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Garcetti's Political Strategy Carries The Day

By Bill Schneider/CNN


LOS ANGELES (Nov. 22) -- Last March when Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti got just 37 percent of the primary vote and was forced into a runoff, he looked like a sure loser. After all, he had lost the trial of the century, the O.J. Simpson case.

But this week, another surprising verdict came out of Los Angeles, this one, from the voters.

Garcetti was the one and only chance voters had to hold someone accountable for the Simpson case. But when the ballots were finally counted this week, what happened? Garcetti won.

How in the world did he do it? He did it with an aggressively political strategy. That's unusual in a race for district attorney. Garcetti hired Bill Carrick, a hot political consultant. He raised a $1 million war chest, an amount unheard of in prior races for D.A.

"I think he is going to spend his money reminding people that they don't want him as district attorney," said challenger John Lynch.

simpson trial

Garcetti bombarded local television in the last two weeks of the campaign with tough negative ads against his little known challenger, Deputy District Attorney John Lynch. He attacked Lynch's record as a prosecutor and said Lynch questioned the effectiveness of handgun control.

Above all, Garcetti raised the profile of the district attorney's office. He promoted an activist agenda, insisting that the district attorney's job was more than prosecution.

"I am working to prevent crime in the future, not just to react to yesterday's crime," he said.

As a result, Garcetti succeeded in changing the focus of the campaign from the one issue on which he was most vulnerable, the Simpson verdict.

"I really don't think the people are going to base their decisions only on the results of one or two or three cases," he said. "I think that they're going to look at everything we do."

The change of focus came just in time. The last month of the campaign saw an eruption of Simpson news. The civil trial began and new books came out criticizing Garcetti's role in the Simpson prosecution. Simpson once again dominated the talk shows, reminding voters of Garcetti's biggest blunder.


Said Lynch: "This was the most spectacular train wreck in criminal justice history and he was the engineer. And the public wants to know what happened."

Lynch made a serious mistake when he complained that crime prevention was "at the margins" of the D.A.'s responsibility. That gave Garcetti an opening.

"What we are dealing with is a man who wanted to kind of slip in, you know, under the radar screen," Garcetti said.

Garcetti called his opponent a bureaucrat with no vision. Now wait a minute. Since when is a district attorney supposed to have "vision"?

Since he became a politician running for re-election -- that's when. Garcetti offered a lengthy agenda worthy of the master politician himself, President Bill Clinton.

Garcetti used the Simpson case as a platform to talk about domestic violence. He had an aggressive program to strengthen child support enforcement. He had programs to deal with truancy, gang violence, hate crimes and battered women.

"Look at truancy, look at family violence, the things that lead to crime. What can we do to stop or prevent some of those crimes?"


He even had a web site on the Internet to promote them.

All of which helped him raise money. Sure, Garcetti politicized the district attorney's office. That's how he won. Didn't the "dream team" win by politicizing the Simpson case? They attacked the police department. That's called making your opponent the issue. They played the race card. That's called changing the subject. And they spent lots and lots of money.

Garcetti used a shrewd political strategy to deflect attention from the Simpson case. It worked, and it was the political Play of the Week.

Garcetti lost the white vote. That's not a surprise, because that's where anger over the Simpson verdict was deepest. He carried African Americans. Not a surprise. Most blacks were not upset with the Simpson verdict.

But Garcetti did especially well with Hispanic voters. He's half Mexican-American, and he made sure Hispanic voters knew that. As we reported yesterday, 1996 was a terrific year for Hispanic turnout.

The Simpson case polarized blacks and whites, but it looks like Hispanic voters were the ones who saved Garcetti.

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