Under surface, 2 rivals aren't smiling

Times Staff Writers

Theirs is a classic Los Angeles political rivalry -- rarely discussed in public but obvious to all who are close, alluded to with raised eyebrows and snickering asides, laced with ethnicity and thick with practical implications, most recently in the spirited debate over a lawsuit that led to the fire chief's resignation.

Rocky Delgadillo has the resume and upbringing -- Harvard undergraduate, Columbia Law School, tutelage at one of Los Angeles' most prestigious law firms -- and in fact was first over the barrier, in 2001, when he became the first Latino of the modern era to win citywide office in Los Angeles.

Antonio Villaraigosa is the scrappier contender -- a far more obscure legal education and an embarrassing record of failing the bar exam -- but he leapfrogged the city attorney to become mayor in 2005 and has since left Delgadillo in his dust.

At one time, it was Delgadillo who was said to harbor state and national ambitions. Today, when commentators speculate on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, it is Villaraigosa who's cited as a front-runner; Delgadillo is not so much as mentioned.

That's fine by Villaraigosa, because though they make nice in public, Los Angeles' mayor and city attorney in fact do not think much of each other -- Villaraigosa's friends tend to see Delgadillo as a dunderhead with no touch for politics, while Delgadillo's camp views Villaraigosa as an egocentric opportunist.

None of that is obvious from their public remarks. Villaraigosa declines to criticize Delgadillo in front of reporters, and Delgadillo reciprocates. "I have great respect for Antonio and consider him a friend and ally," he said recently.

The records suggest otherwise. During the first 10 months of 2006, Villaraigosa's schedule shows that he had 14 meetings and two dinners with City Council President Eric Garcetti. He met 19 times with Police Chief William J. Bratton and six times with Controller Laura Chick. Those same schedules show not one meeting with Delgadillo through Nov. 1, though the two did meet for dinner at the restaurant A.O.C. on Nov. 12, where they were spotted in serious, even grim, conversation.

Some tension between a mayor and city attorney is natural: Richard Riordan, an accomplished lawyer and venture capitalist when he became mayor in 1993, tended to view then-City Atty. James K. Hahn with something close to contempt.

In the Villaraigosa-Delgadillo relationship, once-competing ambitions and some early elbowing for position helped cement an animus.

"When you have a situation where you have shared political horizons, political ambitions, some people might think there is only room for so many big dogs in the same yard," said Dominick Rubalcava, a Delgadillo supporter and former city commissioner.

Robert Hunt, general counsel to the union that represents deputy city attorneys, puts it more bluntly. "It clearly seems like an icy relationship," he said of the interactions between Villaraigosa and Delgadillo. "They are not natural allies."

Rarely have Villaraigosa and Delgadillo come down the same way in a significant political race. They both first ran for citywide office in 2001, when Villaraigosa was beaten by Hahn but Delgadillo won, aided by prominent backers such as Riordan, Magic Johnson and former Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

Riordan, whom Delgadillo served as a deputy mayor, continues to admire his former aide. In an interview last week, Riordan commended Delgadillo's intelligence and called both him and Villaraigosa "great public servants."

When Villaraigosa ran for council in 2003, Delgadillo supported the incumbent, Nick Pacheco. Villaraigosa won and used his new position to challenge the city attorney. Villaraigosa, for instance, insisted that the council play a greater role in reviewing Delgadillo's contracts with outside law firms and complained that without it, "there doesn't seem to be any control or accountability."

Two years later, when Villaraigosa ran for mayor, Delgadillo not only refused to endorse him but, according to Villaraigosa campaign officials, urged other leading Angelenos to stay away as well. Again, Villaraigosa won.

Then, when Delgadillo launched an ill-advised campaign for state attorney general against Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who served as governor in the 1970s and '80s, Villaraigosa declined to say whom he favored. And it was Villaraigosa's campaign consultant, Ace Smith, whom Brown hired to put Delgadillo in his place.

Smith did the job. Brown beat Delgadillo by 26 percentage points, a walloping that reinforced questions about both Delgadillo's judgment and his capability as a campaigner.

The two Los Angeles officials' sparring hasn't been confined to the campaign trail. One of Villaraigosa's first moves as mayor was to create a position of general counsel to the mayor, appointing Thomas Saenz to that post. Observers interpreted that as a lack of confidence in the city attorney's office, an impression that has deepened in the months since then.

Delgadillo was miffed when Newsweek put Villaraigosa on its cover, according to a member of Delgadillo's staff. And then, during a strike by the city's Engineers and Architects Assn. last fall, Villaraigosa fumed at what he and his aides considered Delgadillo's poor handling of a key legal matter: Attorneys in Delgadillo's office did not see that some potential strikers had been personally served a court order to work, leaving the court little leverage to later punish those workers for contempt.

Tensions bubbled over again two weeks ago, when Villaraigosa vetoed a settlement deal negotiated by Delgadillo's staff in order to resolve a lawsuit by a firefighter who claimed to be a victim of harassment and discrimination. The veto, Villaraigosa's first after more than a year in office, rejected the agreement to pay the former firefighter $2.7 million.

That veto was ostensibly made in defense of city taxpayers, but Villaraigosa aides acknowledge it was made sweeter by the chance to take a swipe at Delgadillo's handling of the matter. Indeed, those close to Villaraigosa chortled further when they got word last week that Delgadillo was out of town, studying Spanish in Mexico while the council debated whether to uphold the veto. Fire Chief William Bamattre announced Friday he would resign, effective Jan. 1.

If Villaraigosa distrusts Delgadillo, he apparently is not alone. Indeed, Delgadillo has struggled in recent months in relation to most of the city's political elite.

He crossed the City Council on its proposal for easing term limits and then angered council members again with his office's handling of the firefighter matter. So fed up are some council members that they are exploring splitting the city attorney's office into two, one for representing the city, the other for prosecuting misdemeanors -- an idea Riordan endorsed during the debates over charter reform but which Hahn successfully fought off.

The council has signaled its unhappiness with Delgadillo in other ways. It has begun the process of hiring its own lawyer, and individual members have occasionally dipped into their budgets to bring on attorneys to advise them, rather than relying on Delgadillo's staff.

Even Police Chief Bratton in effect has hired his own lawyer, installing longtime attorney Gerald Chaleff as a member of his command staff.

Given all that, Villaraigosa supporters argue that the mayor's unhappiness with Delgadillo says less about their history than it does about the city attorney today.

Take, for instance, Councilman Jack Weiss. Weiss, a Villaraigosa ally who plans to run for Delgadillo's job in two years -- term limits prevent Delgadillo from running again -- spent his own office money to hire a lawyer to review plans for modernization of LAX because he was skeptical of the advice he was receiving from city lawyers. His outside counsel contradicted the city attorney, Weiss said. In recent weeks, Weiss has complained again, this time about the city attorney's handling of the firefighter case.

"The most important thing you need in an office like that is management at the top that is focused on purely legal and policy considerations," Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, said last week. "When political considerations enter into legal advice or the management of a public legal office, it only makes things worse."

Riordan, who supported Villaraigosa for mayor as well as Delgadillo for city attorney, has taken a more neutral stance.

"I just think they're two very different people," Riordan said. "For the good of the city, they've got to work together."

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jim.newton@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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