Sixteen days after voters went to the polls, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti was pronounced the victor Thursday over challenger John Lynch, reelected by a margin of about 5,000 votes out of 2.2 million cast, election officials said.
In a verdict that reflected the split in public opinion over whether the first-term incumbent was to blame for the failed prosecution of the O.J. Simpson murder case, Garcetti inched ahead in counting Thursday by 471 more votes, padding his margin to 4,818 with no more than 2,000 to be counted.
The victory cements Garcetti's place in local political and prosecutorial lore. With a massive, million-dollar TV ad campaign attacking the little-known Lynch, Garcetti rebounded from a poor showing in the March primary and disproved the political pundits' prognostications that Los Angeles County voters were inclined to turn out an incumbent district attorney who lost high-profile cases.
But having won, Garcetti now faces a stiff challenge. He presides over an office deeply divided. Indeed, at the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Garcetti's detractors were already whispering in the halls their snide new nickname for him: "Landslide."
"I have no congratulations for Mr. Garcetti," said Steve Cooley, an ardent Lynch supporter who heads the San Fernando branch office.
For Cooley and other Lynch backers, passions remain high over the television ad blitz that Garcetti unleashed in the weeks before the election.
It consisted of a sole attack spot, shown over and over in the three weeks before the Nov. 5 election, that made virtually no reference to Garcetti. Rather, it focused on Lynch, a deputy district attorney for 19 years, who heads the Norwalk branch office.
The ad featured a photo of Lynch, which faded into a psychedelic X-ray of sorts, as an announcer commented on the challenger's role in the McMartin preschool case and the prosecution of financier Charles H. Keating Jr.
Lynch supporters said the ads misled voters about Lynch's supervisory role in those two emotionally charged cases.
"It's unfortunate that the district attorney, a person who is supposed to be the model for truth and justice, had to lie in his campaign advertising to be reelected," said Peter Bozanich, who heads the Compton branch office.
He added: "It's a very bad example for the prosecution to have to win at any cost."
In a vivid illustration of the tensions in the Garcetti and Lynch camps, the challenger refused Thursday to concede. Without that concession, Garcetti declined to say he won.
It remains unclear whether Lynch will pursue an expensive recount.
Neither candidate made a public appearance or granted an interview Thursday. Lynch's campaign manager, Rick Taylor, said the challenger will issue a statement today. A Garcetti aide said the incumbent would meet the press only after Lynch concedes or all ballots are tallied.
Many deputies said they were eager to hear what Garcetti has to say. Political analysts concurred.
"When you're in a public office, you want people to be able to freely express themselves because that's the right thing," said John K. Van de Kamp, the former district attorney and state attorney general.
"At the same time, it's a bitterly divisive time. There are bitter factions. And this is worse than at any time in memory."
He added: "There are very decent people on the other side of the fence that Gil is going to have to reach out to, going to have to get a fresh start with. These kinds of things are never easy because most of us are stubborn. It will be interesting to see what he does."
In the March primary, Lynch, 50, a first-time candidate, emerged from a pack of five challengers with 21% of the vote, forcing a runoff with Garcetti, who won the primary with 37%.
Throughout the summer and fall, Lynch reprised much the same strategy that Garcetti used four years ago to unseat then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. He accused him of being unable to win the big cases.
For Reiner, that meant cases including that of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King. For Garcetti, it was the murder trial of football great Simpson, acquitted in October, 1995.
Garcetti, 55, repeatedly urged voters to look beyond the Simpson case.
He emphasized his commitment to initiatives to combat gang activity and domestic violence, saying that the district attorney must be an activist in the area of crime prevention. Lynch said the job does not call for such activism.
Garcetti worked unrelentingly at what insiders call "retail campaigning," making as many as two dozen appearances a week at churches, Rotary Club lunches and community events. He also received the endorsements of dozens of elected officials.
Most important, he raised millions of dollars--and spent $1.05 million in the general election on television and radio advertising.
"It was a case of money overcoming the stigma of the O.J. Simpson loss," said Dick Rosengarten, editor of California Political Week.
He added: "O.J. had his dream team. Garcetti had his dream team, too. It was a one-person dream team by the name of Bill Carrick, who produced one of the most negative but effective television ads in the annals of Los Angeles politics."
Carrick, who also served as senior advisor to President Clinton's reelection campaign in California, said Thursday of the advertisement: "I had a simple theory. To the extent people had a negative feeling, a hangover [because] of O.J., it was communicated by television primarily. I thought we had to go back to the same medium."
Lynch raised money to buy intermittent TV time and captured some key newspaper endorsements.
After election night, Garcetti emerged with a 6,836-vote lead.
According to a computerized breakdown of votes cast election day, Lynch ran strongly in various suburbs, including the South Bay--where he lives--and in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.
Garcetti won the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Lynch won the council district that includes Brentwood--where Garcetti and Simpson both live and where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed in June 1994.
Lynch won the 11th Council district, which includes Brentwood, 36,954 to 31,689. As absentee and provisional ballots were counted, Lynch at one point last week whittled Garcetti's margin down to 3,165. But he got no further.
A provisional ballot is given at a polling place to people who insist that they have a right to vote but have no proof of registration. It is tallied only when election officials confirm its validity, Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack has said.
As the tallying continued, Garcetti increased his lead last Friday to 3,446. On Tuesday, he extended it to 4,347 votes.
The count Thursday involved 11,973 ballots. All but 808 were provisional ballots, according to the registrar-recorder's office.
Garcetti got 5,390 votes, or 52.28%. Lynch got 4,919, or 47.72%.
The totals do not add up to 11,973 because not all ballots include a vote for district attorney.
Including Thursday's results, the current totals are: Garcetti, 1,123,583, or 50.11%. Lynch, 1,118,765, or 49.89%.
"Someone was asking me to declare it over," McCormack said Thursday. "It's mathematically impossible [for Lynch]. I prefer that way of putting it. We don't have enough votes left to count to overcome [Garcetti's] 4,818-vote lead."
Another update--expected to be the final bulletin--is due today, officials said. Under law, all ballots must be counted by Tuesday.
Staff writer Ann W. O'Neill contributed to this story.