Empty Feeling

Los Angeles
April 2007

Long before he was elected city attorney of Los Angeles, Rockard J. Delgadillo knew the Avenues gang. His father had grown up on their Highland Park turf. Young Rocky had his own violent encounter with them when some Avenues jumped him at Irving Junior High, in a remote corner of the campus where the gifted-program kids ate lunch away from the rough crowd. He remembered that day, he says, when he drove past the school recently on his way to close down the gang’s technology-fortified headquarters in nearby Glassell Park. News crews captured Delgadillo pointing out the home’s surveillance cameras and anti-intrusion laser system. He savored the moment when workers boarded up the windows. “You better be careful who you pick on,” he said later, sounding triumphant.

Attacking gang violence is in vogue right now. For Delgadillo, appearing tough on homies also amounts to a strategic plan for resuscitating his flagging political aspirations. No doubt he believes the gang plague needs to be stopped. But watching him barrel from one media opportunity to another, it’s hard not to believe that the tall, square-jawed lawyer is equally determined to change the conversation about himself.

Being pummeled during last year’s run for statewide office—even by as accomplished a master as Jerry Brown—was a humbling experience for someone as nakedly ambitious as Delgadillo. In his case, the damage only exacerbated his image problem at home.

The 46-year-old Delgadillo once represented the Great Latino Hope of the downtown establishment. In 2001, he became the first Mexican American elected citywide in modern times, arriving at city hall the same year that voters slapped down Antonio Villaraigosa’s opening bid to be mayor. Both men came out of the hilly working-class communities east of the L.A. River and have life stories with cinematic touches. While Villaraigosa struggled in high school before getting his act together, Delgadillo put himself on a path to the Ivy League. His father worked as a JPL engineer and moved the family to the leafier Eagle Rock side of Highland Park. Rocky attended his dad’s alma mater, Franklin High, where he lettered in four sports and became student body president. At Harvard he played defensive back on the football team, then followed up with law school at Columbia. Back home he got a job with the entertainment practice of O’Melveny & Myers and did well enough for the then chairman of Los Angeles’ oldest law firm, former secretary of state Warren Christopher, to take notice. After the 1992 riots, Christopher urged Delgadillo to enter public service with a stint at Rebuild L.A., the nonprofit that directed efforts to lure investment to the damaged urban core.

Delgadillo later joined Mayor Richard Riordan’s team and rose to become the deputy mayor in charge of economic development. The position put him in the right spot to nurture relationships with business leaders such as Eli Broad, Magic Johnson, and Grove developer Rick Caruso. They, along with well-connected friends of Riordan, provided the backing for his future campaigns. Delgadillo was a telegenic candidate, a self-described “bleeding heart moderate” who thrived in the business world yet could claim membership in the emerging Latino majority. He also stood comfortably apart from the progressive, union-aligned, high-testosterone Eastside cabals that produced Villaraigosa. After he was elected, Delgadillo bought a house in Windsor Village, close to old-money Hancock Park.

Los Angeles traditionally doesn’t demand much of its city attorney’s office, a 540-lawyer empire that has the dual function of supplying legal advice to municipal departments and prosecuting misdemeanors. Delgadillo threw himself into his new job, and if he kept his image clean he could look forward to moving up the political ladder. He shuffled assignments to energize the staff, but his management style angered some of his rank-and-file attorneys. He also displayed an unrestrained ambition that was unusual even for city hall. Too many decisions were based on calculating the likelihood of media attention, according to former staffers. Delgadillo pumped up the office with press and campaign strategists and appointed a chief adviser, Ann D’Amato, who had been a city council aide for so long that she drew a pension along with her salary—making her the best-compensated political deputy in the building. There was talk too early in his tenure of Delgadillo positioning himself for a U.S. Senate run.

By late in his first term, Delgadillo’s top advisers were aiming even higher. They began referring to themselves, not altogether jokingly, as Team 1600—the address of the White House. They entertained dreams of going all the way with Rocky. Delgadillo hadn’t transformed the image of the office or won major victories that would justify such aspirations, but at least there had been no scandal—these were the Hahn years, after all—and he glided to reelection in 2005. Within days, though, he announced he would run for attorney general. Hubris is admired when you get away with it, snickered at when you don’t. It was a stunning gaffe.

Delgadillo proved to be a laughably ineffective statewide candidate, easy pickings for his opponent in the Democratic primary, former governor Jerry Brown. Delgadillo’s campaign strategist quit early on, allowing Brown’s consultant, Ace Smith, to quip, “Rocky’s campaign is pulling up to the starting gate with a car that’s got a smoking engine and four flat tires.” Delgadillo never became more than a cipher outside Los Angeles. Even within the city the love was lacking. The Times, the Daily News, and the L.A. Weekly did not endorse him. A Weekly profile posed the question of whether he was “a well-meaning cornball…a shameless phony…or a talented, hard-working guy who is not afraid to do the difficult things that might piss people off?” Almost five years into his tenure they weren’t sure. The Times declared he simply wasn’t ready for the job. Delgadillo received 37 percent of his party’s vote, losing to Brown even in Los Angeles County.

*****

There’s no more talk of Pennsylvania Avenue. Ask political pros about Delgadillo’s prospects and their eyes are apt to roll. “He’s finished statewide,” said one consultant who has known him since the Riordan days. Around City Hall the mockery is barely concealed. At the ceremony where Delgadillo and Controller Laura Chick were sworn in to their second terms, she made a point of taking the oath of office from none other than Brown. Villaraigosa’s circle of aides dismisses Delgadillo as something of an empty suit.

