Hoping to scare away challengers by building a campaign war chest two years early, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss is about to officially declare himself a candidate for city attorney.
Weiss is expected to soon file papers to compete in the March 3, 2009, election to replace City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who by then will be termed out of office.
Weiss has been setting the stage for his run for the past two years. He went public with the media more than a year ago, has publicly criticized Delgadillo and has been lining up key supporters. This week he will also announce that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will serve as his campaign chairman and former Mayor Richard Riordan will act as an honorary chair -- two major and unusually early endorsements.
Weiss' strategy is clear: use the backing of Villaraigosa to quickly raise enough money to give pause to any potential candidates, namely former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.
"I want to get back into the courtroom and try cases again," said Weiss, a former federal prosecutor.
But Weiss, like Delgadillo, has sometimes been a polarizing figure around City Hall due to his unwavering support of the mayor and his impatience -- and sometimes contempt -- for what he sees as the puffery of local politics.
When Hertzberg visited the council in January, he greeted Councilman Bill Rosendahl with a hug, prompting Rosendahl to say "my favorite city attorney candidate" and then to a reporter "and you can print that."
More pointed criticism comes from Councilman Dennis Zine, who believes Weiss is hardly a shoo-in because of "the condescending attitude that is displayed" by Weiss toward "colleagues and members of the community."
Zine added: "I have people from his district calling me asking me to go to events because they say 'our councilman won't.' "
Weiss, 42, shrugs off such criticism. "I'm a prosecutor, not a politician," he said. "Voters want a city attorney who will fight for them without worrying about ruffling feathers."
And, he added: "I've been effective on the issues that I care about and effective on the issues in my district."
Much of Weiss' life has been spent around the law. A native of Los Angeles, his parents met while working in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles in 1962 and both his mother, Jacqueline, and her second husband became judges.
"My whole upbringing was oriented toward public service and the law," Weiss said. "And growing up I always heard that being in the U.S. attorney's office was the best that you could do as a lawyer, so that's what I did after I graduated."
As a prosecutor in Los Angeles between 1994 and 2000, Weiss helped secure the convictions of a former pro football player who masterminded an armed bank robbery, doctors who bilked health insurers and a top figure of the Hessians motorcycle gang in a weapons case.
Weiss had only been to City Hall once -- for a visit to the cafeteria -- before deciding to run for council in 2001 and beating longtime state legislator Tom Hayden by 369 votes.
The councilman is gregarious and a voracious consumer of newspapers who isn't shy about courting reporters. But during council meetings he displays a prosecutorial style that can be abrupt and brusque.
Much of Weiss' work on the council involves public safety and, most notably, anti-terrorism -- often the type of issues that transcend district politics and the issue that drove him to support Villaraigosa over James K. Hahn for mayor. In 2002, he prepared a 59-page plan for improving the city's anti-terror efforts.
"These are the types of things that require people in local government to step outside their normal job description and think more broadly, and I think Jack has been very instrumental in helping the city," said Brian Jenkins, a longtime expert in terrorism at the Rand Corp.
Yet, that kind of work hasn't muted complaints -- and occasional talk of a recall -- about him in his Westside district, where a heated real estate market has led some residents to complain that Weiss is allowing the district to over-develop, particularly around Century City.
Kevin Hughes, president of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn., said he remembers thinking that Weiss would be a breath of fresh air after he was elected in 2001. Hughes no longer believes that, but says Weiss has recently made an effort to improve his relationship with homeowners.
"He's aloof and a bit imperious," Hughes said. "He's answering to Antonio and not us."
Another sticky point for Weiss is that many residents are well aware that he will be raising a lot of money from developers and their attorneys. Weiss said that's a fair criticism, but that raising money is part of running for office.
He also defends his district's development, which he believes will ultimately benefit the city with more jobs, tax revenues and housing near mass transit.
Although his detractors are loud, Weiss has backers. He won reelection in 2005 with 71% of the vote, and his staff is widely praised as responsive.
One challenge for Weiss will be persuading voters that he wants the city attorney job so he can act in their interest -- and isn't just seeking a bigger stage. As a councilman in recent weeks, Weiss has publicly said little about issues that involve the city attorney, including enforcement of the city's condominium conversion laws and anti-gang efforts.
Weiss said that he is not short of ideas. "The real job," he said, "is to turn the city attorney's office into the foremost public law agency in California. I believe it can be done."