Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner--struggling for his political survival after a bruising primary campaign--lagged behind his former chief deputy and was headed for a November runoff, while Tuesday election returns also showed controversial Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin hovering near the margin needed to win her race outright.
With most of the votes counted, a somber Reiner conceded that Deputy Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti had forced him into the first runoff of his eight-year career as district attorney.
Karlin was ahead of her closest opponent, Deputy Atty. Gen. Bob Henry, by a wide margin but her lead was slipping as the night wore on and it appeared she might be destined for a runoff as well.
The returns in the district attorney's race came as little surprise; pundits have long said Reiner--who has suffered a string of high-profile courtroom losses, including the recent Rodney G. King beating case--would be vulnerable this year.
In the Superior Court race, Karlin appeared pleased at her strong performance in the early returns. "I feel very confident," she said, adding, "Even if there's a runoff, I'm not concerned about winning."
Yet the judge--who ignited a political firestorm with her decision to grant a Korean-born grocer probation in the killing of a black teen-age girl--held no election night celebration. Sheriff's deputies had advised Karlin, who drew threats after her ruling, to keep a low profile Tuesday night.
Henry attributed Karlin's lead to voter ignorance. "I'm exasperated that it appears so many people would cast their ballots . . . and not really know who the heck they're voting for," he said. "They could be voting for Frankenstein and not know it."
Meanwhile, at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Reiner and Garcetti--now bitter enemies after having worked together for four years--were holding separate election night parties and sniping at one another as the returns came in.
While Reiner alluded to unspecified "character flaws" in his opponent, Garcetti retorted that Reiner would be "the dirtiest fighter" of any candidate in a runoff election. "He's a politician fighting for his political life," Garcetti said.
The mood at Garcetti's affair was festive, with as many as 125 supporters watching television returns. Reiner's gathering was subdued. The incumbent was surrounded by no more than 25 or 30 rather restrained well-wishers who were greeted at the door by his wife. The district attorney, in shirt sleeves, blamed the election results on his decision to forgo campaigning during the recent Los Angeles riots.
"Five weeks ago when the riots broke out I had to decide whether to continue with the campaign or deal with this unprecedented situation," Reiner said. "So I suspended campaigning until just four or five days ago, and that's had a big impact."
The hard-fought Reiner and Karlin races came during a tumultuous year for both candidates. Reiner was dogged by the not guilty verdicts in the King case, Karlin by her decision in the case of Korean-born grocer Soon Ja Du.
In each contest, the central issue was the performance of the incumbent. And in one respect, the two elections were intertwined: Reiner drew criticism for his harsh attacks on Karlin after she issued her sentence.
From the outset, Reiner faced a tough race. Observers said early on that the district attorney was vulnerable in the wake of his defeat in the 1990 Democratic primary for attorney general.
His problems were further compounded by the riots that followed the King verdicts. In an interview last week, Reiner said his heavy workload during the civil unrest limited his ability to raise money and campaign.
Reiner, who had been elected twice before without a runoff, faced three major challengers in the race: Garcetti, a veteran prosecutor who was once Reiner's second-in-command; Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris, another experienced prosecutor who was the only Republican in the nonpartisan race, and Beverly Hills Mayor Robert K. Tanenbaum, a former New York City prosecutor who also writes crime novels. There was also one long-shot candidate: Howard Johnson, an immigration rights lawyer.
The campaign touched on a wide range of issues: plea bargaining, the use of jailhouse informants, and the so-called "deadbeat dad" program to collect child-support payments.
But the main focus was on Reiner, who was the subject of repeated attacks by his opponents. Garcetti aired a radio advertisement asking voters to contribute to his campaign by calling 1-900-DUMP-IRA. Tanenbaum called Reiner "the Genghis Khan of the criminal justice system."
All three opponents frequently complained that Reiner lacks experience as a prosecutor. (Although he is a lawyer and former Los Angeles city attorney, Reiner has never tried a felony case.) In addition, they accused him of pandering to the media and charged that he put his political ambitions ahead of the interests of the district attorney's office.