Part of that is political culture talking. When Villaraigosa ran for the city council in 2003, Delgadillo endorsed incumbent Nick Pacheco. He also did not endorse Villaraigosa for mayor. The estrangement appears to be so great that after Villaraigosa was elected in 2005, he hired his own in-house counsel from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, cutting the city attorney out of a meaningful role as an adviser. Last year, Villaraigosa and Delgadillo sat down face-to-face only a half-dozen times.

Delgadillo’s record as city attorney has been mixed. He brought respected lawyers into the office, among them former U.S. attorney Terree Bowers (now back in private practice), and reduced municipal payouts in lawsuits and claims against the city. Yet there have been noteworthy losses, including a $1.5 million judgment on behalf of a former assistant city attorney who said she suffered retaliation for complaining about gender issues in the office. Some city council members privately disparage Delgadillo’s work and talk of breaking tradition to retain their own lawyer.

Strains in Delgadillo’s relationship with the council came out in the open last year over the Tennie Pierce case. The veteran black firefighter sued the city in 2005, claiming that a firehouse culture of racial harassment existed and alleging that he suffered career-ending retaliation after he complained about being fed dog food and being subjected to other forms of hazing. Delgadillo’s office negotiated a $2.7 million settlement to avoid a costly trial and persuaded the council to go along. Then old pictures surfaced that showed a grinning Pierce joining in other pranks, a twist that talk radio jumped on in lampooning the deal. Rushing to regroup, council members blamed Delgadillo for not giving them all the facts; Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement. It came out later that Delgadillo’s staff had fully briefed the council, but the damage was done. It looks like the suit will go to court, with the possibility that the city could lose and owe Pierce a higher amount. “I wanted to pay zero, but we have a situation with our fire department,” says Delgadillo, intimating that Pierce has a viable case.

Relations with the council were also chilled by Delgadillo’s outspoken criticism of last year’s Measure R, which extended term limits for council members to 12 years in most cases. Before the vote, his office issued a strongly worded opinion calling the proposition unconstitutional and so tainted by lobbyist influence that it “weakens current ethics laws, places the city in legal peril and is misleading to the voters.” Council members were not amused, even though Delgadillo may have been correct—the measure passed but faces several legal challenges.

Larger controversies have grown out of Delgadillo’s ties to interests that have supported his campaigns. In 2001, the outdoor-advertising industry erected signs on his behalf—which raised questions of whether he could stand up to its lobby. As recently as February, his office angered billboard critics by obstructing the council’s creation of a database that would make it easier for home owners’ groups to fight signage in their neighborhoods. Delgadillo’s referral of lucrative legal work to outside law firms, including O’Melveny & Myers, also keeps attracting scrutiny. He argues that enlisting the aid of top lawyers has saved the city millions, but Chick has fought with Delgadillo over audits of the contracts. What has drawn the most attention is that the business often goes to firms whose members have contributed to Delgadillo’s campaigns.

Delgadillo has come to be defined in part by his ceaseless quest for headlines. He has burned through more press deputies than anyone else at City Hall. Last December, my Web site, LA Observed, published a leaked memo that instructed staff attorneys on the types of cases likely to earn the most news coverage. First were any cases involving celebrities “no matter how minor,” followed by the involvement of political figures, community leaders, and police officers, or any kind of animal mutilation.

Finally, Delgadillo’s résumé has become a source of image trouble. He has at times claimed to be a Harvard athletic scholarship winner, an academic all-American, and a professional football player. It turns out that Harvard does not give football scholarships, he received “honorable mention” academic honors, and his pro experience consisted of a failed tryout with the New York Giants and a brief appearance at the training camp of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.

*****

Sitting down for a chat in his City Hall East office, Delgadillo projects an I’m not worried air. He wants it known that he gets a bad rap. His relations with the mayor and the council? Good and professional. Consumed with his next step up the political leaderboard? Not so. “We are focused exclusively on this job,” he says. Persistent reports that chief adviser D’Amato has asked key supporters if they would back a Delgadillo run against District Attorney Steve Cooley—and has been told no—are untrue, he says. “I’m running after the gangs. That’s who I’m running after now.”

He has hired a senior federal prosecutor, Bruce Riordan, to be his office’s anti-gang czar. He has proposed a strategy for targeting gangs in schools, enhancing sentences for gang crimes committed near LAUSD campuses, requiring all students to wear uniforms, and putting prosecutors on school grounds. He also wants to see more teeth in the court injunctions that prohibit some gang activities. Fifty gangs are now covered, up from nine when Delgadillo took office. “We know it brings a sense of calm to the neighborhood,” he says.

Looking tough on gangs does help Delgadillo's image. Too bad that Villaraigosa has jumped into the anti-gang wars, too. The mayor unveiled a major effort to pool the law enforcement clout of the federal government and the LAPD. Police chief William Bratton—not the city attorney—is seen as the top local gang fighter. It’s still a good issue for Delgadillo, but time is ticking away. He comes up against term limits in 2009. Political sources say he has looked at running for controller. (Chick will also be termed out.)

Whichever office he goes after next, another defeat could be the last we hear of Rocky Delgadillo. Although it sometimes seems as if political careers in L.A. have open-ended shelf lives, expiration dates can be reached. Jim Hahn, the previous city attorney, hit his after one term as mayor.

Delgadillo arrived with a great name for bumper stickers, the baggage of limitless promise, and the ambitions to match. He has two years left to show what he’s made of, since a lot of us still don’t know.

©Kevin Roderick 2007