LA's First Chicano Mayor?

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is a politician in forward motion

Published in 2004 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2004

If you set out to build an ideal candidate for high office in 21st-century California from scratch, you’d end up with someone a lot like Los Angeles City Attorney Rockard “Rocky” Delgadillo.

He is a pro-business, Mexican American Democrat who is friendly and articulate and has tough-guy good looks.A product of public schools in Highland Park, he went on to Harvard and Columbia Law School and then into a job at O’Melveny & Myers — with brief stints as a professional football player and high school teacher along the way.

His mentors include Warren Christopher, an O’Melveny senior partner and Secretary of State in the Carter administration, and Republican Richard Riordan, who as mayor tapped Delgadillo to be his deputy for economic development. He is a protégé of Anglo power brokers — in other words, not a product of a Latino political machine or the Chicano movement.

Though Delgadillo’s paternal grandparents were from Mexico, his father “decided we were not going to speak Spanish,” he recalls, so he had to pick up what he knows later in school. But in his first run for office in 2001, Latino voters didn’t hold his assimilated upbringing against him. One-fifth of the Los Angeles electorate, they went heavily for Delgadillo over the more liberal Michael Feuer, helping him become the first Latino elected to a citywide office in more than 100 years. Illustrating one of the hazards of his rising-star status, he had barely settled in before pundits began seeing signs that he was angling for higher office.

Ask Delgadillo about his purported political ambitions and he is flattered but dismissive. He responds with a line worthy of a stirring stump speech: “I’m not shy about saying I’m ambitious,” he says,“but I think I’m ambitious for the right reasons. I’m ambitious for the future of our children.”

With such a sterling résumé and charming persona, Delgadillo brings out the cynic in some observers. His credentials for higher office are “the strength and weakness of Rocky,” as one veteran analyst of local politics, who asks for anonymity, puts it.The story of his “upward march through life is all very appealing,” the analyst adds, “but I think he’s still got a ways to go to establish himself as a substantive city attorney.” Liberals still smarting over his upset of Feuer have been especially wary of Delgadillo.The Riordan protégé is too cozy with business interests for their comfort.

Delgadillo doesn’t apologize for his pro-business bent. But he describes himself as a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal bleeding-heart moderate,” and he’s confident liberals will come to realize that he’s on their side more often than not.

He has curbed liability claims against the city by “letting litigators be litigators again,” he says.They have a green light to play hardball against frivolous claims, and a string of verdicts for the city has helped get that word out. As a result, he says, the payout for damage claims against the city (excluding Ramparts policescandal settlements that draw from a separate fund) averaged just under $50 million annually in his first two years, down from an average of around $70 million in the last five years under his predecessor, the current Los Angeles mayor, James Hahn.

Street gangs, too, have taken more heat during his tenure, he says. Hahn in his 16 years as city attorney occasionally used civil injunctions to deter gang bangers from congregating on sidewalks and streets. In two years, Delgadillo says he boosted the number of injunctions in effect across the city by 40 percent.

Delgadillo takes special pride in a couple of projects he initiated. Through the Neighborhood Prosecutors Program, he has assigned one attorney to each of the city’s police divisions to work full-time helping residents attack nagging local problems. In San Pedro, for example, the neighborhood prosecutor helped the neighbors shut down a drug den of the Rancho San Pedro gang. Emboldened by the commitment of their own prosecutor,“there was a sea change in that neighborhood,” Delgadillo says. It was a small victory in the larger scheme of things, but it made life a little better for the kids at a nearby elementary school.And that, he notes, is what his job is all about. It is a sense of mission that he tries to instill in his staff. “I tell them to come to work every day thinking about how to save the life of a five-year-old,” Delgadillo says.

His interest in children is also apparent in his initiative, Operation Bright Future, which aims to hold parents to account for chronically truant teens.“I’ve never seen a gang member who wasn’t a truant first,” he explains.

Let the cynics say his talk about children is a pose. His record belies that gripe, he says, summing up his thoughts with a line that’s fit for the campaign trail: “I think I deserve the support of everyone who believes in the future of our kids.”

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