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Sorting Out the Local Elections | DISTRICT ATTORNEY

Outcome Hinges on Absentee Ballots

Garcetti has slim lead over challenger Lynch, but 190,000 votes won't be completely tallied for at least a week.

November 07, 1996|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With more than 2 million votes counted and incumbent Gil Garcetti clinging Wednesday to a slim lead over challenger John Lynch, the outcome of the rancorous race for district attorney hinged on about 190,000 absentee ballots--which won't be completely counted for at least a week.

Garcetti, 55, held a 6,836-vote lead Wednesday over Lynch, 50, who heads the Norwalk branch of the district attorney's office. That figure included all ballots cast at polling places Tuesday, election officials said.

However, it did not include the approximately 190,000 absentee ballots filed Tuesday. Mindful that a first batch of 213,346 absentee ballots--those filed before Tuesday--already had been counted and swung decisively to Lynch, both the incumbent and the challenger settled in Wednesday for an anxious wait, their fates decided but not yet known.

Political analysts said both candidates had reason to be optimistic about the outcome of the vote, which was widely viewed as a referendum on Garcetti and the failed prosecution of the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Lynch, they noted, won the first batch of absentees. But analysts said all absentees do not necessarily follow the same trend, and the batch delivered Tuesday may more closely mirror results from voting booths, which Garcetti won--if barely.

Neither candidate spoke Wednesday to the press.

Meanwhile, inside the politically charged district attorney's main offices downtown, the uneasy talk in elevators and hushed corridor meetings was of nothing but the close contest.

"What [candidate's] bumper sticker are you going to put on your car?" one deputy district attorney asked another with a smile. She replied, "I'll tell you in a couple days."

A third spoke of an awkward meeting: "I saw Gil in the hallway this morning and I didn't know what to say. So I said, 'I guess it's going your way.' "

Most deputy district attorneys declined to be interviewed on the record. Those who did chose their words carefully.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Delaney said: "As Woodrow Wilson once said, our policy is that of watchful waiting."

During the campaign, Lynch reprised much the same strategy that Garcetti used four years ago to unseat then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner: He accused him of being unable to win the big case.

For Reiner, that meant the state case of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King. For Garcetti, it was Simpson, acquitted 13 months ago.

"The big picture on Gil and the D.A.'s race is, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. The big case is the sword," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Wednesday.

He added a moment later: "In a sense, the district attorney has become like a baseball manager. You can't fire the jury. You can't fire the deputy D.A. You can't fire the defense attorney. So you fire the one guy you can get your hands on."

In a bid to counter the impact of the Simpson prosecution, Garcetti repeatedly urged voters during the campaign to look beyond one case.

He emphasized his commitment to initiatives to combat gang activity and domestic violence, saying he believes that the elected district attorney must be an activist in the area of crime prevention. Lynch said he does not believe the job calls for such activism.

Garcetti also amassed a huge campaign war chest, which he used to fund a TV advertising blitz highly critical of Lynch.

As of Oct. 19, Garcetti had outspent Lynch this year by a margin of about 7 to 1, $2.09 million to $328,790, county disclosure forms show.

Between television and radio advertising, Garcetti spent $1.05 million during the fall election, his campaign manager, Matt Middlebrook, said Wednesday.

Garcetti also received the endorsements of dozens of elected local officials. Lynch raised enough money to buy intermittent TV time; he also captured some key newspaper endorsements, just as he had done in the primary.

"Just think what a strong candidate with some money could have done," analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate School said Wednesday. Referring to Garcetti's 6,836-vote lead, she added, "It's that close with that kind of imbalance in money and name recognition."

Neither candidate mounted a get-out-the-vote effort for absentee ballots--which, it turns out, will prove to be the key to the election.

The first batch of absentee ballots, the 213,346 that had arrived at the county registrar's office by Monday, were the first returns posted Tuesday evening.

Lynch won that batch decisively, 55% to 45%. In raw numbers, his lead amounted to 17,718 votes, 104,927 to 87,209. The totals do not add up to 213,346 because not all ballots included a vote for district attorney, election officials said.

Garcetti, meanwhile, prevailed at the voting booths by 24,554 votes--out of 1.85 million cast. The totals: 941,794 votes to 917,240, or 50.7% to 49.3%. The combined results: Garcetti, 1,029,003 votes, or 50.2%. Lynch, 1,022,167, or 49.8%. And a 6,836-vote lead for Garcetti.

The counting, however, is far from over.

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