The battle for Compton’s next mayor

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Compton voters will elect a new mayor this Tuesday. They have a stark choice between a veteran politician who says he has the savvy to solve the city’s problems, and a fresh face who promises to bring new energy and solutions to what ails the community. But first, a little recent Compton history.

In the 1980s and 90s, Compton had a reputation for having some of the meanest streets in Southern California. In 1990 alone, the city of just under 100,000 people between Los Angeles and Long Beach, had over 3,000 reported incidents of violent crime; 82 of them were homicides. That bloodshed, and related problems of police brutality and poverty, were so intense they became creative fodder for a generation of rap artists who came out of the city and sang about,  and sometimes glorified, the turmoil and despair within Compton’s city limits.

If not exactly tranquil, the Compton of today is a more peaceful place compared to 20 years ago, with far fewer murders, rapes and robberies. And beyond public safety, the city has seen other improvements, like the opening of a Home Depot and a Starbucks. There’s also gleaming new mass transit center and a soon-to-open center for seniors.

But Compton still has its woes. The city’s finances are a mess, with city government carrying a $40 million deficit around its neck. That’s led to cuts in municipal services and fears that Compton might be forced to file for bankruptcy, following the lead of other communities like Stockton and San Bernardino.

Compton is also wrestling with a continuing demographic shift in the community. Once predominantly African-American, over two-thirds of Compton’s residents are now Latino. That rise of one population and decline of another sometimes creates tensions between the communities and fuels criticism that to much political power still rests in the hands of black elected officials.

Omar Bradley, 55 and photographed here in front of his home, is the former mayor of Compton. He says he’s no longer as brash and arrogant as he used to be, but has the experience to bring real reform to Compton’s City Hall. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
Aja Brown, seen here at Compton's Blue LIne station, says she represents new thinking for Compton. She wants to make city government more transparent, create new pedestrian zones, and improve Compton's relationship with surrounding communities. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
Aja Brown, seen here at Compton’s Blue LIne station, says she represents new thinking for Compton. She wants to make city government more transparent, create new pedestrian zones, and improve Compton’s relationship with surrounding communities. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)

That brings us to this week’s mayoral election and the candidates. One contender is Omar Bradley. Bradley, 55, has already been mayor of Compton, from 1993 to 2001. During his tenure in office, he was known for his charisma, big ego and authoritarian style of governing. Those traits earned him the nicknames “The King of Compton” and “The Gangster Mayor” and perhaps set the stage for later problems. After being voted out of office, Bradley was convicted of public corruption charges for misusing city credit cards and billing the city for personal expenses. He served time, but those charges were later overturned by another court. But the L.A. District Attorney’s office says it wants to refile charges.

Running for his old office again, Bradley says he’s a more mellow and wiser person than he was when he was first mayor, but is still tough and seasoned enough to get things done. He promises to improve Compton by cutting waste in City Hall and encouraging small businesses to grow, especially among Latino entrepreneurs.

Aja Brown is Bradley’s challenger. Brown, 31, is urban planner by training and has worked in a variety of city government positions, in Compton and elsewhere. She says where Bradley only offers voters charisma, with a dollop of nostalgia for his colorful days in office, she offers substantive solutions and a knack for problem solving. Brown says there’s too much corruption and cronyism in City Hall and vows to clean it up as mayor. She says if Bradley gets his hold job back, it will be business as usual in city government.