had known since childhood or ex-convicts who could find jobs nowhere else. This shadow government was constructed with hundreds of checks kept just small enough to escape the scrutiny of the City Council and public employees unions.

"Compton reminds me more than any other city in California of the gritty ward politics you see in New York or other cities in the East," says Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles political consultant who grew up in Compton.

"People will sabotage you, even if you're trying to help. For a mayor, that puts loyalty at an incredible premium. And I believe it has forced Omar and his supporters to do things that under normal sorts of circumstances they would never do.

"We will not see his like again. People like to say Omar is a crook, but they don't understand the context."

Intersection Tells Life Story

The intersection of Central Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard is the center of Omar Bradley's universe.

He grew up a block to the south, in a three-bedroom house that Henry and Ovelmar Bradley, native Alabamians, bought after the birth of Omar, the youngest of their eight children. In 1965, when African Americans were coming into a white Compton that would not welcome them, Henry Bradley opened a gas station on the corner, the first in town to be owned by a black man.

For Bradley, the memory of that intersection represents a safer and cleaner Compton enforced by black men of conservative principles. At the corner, Bradley would visit his father's gas station, the Chick N' Fry and the Golden Bird fast food stands, a burger joint, a liquor store, a barbershop and a shoeshine parlor--each one with a black proprietor. When he returned home, Omar would be forced to read; his mother gave him "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" when he was 9.

On Sundays, the Bradleys would walk three blocks west to Greater Pearl of Faith, a tiny church the family had founded. When Omar Bradley was 8, he wrote a letter to the minister, his uncle, saying he wanted to grow up to be a preacher and the mayor of Compton.

On the southeast corner of the Central-El Segundo intersection is Centennial High School. The future mayor was captain of the football team. He dated Robin Howard, the pretty head cheerleader at rival Compton High.

"Our entire lives surrounded that little corner," Bradley recalls. "You lived in a day when your daddy said, 'Get me a pack of cigarettes,' and you just walked over and did it. And if you spent the money on candy, your daddy would give you a beating.

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