OAKLAND — A dramatic rise in killings in this city in the last two months has provided the debut issue in the race for the Democratic nomination for attorney general -- a contest that strategists think will be one of the most dynamic this election year.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is the seasoned, if eccentric, candidate from a storied political family who has managed both the state as governor and one of its most challenged cities.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Oakland slayings -- An article in Wednesday's California section about Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's campaign for state attorney general incorrectly said 25 homicides had occurred in that city this year through Sunday. The correct figure is 24.
But with Oakland marking its 25th homicide of 2006 on Sunday -- triple last year's number for the same period -- Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo has come out swinging, slamming his opponent as "asleep at the switch."
Brown has quickly hit back, calling Delgadillo -- who largely prosecutes misdemeanors -- a "naive" bureaucrat who "sits behind a desk and shuffles papers."
With three months to go before the June 6 primary, the verbal volleys are the first to hit on what political analysts consider a top-tier issue of voter concern with direct relevance to the job of the state's top cop: crime.
Whether the math of murder will prove compelling enough to tilt the race toward the lesser-known Delgadillo is uncertain.
"To my experience, the public is not quick to lay blame on any one political official for changes in the crime rate," said veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.
More certain is a race filled with barbs that will pit name recognition and a lengthy political career against relative inexperience, north versus south and even white versus Latino. The winner will probably face state Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno, who is seeking the Republican nomination.
Brown and his advisors point out that serious crime has fallen during his eight years as mayor and is even lower when compared to the previous eight years. "You need a longer-term trend. But we are on it," said the mayor, who touted his crime-fighting efforts as "very innovative."
Still, a cash-strapped, understaffed Oakland Police Department plagued by a high retirement rate and recruiting challenges has collided with a recent surge in drug- and gang-related crime, Brown conceded. Last week, amid growing concerns, he ordered 115 officers redeployed in an effort to get drug dealers and gang members off the streets.
Among other steps he has already taken is a curfew on probationers that so far, Brown said, has prompted court orders to keep more than 200 offenders inside at night. Another is police-parole officer teams that meet with new parolees to direct them to employment and drug counseling programs -- and to warn them, Brown said, "Screw up and you're going back."
Much reform lies outside his control, he added.
"I want the district attorney to put more people in prison. We want bail raised for gun offenses. I am working on multiple fronts. This is a pretty liberal environment here. To most people in this environment, I am viewed as the tough-on-crime guy."
In the neighborhoods hit hardest by the recent crime wave, however, Brown's record is not playing so well.
Willie Fabros lives just blocks from where Gary Ruiz, 20, and Elizabeth Lopez, 18, were gunned down Friday night while walking with friends. Fabros never goes to the liquor store nearby, because gang members linger there. He forbids his son, 19, and daughter, 24, from socializing in the neighborhood or even hanging out on the porch. The cook and martial arts instructor doubts he would vote for Brown for attorney general.
"The bottom line is: They have to stop the crime and drugs," Fabros said.
Across the street from a sidewalk memorial for Ruiz -- described by one neighbor as "kind and really calm" -- sentiment was even more pointed.
"I don't think [Brown is] doing a good job right now," said resident Tuli Tuifua, 36, who built a security gate around his house after "sideshow" performers spinning high-speed doughnuts totaled his van.
Brown, however, could well recover from the setback, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor. "Brown has said, 'We're 65 officers short. I'm doing all I can. It's not my fault,' " Gerston said. "Is it a negative for Brown? You bet. Is it the only factor that will contribute to success or failure? No."
The most recent campaign finance reports through the end of December show that Delgadillo had both out-raised and outspent Brown, but Brown had $3.7 million in the bank to $2.4 million for Delgadillo.
Delgadillo, an Ivy League-educated lawyer with ties to L.A.'s political elite, faces an uphill battle to win voter recognition. A statewide Field Poll of registered voters in October showed that nearly three-fourths did not know enough about him to have an opinion. But he is clearly working hard to change that, and the spate of killings may have provided just the unfortunate circumstance he needed.
"If you're losing that many lives in a place like Oakland, where you promised to lower the crime rate, then you've failed," Delgadillo said Tuesday.