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CAMPAIGN 2000 | D.A.'S RACE

Garcetti Headed Into Runoff With Cooley

March 08, 2000|MITCHELL LANDSBERG and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti was headed into a runoff with challenger Steve Cooley, setting up a November showdown between two veteran prosecutors who have been bitter rivals for years.

With votes from more than half of the precincts counted Tuesday, Garcetti led Cooley by just one percentage point, with former prosecutor Barry Groveman trailing well behind. Garcetti, who had made no secret of the fact that he expected a runoff, said he was encouraged by the figures. Cooley appeared thrilled by the results, which prompted wild cheering at his election night gathering in Studio City.

"I think Mr. Garcetti and his advisors are doing a lot of rethinking," a smiling Cooley said inside a tent erected for his campaign party at the Sportsmen's Lodge. "He's afraid of me, in terms of my ability, my character and my experience."

"This doesn't surprise me," Garcetti said at his own, somewhat more stately election party at the Regal Biltmore Hotel downtown. "The figures are moving in the direction that we want them to."

Groveman, also at the Biltmore, noted that Cooley had targeted absentee voters with a mass mailing that tied Garcetti to the Rampart Division police scandal. "We expected [Cooley's strong showing] in the absentee ballots," he said.

The race for district attorney was the only competitive election for a major county position Tuesday. Three county supervisors--Mike Antonovich, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Don Knabe--ran unopposed, and were expected to have no trouble claiming the 50% of the vote required for victory. It was the first time in memory that no one has challenged any incumbent supervisor in the primary.

Years of controversy have eroded the powers of incumbency enjoyed by the district attorney. Garcetti first won the office in 1992 when his boss, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, gave up midway into a campaign that focused on his office's loss in the Rodney G. King beating case. Then, in 1996, Garcetti nearly lost to Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch, who came within 4,000 votes of riding to victory on the public's anger over the prosecution's loss in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

This year, with Rampart hovering in the background, Garcetti acknowledged the possibility that he would be forced into a runoff with Cooley or Groveman. He saved almost all of the more than $1 million he raised in campaign contributions, apparently figuring he would need it in November.

He needed to get more than 50% of the vote Tuesday to avoid a runoff.

At stake was stewardship of the largest local prosecutorial agency in the United States. Garcetti leads a staff of 1,005 attorneys who prosecute about 350,000 criminal cases a year, and send about 2,000 people to state prison every month.

Whoever is district attorney in the next four years will probably preside over one of the most sensitive matters ever faced by any Los Angeles County prosecutor: bringing criminal cases against the police officers implicated in the crimes committed in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division. Officers in the station's anti-gang CRASH unit have been implicated in crimes that include perjury, evidence tampering, false arrest, assault, attempted murder and murder.

At Cooley's election night party, there was general agreement among many in the crowd of about 200, heavily weighted toward deputy district attorneys and defense lawyers, that Rampart would be Garcetti's undoing.

"I think the voters see Gil Garcetti for what he is, a man who can't handle big issues like Rampart. I think the voters want an honorable district attorney who is competent," said Scott Carbaugh, a deputy district attorney in Norwalk who met Cooley while they were campaigning for Lynch in 1996.

Lynch, who has returned the favor and supported Cooley this year, said of the challenger: "I think the main thing he has going for him is that Garcetti is carrying around enough negatives to crush an elephant."

The mood at Garcetti's gathering, in the dark wood comfort of the Biltmore's Imperial Suite, was calm and upbeat. "I feel good, I feel very good," Garcetti said. "How much Rampart plays in all of this, well, we'll just see."

In a speech to the crowd of about 100 supporters, he returned to lines he used repeatedly in his campaign: "Some people will blame me for the Rampart scandal, but I'm not the chief of police, I'm not responsible for LAPD. . . . We were called in to clean this thing up. We're going to get to the bottom of it."

His supporters remained optimistic. "No question there's going to be a runoff," said Andrew Friedman, a Los Angeles lawyer and longtime Garcetti supporter. "But I think he will pull it off like last time."

Groveman, whose gathering was the most subdued of the three, took sardonic note of Garcetti's location 10 floors above him at the Biltmore: "He's in the Imperial Suite. How fitting. He thinks he's the imperial D.A."

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