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VOTERS' CAMPAIGN 2000 GUIDE | KEY RACE: L.A. COUNTY
DISTRICT ATTORNEY

As Garcetti Steers Clear of Foes, They Pin Hopes on a Runoff

March 05, 2000|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At times, it has seemed as though there were two races for Los Angeles County district attorney this year.

One has been run by incumbent Gil Garcetti, who has tirelessly worked a mostly friendly circuit of civic luncheons and campaign fund-raisers, with frequent televised appearances devoted to the official business of his office. His has been a reserved, dignified--

and solitary--campaign.

The second has been the scruffier race being run by challengers Steve Cooley and Barry Groveman, who have followed their own circuit: one-on-one debates, poorly attended news conferences and incessant challenges to Garcetti to step out of his concrete-and-glass tower and mix it up with them.

At their debates, in what has become something of a running joke, they have made sure to always include an empty chair, occasionally addressing it as "Gil."

The two races will converge Tuesday, when Garcetti tries to hold on to the position he won eight years ago when he ousted Ira Reiner, and clung to four years ago in a sliver-thin victory over Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch.

"It's definitely a tightrope he's walking in this one," said H. Eric Schockman, associate dean of political science at USC. "If either of these gentlemen get him into a runoff, he could be in big trouble."

Garcetti knows that, and has doggedly pursued a strategy of steering clear of his challengers while trying to show he is in charge of a smoothly functioning office, the largest local prosecutor's agency in the United States.

As befits an office so large, the issues have historically been out-sized in campaigns for Los Angeles County district attorney. This year is no exception.

Eight years ago, the big issue was Reiner's handling of the Rodney King case, which led to the biggest civil disturbance in the United States in the 20th century. Four years ago, it was O.J. Simpson's acquittal in what some considered to be the most watched murder trial in U.S. history.

This year, there is little doubt that the big issue is the unfolding Rampart scandal, the biggest police scandal in the county's history and one of the biggest challenges ever faced by a district attorney.

Garcetti's challengers have pounced on it, charging that the district attorney failed to detect early signs of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division and that he has not been aggressive enough in responding to the scandal in the months since it was disclosed.

"Gil Garcetti is simply not operating as if this is a crisis," said Groveman, a former prosecutor who has been in private practice for more than a decade. "What this office now needs is crisis management to assure public confidence, and he's not doing it. He's timid, and he appears to be so afraid to lose another case that he's not doing the public's business."

Groveman and Cooley, a veteran deputy district attorney who heads Garcetti's welfare fraud unit, have hammered the incumbent for canceling a "roll-out" program in which prosecutors routinely investigated shootings involving police officers.

They also have attacked him for failing to act on a memo written by a deputy district attorney in 1997. The memo, which has never been publicly released, questioned the veracity of Officer Rafael Perez, the central figure in the Rampart scandal. Had Garcetti investigated then, his opponents argue, he could have stopped the police abuses in Rampart before they spread out of control.

"Mr. Garcetti will not defend his record in this case," Cooley thundered at one campaign appearance, "because it's indefensible!"

Garcetti does defend his record, but not to his opponents. He says he canceled the roll-out program because it was too costly, and recently restored it after lobbying for federal funds. He denies that he is being slow or timid in responding to Rampart, saying he wants to take as much time as he needs to assemble airtight cases.

"We want to develop cases that are successful, that will result in state prison sentences, that will get to the core, to the bottom, of the corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department," he said in an interview.

Garcetti said he couldn't discuss the Perez memo by Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Kraut because it concerns an active investigation. He wouldn't even say who has read it.

In public appearances, the district attorney harps on some of the lower-profile issues he has championed, such as a program to deter drug-induced rapes or one to protect women from stalkers. He also says his office has taken huge steps to reduce domestic violence and made unprecedented efforts to prevent crime, including a program aimed at deterring young people from dropping out of school.

His opponents ridicule some of these efforts as marginal and charge that Garcetti is trying to avoid the real issues. What each hopes is that Garcetti will fail to get 50% of the vote Tuesday, forcing a runoff with the highest polling challenger. If that happens, even Garcetti concedes, it will be a whole new race.

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