Rocky: the Great Latino Hope

Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Sometimes political journalists get ahead of themselves and start writing about the next campaign, even before all the dust has settled from the last one they covered. The latest target of this well-meaning but overwrought reporting is Los Angeles' new city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo.

He's the other Latino who was running for citywide office in the June 5 election, of course.

A 40-year-old lawyer from northeast Los Angeles who oversaw outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan's economic development team, Delgadillo was largely forgotten amid all the attention focused on the failed candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa.

That's understandable, given that Villaraigosa was trying to become the city's first Latino mayor since 1872.

Truth be told, during much of the campaign Delgadillo was even overshadowed by his better-known opponent, City Councilman Mike Feuer, from the politically potent Westside.

All that changed after Delgadillo surprised everyone by getting 52% of the votes for city attorney. That made him the first Latino to win a citywide election since 1967, when Julian Nava won a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education. (The school board was elected at-large back then.)

In fairness to my colleagues in the news media, they are just trying to catch up on a story that was underplayed in the days leading up to the election. Public opinion polls, including one conducted by the Los Angeles Times 10 days before the election, showed Feuer with a 9-point lead. But a late surge of Latino voters who came to the polls hoping to make history by electing Villaraigosa wound up casting their ballots for Delgadillo too.

Que sorpresa!, as folks say on the Eastside.

But not really. Anyone aware of the get-out-the-vote drive that Villaraigosa's supporters mounted on his behalf could have anticipated that it would also help Delgadillo.

For now, Delgadillo surely likes all the attention he's getting. But he may yet long for the relative obscurity he had before June 5.

He won't even be sworn into office until next month and he's already being billed as the anti-Antonio--the Latino politician most likely to succeed where Villaraigosa failed.

Worse, some local pundits have decreed that he is the Great Latino Hope that the city's business elite have been desperate for since it became clear L.A.'s demographic future included a Latino majority.

Folks who once talked about Villaraigosa as another Tom Bradley, recalling how the city's first black mayor built a broad coalition that reached beyond the African American community, are now saying similar things about Delgadillo.

Of course, they're harkening back to another facet of Bradley's legacy--one Villaraigosa's liberal supporters often overlook.

Bradley was a pro-business mayor who never met an urban renewal project he didn't like. And the most visible things that Bradley left Los Angeles are lots of downtown skyscrapers and a small but very expensive subway.

All this is quite a burden to saddle Delgadillo with before he's even found out where his new City Hall parking space will be.

If Delgadillo is half as smart as his resume indicates (undergraduate at Harvard University, law degree from Columbia University and eight years with a powerful downtown law firm), however, he'll ignore the hype and focus on running the city attorney's office for a while.

He'll have plenty to keep him busy there, starting with the consent decree the city recently signed with the U.S. Justice Department as a result of corruption scandals and persistent civil rights problems in the Los Angeles Police Department.

A cynic could say that a lax attitude toward the LAPD's problems over the last dozen years did not prevent outgoing City Atty. James K. Hahn from becoming the city's new mayor.

But Hahn was at least smart enough to urge a consent decree toward the end of his tenure over the vocal objections of Riordan and LAPD Chief Bernard Parks.

Now it's up to Delgadillo to make sure the consent decree is implemented, and that the LAPD is shown once and for all that civilians run the new Los Angeles.

And here I would remind Delgadillo of a precedent he won't find comforting.

Does anyone besides me remember the hot-shot Latina attorney who Riordan put on the city's Police Commission after he became mayor in 1993?

Edith R. Perez had lawyerly smarts and the connections of a prestigious law firm too. Any political ambitions she had, however, crashed to Earth when it became obvious how clueless she and other police commissioners had been as the Rampart Division scandal festered.

So let folks speculate all they want about Delgadillo's bright political future. My advice for him is to mind his Ps and Qs. Or, to be more precise, to mind his LAPDs.

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