D.A.'s Race Shapes Up as a Bitter Fight to the Finish

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You thought Bush vs. McCain was nasty?

Try Garcetti vs. Cooley. The two opponents in the runoff for Los Angeles County district attorney woke up Wednesday full of vitriol and launched the sort of bitter, personal attacks on each other that could scorch the political landscape between now and November.

"Under Gil Garcetti," challenger Steve Cooley said hoarsely at a news conference, "money talks and felons walk, and that will end when I'm district attorney of Los Angeles County.

"Mr. Cooley," Garcetti told reporters at his office a short time later, "is simply a disgruntled employee who is very unhappy that I never promoted him. Well, he's gotten what he deserved."

That, apparently, was a chance to go mano a mano with the boss.

Final unofficial ballot results showed Cooley, head of the district attorney's welfare fraud unit, finishing ahead of Garcetti by slightly less than 6,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast. In percentage terms, he outpolled Garcetti 37.9% to 37.5%.

Environmental attorney Barry Groveman, who spent the most money on the primary campaign and ran the only television advertising, trailed with 24.6%.

The results amounted to a striking vote of no confidence in Garcetti, who won reelection four years ago by a bare 5,000 votes. That campaign was against a badly underfunded candidate, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch, who spent just over $400,000 to Garcetti's $2.4 million. Cooley has already equaled Lynch's fund-raising totals and expects to raise an additional $500,000 to $750,000 in the general election campaign.

"Money will not be the problem," Cooley campaign consultant Joe Scott said.

If that worries Garcetti and his campaign manager, neither was showing it Wednesday. At a news conference, Garcetti appeared calm and confident, not to mention combative. He said he hopes to raise as much money in the general election as he did in the primary--about $1 million. And he said he expects to win.

"I feel good," he said with a broad smile. "We are back in better shape than we were four years ago.

During the primary, Garcetti had refused to debate his opponents and held back on campaign advertising. He acknowledged Wednesday that he had been told by advisors that he stood little chance of avoiding a runoff, and therefore saved his resources for the general election.

But with the primary behind him, he said, he is ready to debate Cooley "as often as he wants," and said he already committed himself to one debate, on public radio, in the fall.

Offering a glimpse of what that debate might sound like, he said it would allow him to ask voters, "Is this what you want in a district attorney? Someone who doesn't believe in crime prevention? Someone who wants to go back to the 1950s, in terms of being that type of D.A. where you sit in your chair waiting for the cases to come to you?"

He said he would let voters know that "Mr. Cooley is an ultraconservative Republican--he's a partisan individual. . . . Mr. Cooley would take it back to the '50s in many respects, including partisan politics."

Asked to elaborate, he continued: "He puts the arm on judges, the arm on deputy D.A.s. . . . he compromises his very integrity to do that."

Cooley, a registered Republican who once campaigned for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, has taken contributions from judges and deputy district attorneys. He has defended the practice, saying he views it as a vote of confidence from his professional peers.

He and Garcetti have a history of bad blood that dates at least to 1996, when Cooley supported Lynch. After the election, Cooley was transferred against his will from a position as head of the prestigious San Fernando Valley branch of the district attorney's office to the relative obscurity of the welfare fraud unit. His successes there later brought him national attention.

As he has done repeatedly, he said Wednesday that the Rampart police scandal was the main issue in the race, and that it demonstrated Garcetti's failure to exercise "prosecutorial oversight"--in other words, to keep an eye on the police department and uncover corruption.

He ridiculed the notion that Garcetti can take credit for a dramatic drop in crime during his tenure in office. "Mr. Garcetti will say crime is down and try to take credit for it. Well, I will tell you, public corruption is up, and I lay that at Mr. Garcetti's feet.'

Referring to accusations that Garcetti has displayed favoritism to campaign contributors, Cooley said, "Mr. Garcetti has put this office up for sale in many different ways over the past eight years. And I think that when deputy D.A.s see their leader engaging in some of the conduct he's engaged in--very serious ethical lapses, to say the least--that creates a bad culture."

He referred specifically to Garcetti taking $15,000 in campaign contributions last year from Lockheed Martin IMS employees a month before the prosecutor's office recommended that the company get an extra $2.5 million for running the county's child support computer system.

"That makes us all look like we're on the take," he said. "I think that's got to stop."

Cooley characterized the vote Tuesday as a referendum on Garcetti, noting that 62.5% of the electorate had voted for one of the two challengers. Garcetti's campaign consultant, Bill Carrick, said the primary worked to Garcetti's disadvantage because it split the vote three ways and brought out a more conservative, Republican electorate than usual. That won't be the case in November, he said.

One small factor could be Groveman's endorsement, which he has not yet announced. He said Wednesday that he expected to make a decision by the end of the week.

Cooley said he spoke to Groveman on Wednesday and planned to meet with him later in the week.

For Cooley, the atmosphere was heady in the aftermath of his strong showing Tuesday. During the primary campaign, he struggled to get attention from the news media. He was lucky to get a single television station to cover his news conferences; he rarely spoke to groups of more than four or five reporters.

On Wednesday, he faced a sea of cameras, microphones and reporters at a news conference at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.

Garcetti infuriated the Cooley campaign last weekend by sending out last-minute mailings accusing Cooley of being soft on the three-strikes law.

Cooley and his staff--who insist Cooley supports three strikes--thought it was a low blow, and were further incensed by Garcetti's claim in one mailing that he had been endorsed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League. He hadn't, they insisted.

Jeffrey Garfield, a spokesman for the league, confirmed Wednesday that the organization had endorsed Garcetti in the primary. And Garcetti campaign consultant Carrick laughed off the complaint.

"They're in a furor over that?" he said. "If they're in a furor over this, tell them to get . . . some serious sedatives and a seat belt, because there's going to be a lot more turbulence between now and November."

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