In a stunning political turnabout, Ira Reiner--once the silver-haired star of Los Angeles County politics--is withdrawing from the hard-fought race for district attorney, saying he cannot stomach the negative campaign he would have to wage to keep the job he has held for eight years.
In an interview with The Times, Reiner on Thursday effectively conceded the race to his opponent and former chief deputy, Gilbert L. Garcetti. He pledged to immediately suspend campaigning, shut down his campaign office and cease all fund raising. He said he will call Garcetti today to inform him of the decision and wish him luck.
Appearing relaxed and saying he was relieved to be out of the race, the two-term incumbent--who has built a reputation as a tough and aggressive campaigner--said he spent months agonizing over how to conduct the race. He said the results of the four-way primary in June, in which Garcetti garnered 34% of the vote compared to Reiner's 26%, made it clear to him that he would have to put up a nasty fight to win.
"The only way to win when you're well behind is to come on as strong as you can with a highly personal negative campaign," Reiner said, acknowledging that such a strategy would not guarantee victory. "I struggled with that all summer and decided that the game wasn't worth the candle. . . . It comes down to, am I willing to do something that I detest in order to hold onto a job that I love. And the answer is no."
For Reiner, pulling out of the race may mean the end of a political career that observers once thought could win him the attorney general's office, if not the governorship. But at the same time, quitting could enable Reiner to stage a political comeback by sparing him the embarrassment of what might well have been a resounding defeat.
While he would not rule out a future electoral bid, the 56-year-old Reiner said he has no plans to run for office and has given little thought to what he will do when he leaves the district attorney's post in January.
Despite his withdrawal, Reiner's name will remain on the November ballot; although he said he would like to have it removed, that is not legally permissible, he said. While he did not endorse Garcetti, he made it clear that he expects his opponent to be the next district attorney and said he will ask his staff to work closely with Garcetti to assure an orderly transition.
Photogenic and articulate, with his trademark white hair and baritone voice, Reiner was widely viewed as the bright young star of local politics even before he was elected district attorney in 1984. He appeared to be on the fast track, having jumped from Los Angeles city controller to Los Angeles city attorney to the district attorney's office in less than a decade.
But two terms in a job that can make its occupant a political punching bag have taken their toll on Reiner, an intensely private man who is often lambasted as a media hound. In 1990, he suffered a humiliating loss in the state Democratic primary for attorney general. His office also has lost a string of high-profile cases, including the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, the prosecution of "Twilight Zone" film director John Landis and, most notably, the case of four Los Angeles police officers tried in the Rodney G. King beating.
Controversy has often swirled about the district attorney. The most recent flap involved Reiner's decision to remove a black judge from the highly charged case of three black men accused of beating white truck driver Reginald O. Denny during the riots.
Taking Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn off the case probably cost Reiner all-important support in the black community. During the primary season, the district attorney had worked hard to win that support with repeated attacks on another judge--Joyce A. Karlin--who had sentenced a Korean-born grocer to probation in the killing of a black girl. That case also ensnared Reiner in controversy.
Had Reiner pressed on with the campaign against Garcetti, it would have been an uphill battle. He had trouble raising money during the primary, and Garcetti recently won the endorsement of the county's major labor union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 660. In previous campaigns, labor had been a major source of Reiner's support.
The defection provides evidence of what political observers have been saying for months--that in a year when incumbents are particularly vulnerable, Reiner stood little chance of winning a third term.
In Thursday's interview, Reiner shied away from reflecting on his tenure, saying he might do so at a later time. Nor did he seem inclined to talk about why, or how, his political career got so off track.
"D.A.'s a tough job," he said simply. "You have to make tough decisions. The office of D.A. is not a political office, yet every single action taken by this office is dealt with in a political context, and that creates serious problems. . . . I've enjoyed it immensely. You take a beating, but I wasn't drafted for the job so I've never bellyached about the beatings that you take."
As he spoke, Reiner seemed unusually at ease. Shirt sleeves rolled up, he fiddled with black-rimmed bifocals. At one point, he leaned back in his chair and plopped his feet on his desk--a rare gesture for so formal a man.
He even cracked a joke here and there. Noting that state law permits a candidate's name to be removed from the ballot only when he is dead, and only when the death occurs at least 59 days before the election, Reiner said drolly: "I don't qualify on either count."
The bad blood between Reiner and Garcetti runs deep. Garcetti helped to get Reiner elected in 1984, but Reiner demoted him from his chief deputy post four years later.
