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L.A. Lawyer 

The insiders’ race for city attorney

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
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It’s the end of an epoch in the Los Angeles City Attorney‘s Office.

James Hahn, having held that office for what could be a record four terms, must now leave. And now it’s someone else‘s turn to be elected city lawyer.

But whose? While it’s the second-highest city elective office, its low-six-figure salary reduces the job‘s allure to most prestige lawyers. Which may be why Hahn has only once in the past 16 years faced a serious challenger. Back in 1985, Hahn prevailed in a wide, wild-swinging race. But the field is narrower now, with two major City Hall--based contenders and a qualified third choice from the county prosecutor’s office.

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The insider sparring match is between 5th District Councilman Mike Feuer -- who two years ago became the first to enter the race to succeed Hahn -- and Rocky Delgadillo, the mayor‘s development deputy. Two ambitious men around 40, each possibly seeing the job as the crucial step toward the Mayor’s Office. The ”outsider“ is county prosecutor Lea Purwin D‘Agostino.

But there’s a partisan element at work here too. The two de facto Los Angeles political parties might as well be called the Mayoral and the Councilar.

That‘s the way this election has shaped up, particularly in the Controller’s Office (where the mayor‘s last-minute pick was neophyte Laurette Healey to run against termed-out Council member Laura Chick) and in the city-attorney race, where Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo looks like Dick Riordan’s best chance to leave behind someone sharing his singular outlook to watch over city government.

Mike Feuer, on the other hand, represents the best that the current City Council has to offer. His general fairness and intelligence have remained unquestioned over his six-year tenure. And he has an eye for the jugular when it comes to the hot-button issues that can push even the mayor‘s race out of the evening news. A ban on pocket handguns, for instance, which late last month engendered a spread of daily news events over most of a week. It followed a monthslong series of local gun-control measures ranging from an ordinance limiting ammunition capacity to another requiring trigger locks.

”Actually, the soundbites and press conferences are easy,“ Feuer says. ”It’s the behind-the-scenes work that makes these [ideas] come to fruition.“

Other accomplishments haven‘t received the same amount of press as his gun-control ordinances. But things like gender equity in a sports-field-access measure, for instance, or broadly extending senior meal programs, and the saving of old and the creation of new rental housing stock, are accomplishments that have probably reached far more people than gun control has.

”I know what I want to do,“ Feuer says, noting that he’s the only candidate who has actually supervised attorneys. He was head of Bet Tzedek, the Jewish public-interest law project, for eight years. And what he wants to do as city attorney includes some innovative projects, including a so-called ”community courts“ plan that would accomplish for misdemeanor jurisprudence what the pending neighborhood-council system hopes to do for local government: put community concerns at the fore. Local panels would suggest punishments the community desires for such matters as prostitution, graffiti scrawling and vandalism. In proposing such a system, Feuer could be running head-on against the adamantine county justice establishment. But he says, ”Everyone thinks the court system is totally ineffective when it comes to community needs.“

Feuer was a strong supporter of police reform before the Rampart mess. He‘s stood behind the consent decree all the way. Like mayoral candidate Joel Wachs, he says that while the department needs to be revamped, the police have to feel they can do their job. ”Reform is necessary for public safety; there’s no dichotomy.“ His endorsers include U.S. Representatives Henry Waxman and Hilda Solis.

Lea Purwin D‘Agostino’s main credential is that she‘s been a public prosecutor for nearly 25 years. Never anything else: ”No one is holding any chits out there,“ she declares. Like Feuer, she has some big ideas, particularly, ”I want to rebuild public confidence in the justice system.“

The city attorney has prosecutorial and civil functions, while also representing various city officials. But obviously, the prosecutorial function most appeals to her. ”I actually see myself in court [sometimes], prosecuting cases myself,“ she says. She also anticipates settling the hundreds of pending Rampart cases: ”This is an area in which I have tremendous experience,“ something she contends her opponents lack. ”I know which to settle and which to fight.“

D’Agostino also claims superiority in ”life experience.“ Unlike her Harvard-grad opponents, she ”started working at 13,“ finished high school at 16, and dropped out of Northwestern University before ultimately graduating from the University of West Los Angeles School of Law in 1976. Her only job since graduating has been with the D.A.‘s Office, where her aggressive tactics and high conviction rate earned her the nickname ”The Dragon Lady.“ Ironically, what haunts her is the big one she lost -- the ”Twilight Zone“ case of the mid-1980s. Charged in connection with the deaths of two children and screen veteran Vic Morrow in a predawn movie-set accident, director John Landis and a gaggle of co-defendants were finally acquitted.

”Celebrity status is a difficult thing to overcome,“ she now observes, agreeing that the case was an O.J. predecessor. ”Only I didn’t get $4 million out of it like Marcia Clark did.“ She knew she was in trouble when her own investigators went begging for the defendants‘ autographs. She also recalls her groundbreaking 1978 work restructuring rape laws to favor victims. ”No one else wanted to do it,“ she explains. She blames her opponents for the LAPD dysfunction that created Rampart. In addition to supporting the consent decree, she’d attack a long-running city abuse: workers‘ compensation costs that have dramatically increased over the past 16 years.

Rocky Delgadillo sees his background as a mayoral expert on communities and development, as well as an intellectual-property lawyer for one of the nation’s most prestigious firms, as perfect preparation for a city-attorney career. Yet his opponents assail him for stressing school programs that are not the city attorney‘s prime responsibility. He responds that the city does get to offer after-school programs, and that ”School is the great equalizer. The quality of life is every official’s responsibility.“ While his prime supporter, Dick Riordan, had problems with that federal police consent decree, Delgadillo sees it ”as a real opportunity to bring some much-needed reforms to the LAPD and improve things for the cops who are doing a good job already.“ Like D‘Agostino, he lays some blame for Rampart at Feuer’s door, while asserting that as mayor‘s deputy, ”I focused on development like a laser beam.“ This statement, however, suggests that he had little to do with the police issues that will pervade the new city attorney’s first term.

Even so, Delgadillo is endorsed by Warren Christopher, who was chairman of O‘Melveny & Myers when Delgadillo was a rising star at the firm. He also speaks of curbing city-attorney ”prosecutorial abuses“ that may have contributed to the Rampart problems, and ”building back our credibility“ in the face of what he sees as ”a reversal of trust“ in the LAPD. He’d continue the department‘s anti-gang injunction programs, but believes ”nothing stops a bullet like a job.“ His conviction here probably reflects his background as a poor Eastside kid who studied his way to Harvard and got a plum position with O’Melveny & Myers. Even Feuer agrees that Delgadillo ”has a great story.“

Delgadillo is also, like Feuer, well-financed -- close to the near-million-dollar limit for his race. The most controversial aspect of this financing is the $115,000 worth of billboards donated by a billboard company that is apparently nonplused at Feuer‘s sign ordinances -- although the company insists it is merely supporting its preferred candidate. D’Agostino, on the other hand, has raised barely $300,000, including matching funds. Her best hope is to make a runoff.

Otherwise, the race is between the two City Hall vets. And the two City Hall political styles.

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