Guns, death threats and fraud in the battle for Compton

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Even when Al Gore and George Bush were duking it out in Florida over every last vote, they never quite descended to this level. Imagine an election that is not just close, not just dogged by ballot improprieties, not just tarred with hints of undue family influence and legal strong-arm tactics. Imagine one that also involves death threats, random gunshots, fist fights, obscene hand gestures, allegations of sexual harassment, purloined documents, embezzled public funds and – for good measure – out-and-out fraud and perjury.

If you can imagine all that, you are getting close to the spectacular mess on display in Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles that has sometimes sold itself as the "baddest" neighbourhood on the planet and is most certainly, these days, living up to the hype.

Compton is, among other things, the birthplace of gangsta rap, of drive-by shootings and of Los Angeles' two most notorious black street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. It is also, by way of light relief, the birthplace of the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

As of a week ago, the suburb has a new cause for notoriety, a twist in electoral politics even stranger than the make-it-up-as-you-go-along Supreme Court ruling that put Mr Bush in the White House a little more than a year ago. The story began in June last year, when the Mayor of Compton, a bear-like figure of intimidating charisma called Omar Bradley, was unexpectedly defeated at the polls by a margin of 280 votes. Mr Bradley, who had already served two terms in office, liked to portray himself as the gangster-politician, a characterisation his detractors thought was more than an act. The man who defeated him, a criminal prosecutor called Eric Perrodin, subsequently set about having him investigated on allegations of gross embezzlement of public funds and illegal allocation of public housing to his relatives.

Mr Bradley is not a man to take defeat lying down, and in weeks he was in court alleging that the vote was rigged, that legal ballots had been spirited away on election day and illegal ballots brought in. He came close to punching out Mr Perrodin, at a public meeting called to promote harmony, and had to be dragged off by uniformed police.

Mr Perrodin was no saint himself. On election day, he made a rude gesture with his finger to a group of fire-fighters who had opposed him, an episode that made some people wonder if he was a real reformer, or merely giving Mr Bradley and his cohorts a taste of their own medicine.

Then came the real surprise, courtesy of a Superior Court judge called Judith Chirlin. She ruled a week ago that Mr Perrodin had not won the election at all, not because of fraud, but because of the failure of the city clerk's office to arrange the candidates' names randomly on the ballot paper. Basing her decision on the theories of an Ohio mathematician who estimated that Mr Perrodin's place at the top of the list of candidates probably earned him an extra 300 votes, she decided that Mr Bradley was in fact the winner and installed him as Mayor in Mr Perrodin's place.

The reaction to Judge Chirlin's decision has been little short of sensational. Mr Bradley himself could not believe his luck – the most he had dared hope for was a new election. Mr Perrodin's supporters were left incredulous, and determined to appeal. Electoral law experts called the ruling eccentric, if not incomprehensible. After all, if the same criteria had been used in Florida, Al Gore would be President.

"We are all in a state of bafflement," said Father Stan Bosch, one of a group known as Pastors for Compton, which was increasingly vocal in its opposition to Mr Bradley's political style before the election. "We have no idea what really happened here." Being Compton, the rumours are flying. Did someone get to Judge Chirlin and scare her? Did she have some sort of professional grudge against Mr Perrodin nurtured in the corridors of the county law courts? She did not just reinstate Mr Bradley; she also resurrected one of his confidantes, the city councillor Melanie Andrews, and declared that the woman who defeated her, Leslie Irving, had committed fraud and should never again be allowed to hold public office in California. Thanks to the judge, Mr Bradley returned to city hall last week with both his old job and an unassailable 4 to 1 majority on the city council.

"It's like the return of the Taliban," said Richard Sanders, another of the Pastors for Compton. He, and many like him around town, had hoped the defeat of Mr Bradley would herald a new, more constructive era for Compton after years of scandal and confrontation in which the state of California took over the local school district and the county took over the police department.

Now Mr Bradley is back, all bets are off. Asked if he would change his style now, Mr Bradley said: "The only thing I would do different is I would negotiate with far more sugar." In Compton parlance, "sugar" can mean good humour, or money, or even sex. Now Mr Bradley's back, there is unlikely to be a dull moment.