Win or Lose in Next Race, Delgadillo Fixes on Future

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo is a man of ambition. His top aide has suggested that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would make a fine running mate when Delgadillo runs for president. “Team 1600" -- as in Pennsylvania Avenue -- has taken hold as a nickname for Delgadillo’s political advisors. City Hall wisecrackers have hummed “Hail to the Chief” as Delgadillo walked by.

His low-profile job offers scant hope of vaulting Delgadillo straight to the White House. But the 45-year-old Democrat is plotting his political ascent, starting with the June primary for state attorney general that pits him against one of California’s best-known politicians, former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Delgadillo, a former deputy mayor, Century City entertainment lawyer and Harvard University football defensive back, has sized up the Brown family legacy, which spans nearly eight decades of California politics. His conclusion: “Political dynasties seem to be fading away.”

“I want to thank Jerry Brown for his years of service, but I think that the future beckons,” Delgadillo said of his 67-year-old rival.


If the Democratic race indeed shapes up as a contest between California’s past and its future, as Delgadillo hopes, oddsmakers are betting on the past.

“You’d have to say, starting out, that Rocky Delgadillo is probably at a disadvantage,” said Jack Citrin, a political science professor at UC Berkeley.

Brown’s celebrity offers the ex-governor an edge, along with his strength among liberal voters who dominate Democratic primaries. Delgadillo, a stranger to most Californians outside the Los Angeles area, must spend millions on TV ads to compete seriously with Brown. A newcomer to statewide politics, Delgadillo is also facing one of California’s most seasoned candidates. Brown, who is now Oakland’s mayor, ran three times for president, once for the U.S. Senate, twice for governor and once for secretary of state.

In an interview, Brown dismissed Delgadillo’s future-vs.-the-past theme as “vacuous” and “grandiose.”

“You have to have some parameters to that claim, or it’s pretty empty,” Brown said. “You could put that on a bumper sticker, but you couldn’t run the attorney general’s office based on a bumper sticker.”

Yet although Delgadillo’s campaign may be a long shot, analysts see him as a strong contender for higher office and say there is good reason not to write off his candidacy.

He is relatively well known in the state’s most populous region, his Mexican American heritage carries appeal among Latinos statewide, and his job title “sounds pretty good” to voters, said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who is unaligned in the race.

“He has to be taken seriously by Jerry Brown for sure,” Sragow said.

Brown faces his own challenges. Some voters -- particularly in a general election -- could hold misgivings about putting a liberal maverick such as Brown in the state’s top law-enforcement job. Brown’s recent marriage, his first, and his crime-fighting in Oakland have remade his image a bit. But veteran Republican consultant Ken Khachigian said the loft-dwelling mayor still suffers from a “flaky” reputation and a “squishy” record on court appointments, most memorably Rose Bird, the Supreme Court chief justice ousted by voters in 1986.

“Among the old generation, I think he’s got some serious baggage,” said Khachigian, a strategist for Republican attorney general hopeful Chuck Poochigian, a Fresno state senator.

Although Brown’s political life is part of California lore -- the blue Plymouth, a relationship with Linda Ronstadt, his work with Mother Teresa to serve the poor in Calcutta -- he is less familiar to the state’s newer voters, many of them Latino.

Nonetheless, the broad consensus is that the campaign is Brown’s to lose. At the end of June, he was more than $1 million ahead of Delgadillo in the race for money. Brown reported $2.4 million in the bank; Delgadillo had $1.3 million.

To build support among political insiders, Delgadillo has quietly dashed around the state since his reelection in March as city attorney, his first elected office. He has taken trips to San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Monterey, San Diego, Palm Springs, the Inland Empire and Orange County.

In Los Angeles, Delgadillo has tried to raise his public profile, most recently by spotlighting his legal steps against gang violence. The Los Angeles Police Protective League and the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen are backing his campaign.

Delgadillo has stressed consumer protection and environmental cases -- large facets of the attorney general’s job. His latest targets of choice: towing companies that swindle motorists and slumlords who flout lead-paint and vermin laws.

In some areas, Delgadillo has won over critics. His stationing of “neighborhood prosecutors” at police stations around the city has been popular. His negotiating skills are also widely praised. He touts a sharp drop in city liability payments on his watch. Payouts in cases stemming from the Rampart police corruption scandal so far have fallen well short of the initial $125-million projection.

