By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Rocky Delgadillo was a long way from home, but not in unfamiliar territory, when he was spotted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one Friday last October, wearing an overcoat and buying T-shirts at a Harvard University bookstore. The Los Angeles city attorney was attending alumni-association meetings at his alma mater and hoped to catch a football game the next day. He was accompanied by one of his top deputies.
Delgadillo seemed surprised to be recognized in Harvard Square as L.A.’s top lawyer, rather than as a former All-American football player — honorable mention, that is. He chatted easily about the Ivy League mystique, and about how he always thought they should let in more people of color. He grew more earnest when an L.A.-based reporter — who was as surprised as Delgadillo was at the chance meeting — reminded him of his pledge to beef up oversight of the Department of Water and Power, and asked if he was concerned about news reports pointing to fraud and waste at the troubled utility. He replied that a “forensic investigative” unit allowed him to be proactive in rooting out problems.
As Delgadillo fielded questions, sweat beads were forming on his deputy’s upper lip. The more Delgadillo spoke, the more sweat appeared on the deputy’s lip. Delgadillo was unfazed. “I’ll just keep turning over stones and deal with whatever crawls out,” he said cheerily. “That’s why they call me ‘Rocky.’ ”
The 45-year-old Delgadillo has used his name to invoke many images during an upstart political career and his current bid for state attorney general: Rocky the fighter, Rocky the underdog, Rocky the protector. But Rocky the digger? Such cheesiness, offered without embarrassment or irony, raised the questions that have hounded him since he was elected in 2001: Who is this guy? And who is helping him craft his image?
The city attorney wears many hats, advising some city officials, defending others, while prosecuting misdemeanors, gang injunctions and environmental crimes. In Delgadillo, law firms and corporations see a prudent legal counsel who knows when to turn to the private sector for help. His cadre of operatives, with its ties to the Democratic Party, Richard Riordan, Warren Christopher and the firm O’Melveny & Myers, sees him as the second coming. Local prosecutors question whether he is one of them, or whether he’s what some might call a “press-conference prosecutor.” Some unionized assistant city attorneys in what had become a decrepit public law office think he’s a creep with no regard for fairness or the law. Former top deputies insist that quality civil servants — adults who can accept adult decisions — respect him for trying to upgrade the office.
None of these perspectives resolves the various personal images he projects, leading to frequent speculation that he’s an empty suit, propped up by corporate clout and money and a personal story with holes in it. Is he a well-meaning cornball, one who exploits his name? Or is he — as a recent news story suggests — a shameless phony, a guy who fudges his résumé? Or is he a talented, hard-working guy who is not afraid to do the difficult things that might piss people off? If it’s the last, then how does such an inspiring figure, with a folkloric political rise and obvious personal charm, become so misunderstood? To answer that question, some legal and political observers have suggested it is time to look at the people Rocky has relied upon in his ascent.
The Delgadillo story is almost legend. His upbringing and résumé sound so promising: son of a JPL engineer who grows up in Highland Park, an athletic standout who sees violence in his community, a scholarship ride to Harvard, then Columbia Law School, and a stint as an entertainment lawyer at O’Melveny, where he catches the eye of Christopher, his mentor. He watches L.A. burn in the riots of 1992, and he decides to devote his life to public service. He becomes a deputy mayor under Riordan and is anointed as the Great Brown Hope with an Ivy League pedigree. He surprises former City Councilman Mike Feuer in the city attorney’s race in 2001, and all of a sudden, officials in City Hall, in an era of term limits, political paranoia and insecurity, have a comer to keep their eyes on.
But he works hard, is not afraid to toot his own horn and earns respect, at least in some halls of power. “Once you get close to Rocky, you see how diligent and hard-working he is,” says state Senator Gil Cedillo, who appreciates Delgadillo’s support for immigrant driver’s licenses and his involvement in homeless issues downtown. “He’s worked hard his whole life, and no one has given him anything. No one can challenge that about him. He has led an extraordinary life and is extraordinarily committed.”
Delgadillo shakes up the City Attorney’s Office by bringing in top talent from big law firms and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The move sparks rancor among rank-and-file attorneys who feel pushed aside and invites scorn over perceived favoritism. He develops a reputation as a novice beholden to Riordan operatives, such as former deputy mayors Ann D’Amato and Jennifer Krieger — a pair of savvy nonlawyers who serve as his closest advisers. Some are impressed with his desire to improve the office, though his administrative and personnel changes prompt assistant city attorneys to become part of a union. The cost of outside law firms — many of them his political contributors — rises sharply, but the costs of legal settlements decrease. He increases gang injunctions and develops a well-received neighborhood-prosecutor program.