California Political Watchers Are Bullish on Rocky

Posted July 13, 2004 at 6:46pm

One April afternoon in 1992, Rocky Delgadillo gazed out the window from the high-rise office building that housed his white-shoe law firm, and saw the city of Los Angeles go up in flames. [IMGCAP(1)]

From the ashes of those fires, a political star, improbably, was born.

Watching the city of his youth burn in the wake of the racially charged verdict that exonerated four police officers who had beaten black motorist Rodney King, Delgadillo decided to climb off the corporate ladder and dedicate himself to a life of public service.

“The civil unrest of 1992 changed my life,” he said.

Today, the 43-year-old native of East L.A. is the city attorney for Los Angeles — and the city’s highest-ranking elected Latino in more than a century. It’s hard to find a political observer in the Golden State who doesn’t think he has the brightest of political futures.

He has already been mentioned as a possible candidate for state attorney general in 2006 or mayor of L.A. in 2009. And some might go so far as to say he could become the first Latino president of the United States.

Publicly, Delgadillo, who is seeking a second term next year but would be ineligible for another four-year stint after that, dismisses all the talk.

“In a term-limits era, especially in California, too many people are worrying about what they’re going to do next,” he said.

Still, Delgadillo has a golden résumé and through the years has amassed a powerful collection of friends, mentors and admirers, from former Secretary of State Warren Christopher to hoops star-turned-entrepreneur Magic Johnson. He has cultivated national political leaders and opinionmakers. He is careful to reach out regularly to California’s two Senators and the Los Angeles Congressional delegation whenever he is in Washington, D.C., as he was late last month for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference.

And he is running his office as a savvy, politically moderate, community-oriented reformer.

As city attorney, Delgadillo heads a huge hybrid office that prosecutes misdemeanors in the city and also serves as the legal counsel for the municipal government. The work sounds prosaic, but the

office has proved to be more than a decent political launching pad: Delgadillo’s predecessor, James Hahn, is now mayor of the nation’s second largest city.

A somewhat older Latino political superstar, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), says there is a lot of excitement around local Hispanic elected officials — and plenty of political potential.

“The people with the real political power are the local elected officials,” he observed during a speech at the NALEO conference.

Local politics certainly gives the officeholders a chance to deal with issues that are of primary concern to voters.

Delgadillo is focused on prevention, targeting what he believes are the first steps on a path to a serious life of crime: truancy, graffiti-tagging and gang activities. He has installed community prosecutors in every police station as a way of reaching deeper into the city’s myriad neighborhoods.

“Neighborhoods know how to solve problems,” he said.

Delgadillo tells the story of one youthful offender who was caught spraying graffiti at a public swimming pool. Instead of being given a jail sentence, the youth was forced to get up every Saturday morning at 6:15 to work with city employees cleaning the park. Since that has happened, even with the teen’s sentence complete, the park has remained graffiti-free.

Delgadillo has sought to punish parents whose teenagers are habitual truants, and he has made it a crime for gangs to recruit new members.

And on the side, Delgadillo has set up a for-profit philanthropic fund that allows investors to seed inner-city businesses, spreading capital into places it usually doesn’t go.

“People ask, ‘Why do you care, you’re a public safety official?’ I say, ‘Because it cuts down crime.’”

Rockard Delgadillo grew up in East L.A. and went to Harvard on a football scholarship. Soon after, it was on to Columbia University Law School, where he worked part-time as a bouncer in one of Manhattan’s trendiest Mexican restaurants.

Delgadillo then returned home, to the high-powered world of corporate law, joining the firm O’Melveny & Myers. Christopher, who would soon become Bill Clinton’s secretary of State, was one of the senior partners. Delgadillo credits Christopher with sparking his interest in public service.

After the 1992 riots, Delgadillo went to work for an organization called Rebuild L.A., whose focus was just that. After that, he served as deputy mayor for economic development under then-Mayor Richard Riordan (R).

Delgadillo’s election as city attorney in 2001 was his first foray into electoral politics. But for all the accolades, his tenure hasn’t been entirely error-free.

The Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a scrappy L.A. newspaper that covers legal affairs, has waged a months-long campaign against Delgadillo, arguing that he was not technically qualified to be city attorney. The newspaper said that since he did not practice law while he was deputy mayor, Delgadillo violated a section of the city charter that requires city attorneys to be practicing lawyers for the previous five years. Delgadillo responded that he was still a member of the bar association in good standing, and a recent state attorney general’s opinion backed him up.

Last month, Delgadillo also agreed to pay more than $11,000 to the city’s ethics commission, which found that he had exceeded fundraising limits during his 2001 campaign and had failed to properly disclose certain travel and meals paid for with campaign funds.

“My campaign staff made honest mistakes and I take full responsibility,” Delgadillo said in a statement.

For all that he professes not to be calculating his next political move, Delgadillo is taking a keen interest in Los Angeles’ 2005 mayoral election, in which Hahn could face as many as a handful of viable challengers. Delgadillo, who so far has no opposition of his own, plans to stay neutral — though it’s worth noting that if Hahn wins, the job would be vacant in 2009, when Delgadillo’s own term ends.

“It will certainly be a dynamic race,” he said.

The open-seat state attorney general’s race could also prove enticing to Delgadillo. So far, only Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the erstwhile governor, presidential candidate and state Democratic Party chairman, has signaled his intention to run, though several state lawmakers are also considering the race. Brown makes no secret of his opposition to the death penalty, a position that is sure to be controversial in the race for the state’s top law enforcement job.

Delgadillo, a self-styled New Democrat, supports capital punishment, with reservations.

And he said he has been “trying to get around the state sharing some of these ideas” on law enforcement to those who will listen.

But Delgadillo insists it isn’t part of some grander political plan. Quoting an educator mentor of his, he says, “The best source of new work is right there on your desk.”