During the primary, Garcetti repeatedly lashed out at Reiner, airing radio advertisements in which he asked voters to contribute to his campaign by dialing 1-900-DUMP-IRA. He attacked Reiner for accepting campaign contributions from a commodities broker who allegedly had organized crime connections and was convicted of defrauding clients. By all indications, Garcetti would have run an equally vigorous fall campaign.
Reiner has never explained why he demoted Garcetti, although during the primary campaign he accused Garcetti of authorizing excessive overtime pay for himself. He also took potshots at Garcetti the day after the primary, calling his opponent a "secretive" person who "is not to be trusted in a position of power." At the time, Reiner declined to elaborate on those remarks, saying information would emerge later in the campaign.
Garcetti, who has denied any impropriety, was quick to lash back at Reiner, saying he has "173 spiral notebooks" that he kept while he was Reiner's chief deputy, summarizing conversations with his boss and actions he took. More recently, the 50-year-old career prosecutor, who is on leave from his job as head deputy of the district attorney's Torrance office, opened his personnel file to the press.
The file included an evaluation in which Reiner gave Garcetti the highest marks possible, saying his performance "far exceeds" expectations. The review came in August, 1988, just months before he was demoted.
With the November election less than two months away, Reiner's advisers have been pressing him to launch an attack. On the advice of his campaign manager, Schuyler Sprowles, he went so far as to set up an interview with The Times in which he indicated he would reveal the reason for Garcetti's demotion.
The interview was to take place after a Reiner family trip to the East Coast earlier this month. But it was during that trip, away from the political turmoil of Los Angeles, that Reiner said he decided he could not go through with the campaign.
"I've been putting this off since June," he said. "The interview scheduled for when I got back put a deadline on it."
As of Thursday afternoon, Reiner had shared his decision with only a handful of people--his wife, who is Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne; his chief deputy, Greg Thompson, Sprowles and a few others. He had not even told his secretaries, he said.
Thompson, who is Reiner's closest aide, said the move did not surprise him.
"The talk throughout the office has been, 'When is Ira going to go on the offensive? When is he going to go on the attack? When is this thing going to get down and dirty?' " Thompson said. "In watching those expectations, and in watching him as he saw those expectations rising, I saw someone who truly did not want to wage that kind of campaign. . . .
"I'm sorry to see him exit at this time. On the other hand, I'm glad to see him at peace with himself."
Ira Reiner's Career
Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, a Westside Democrat with ties to Los Angeles' liberal Establishment, rose to political power by attacking a range of targets, from free-spending public officials to industrial polluters, slumlords and police officers who spied on the public. Here are some of the key events in his career:
1973: Runs unsuccessfully for city attorney.
1975: Elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees.
1977: Elected city controller.
1981: Swamps Councilman Bob Ronka in the race for city attorney, with 60% of the vote.
1983: Defeats incumbent Robert H. Philibosian for district attorney.
1984: Sworn in as Los Angeles County's 38th district attorney.
1986: Uses an obscure section of the election code to bring bribery charges against then-Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge) during her U.S. Senate campaign. The charges were later dropped.
Publicly reprimanded by the California State Bar for violating conflict-of-interest rules in 1983 and 1984. He had publicly criticized members of a secret Police Department intelligence unit and launched a criminal investigation of a former city planning director after the director had asked his office for legal advice.
Halts prosecution of five defendants in the McMartin Pre-School case.
1987: Loses the case of film director John Landis and four associates, who were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in the 1982 deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of "Twilight Zone--the Movie."
Attempts to oust a Glendale Municipal Court commissioner for allegedly racist remarks.
1988: Wins reelection as district attorney with nearly 70% of the vote.
1990: Loses a primary race for state attorney general by a 52%-48% margin.
Jury acquits principal McMartin defendant Ray Buckey on most charges in the nationally publicized trial, the longest in the nation's history.
1991: Tries to prevent Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin from hearing criminal cases. Karlin had given probation to Soon Ja Du, a Korean-born grocer convicted of manslaughter in the killing of a black teen-ager.
1992: Unsuccessfully appeals Du's probation sentence.
Successfully prosecutes Charles H. Keating Jr., former chief of the defunct Lincoln Savings & Loan.
Fails to win convictions of four officers in the Rodney G. King beating case.
Removes black Superior Court Judge Roosevelt F. Dorn from the Reginald O. Denny beating case.
Compiled by Times researcher Cecilia Rasmussen