Yet there are bumps in Delgadillo’s record. More than a dozen top lawyers and press advisors have resigned amid widespread grumbling that buffing his image has become a central goal of the city attorney’s office. The agency employs more than 500 lawyers, many of them responsible for such uncelebrated work as drunk driving and speeding ticket cases with no political bang.

The style-over-substance charge surfaced at a recent Delgadillo news conference at a South Los Angeles police station. With 10 television crews taping the event for local news shows, Delgadillo pledged to crack down on gun violence by sending letters to anyone who buys a gun in parts of the San Fernando Valley and South L.A. The letters will remind each gun buyer to get a criminal background check on anyone who later seeks to buy the weapon secondhand.

Some community leaders invited to the event -- billed as “taking guns off the street” -- were baffled by what they saw as its insignificance. “This wasn’t worth my time,” said Ruby Maillian, who serves on the local precinct’s community advisory board.

Bishop Edward Turner, pastor of the nearby Power of Love Christian Fellowship church, called the event “as worthwhile as a grain of salt.”

“You don’t fix the problem by having lights, cameras and action, and you’re smiling and waving at the camera,” he said. “We have children dying in the street. This is a war zone.”

Delgadillo said the letters to gun owners -- signed by him, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton -- were part of a useful “marketing program” to keep criminals from acquiring guns.

In a separate interview, Delgadillo denied ignoring the unglamorous side of his job. He brushed off the resignations from his office, saying it was natural that longtime employees were upset by changes that he made after 16 years under Jim Hahn, his predecessor as city attorney.

“You’re changing a whole culture, and to do that, it’s not comfortable,” Delgadillo said. “But I can tell you it’s good.”

Potentially troublesome for Delgadillo’s campaign is his sparring with Controller Laura Chick, who chose none other than Jerry Brown to swear her in for a second term at Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s inauguration.

“That wasn’t lost on anybody,” said Julie Butcher, who heads the union local for much of the city attorney’s workforce. “It was kind of a slap in the face.”

Chick, whose pursuit of contracting misdeeds dogged Hahn in his failed run for a second mayoral term, has sought to audit Delgadillo’s hiring of outside law firms, including many campaign donors. Delgadillo irked Chick by resisting a comprehensive review, saying it was barred by the City Charter. State auditors, prompted by Chick, have taken over the audit.

In framing his campaign, Delgadillo -- whose given name is Rockard -- describes himself as someone who beats the odds, starting with his admission to Harvard after growing up in the Highland Park area of northeast Los Angeles.

“A lot of the kids I grew up with didn’t make it, and I was lucky,” said Delgadillo, who now lives in Windsor Village with his wife, Michelle, and their two sons, Christian, 4, and Preston, 1.

After earning a law degree at Columbia University, Delgadillo went to work in the Century City entertainment unit of O’Melveny & Myers, where he handled legal matters for Burt Reynolds, Morgan Fairchild and Shirley Temple.

In one case, he assisted in Temple’s fight to stop bottlers from marketing a version of the drink that is named after her.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a senior partner at the firm, became a mentor. Christopher, who swore in Delgadillo for his second term, co-chairs Delgadillo’s campaign for attorney general.

At Christopher’s urging, Delgadillo left the firm after the 1992 riots, triggered by the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating, to oversee business development at Rebuild L.A., the organization set up to marshal the city’s recovery.

Mayor Richard Riordan later hired Delgadillo as deputy mayor in charge of economic development. Riordan, who also backs Delgadillo for attorney general, described him as a charismatic leader who has turned the city attorney’s office into “a very professional operation.”

“I must admit, at first I wasn’t overly impressed with him, but he kept growing and growing and growing,” Riordan said.

Delgadillo hopes his come-from-behind victory in the 2001 race for city attorney over the favorite, City Councilman Mike Feuer, will serve as a template for his race against Brown.

Even if Delgadillo loses, the media exposure could prove valuable in his next campaign, since Brown’s candidacy is apt to put spark into a race that could otherwise be lost in the shadow of the gubernatorial contest. (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is weighing whether to seek a second term.)

“I don’t see what you have to lose here, politically,” said Mark Petracca, who heads the political science department at UC Irvine. “Because even if you lose, you win.”