California’s Capitol Talks With Rocky Delgadillo
The Third in a Series of Interviews with statewide Democratic candidates who will be attending the Democratic State Convention in Sacramento, April 24 through April 26.
(A native of the eastside of Los Angeles, Rocky Delgadillo was elected Los Angeles City Attorney in 2003. He ran for state Attorney General in 2006, losing in the primary to Jerry Brown. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last August Delgadillo was being investigated for misuse of taxpayer funds. He has admitted repairing an SUV his wife damaged with taxpayer funds and having city employee run errands and baby-sit his two boys. The articulate and thoughtful 48-year-old Harvard and Columbia University graduate talks to California’s Capitol about his work as city attorney and his goals as Attorney General.)
CC: Is the Attorney General more of a prosecutor or more of a litigator. Or California’s Top Cop? Or none of the above?
RD: I see the Attorney General as the state’s guardian to guard against all of those predators who are preying upon Californians at this very moment. Whether they are predators who wear gang colors or predators wearing Brooks Brothers suits.
CC: Tell me a little about the LA City Attorney’s office.
RD: We’re the third largest public law office in the state. Attorney General, LA Distinct Attorney and us. We prosecute 100,000 cases combined, criminal and civil, each year. We’re one of the few city attorneys that is also the city’s chief prosecutor. We’re defending the city or prosecuting on behalf of the city.
CC: Your most prominent cases?
RD: Probably those relative to the health insurance industry. We’ve taken on Health Net, Blue Shield as well as hospitals dumping homeless patients on Skid Row. We fought for those individuals when their health insurance was canceled. We went to protect them from those taking way their health insurance when they needed it most.
We’ve taken on the gangs in a very prominent way. When I started, eight gangs were under injunction. Now there are 66.
CC: Under injunction?
RD: It’s a civil action against a gang that restricts the activities of a gang in a safety zone, a geographical area. We have 41 injunctions against 66 gangs. Some injunction areas cover more than one gang.
CC: What happens if they violate the terms of injunction?
RD: They can be held in contempt of court and they can go to jail for six months or a year.
CC: How successful is that approach?
RD: It’s working great. There have been two independent studies. One, by the Los Angeles Civil Grand Jury, says the injunctions have a crime reduction impact of, at the low end, 5 percent and at the high end, 53 percent. The reduction varies by the geography. And not all gangs are the same. Some are street thugs and some are the equivalent to the new mafia and then there’s everything in between.
CC: So how is what you’re doing different from the District Attorney?
RD: I’m in the city; he’s in the county.
CC: You ran before. Why do you want to be Attorney General so much?
RD: It would be t he best job. I believe the Attorney General can fight on behalf of Californians and protect them from those preying upon them. What we’ve accomplished for the people of LA — safe neighborhoods, anti-truancy programs, fighting health insurance scams, protecting consumers form toxic toothpaste or lead in toys. Those same kinds of things we can do on behalf of everyday Californians across the state and give them some redress.
CC: Do you support capital punishment?
RD: Yes, I do. Although the DA handles that for the most part unless we get cross-designated. Right now we have six deputies cross-designated in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
CC: What can the Attorney General do about the state’s seemingly never-ending budget mess?
RD: It’s important to have an Attorney General who understands financial matters. I’ve played that role here as the city’s top lawyer, saving the city money on the liability side of the equation and also appreciating quite often we need to do more with less.
We’ve done a number of public private partnerships in this office. One was recently in the New York Times. We got the help of the private sector in dealing with traffic safety in and around our schools. They partnered to bring about that change at our schools.
Before I was city attorney, I was a deputy mayor for economic development, bringing investment to poor neighborhoods. I would bring all these investors to tough neighborhoods, emerging neighborhoods, once I proved on a spreadsheet in a boardroom they could make money there. What would they see in the actual neighborhood? They would see gangs and violence and they’d say, “See you later.” If we remove that from our toughest neighborhoods, the revenue that comes with investment will follow.
CC: Sounds kind of like how the first thing President Obama did in regard to Cuba was letting telecommunications companies do business there so Cubans learned more about the opportunities in America.
RD: I’ve seen that happen first hand in Los Angeles in Van Nuys, Blythe Street. (Former City Attorney) Jim Hahn got injunctions against Blythe. It was the most crime-ridden street in the city. Then the GM plant shut down and exacerbated the problem. We did some innovative work there to bring retail, a movie theater and then industrial and now crime is down 69 percent on Blythe Street. Now it’s a street you can drive down. Before, LAPD couldn’t even drive down Blythe Street.
RD: It happens if you put your assets into the neighborhood. I put my prosecutors in the neighborhood. They walk they beat. They talk to people. We get first-hand, real-time information. And so we can now respond and prevent crime from happening in the first place.
Let me give you an example. There was a bank of public phones at a Laundromat. People who lived in that neighborhood couldn’t walk on that side of parking lot without paying a fee to the gang that occupied them. The neighborhood came to us and instead of saying go undercover and arrest a couple of gang members, the neighborhood said, “Can we call the phone company and ask them to take the phones out.” So we did and they took the phones out and the gang went away. They might have gone to some other neighborhood but we haven’t found them yet. We took away the enabler.
The neighborhood then came back and said, “Could you put a couple phones back in because we need to call the police department?” We did but restricted use of the phones from 11 pm to 5 am, when most gang activity would occur, to only calling police officers. We changed the relationship between our office and the neighborhood. No one was arrested, no one went to jail but crime was reduced.
CC: Taking out the phones has to be way cheaper than putting two people under cover.
RD: Oh yeah. We need to do all we can to put our assets up front, invest up from and prevent mostly young people from joining gangs and going to prison in the first place. When you talk about the budget that takes a lot of courage.
We have to invest more in our schools than we invest in our prisons. Gangs thrive where schools fail. We’ve seen that happen in Watts. We’re now holding parents responsible for their kids being truant. My investigators say they don’t know a single gang member who wasn’t first a truant.
There was a woman who lived in a housing project in Watts and she said, ”I’m not sending my daughter to that school because she’s not safe there.” We’re thinking, come on, this is Los Angeles Unified school. My prosecutor witnessed hundreds of kids out on campus during class, fights going on in more than one place and adults walking by like it was just part of the day.
So we morphed our neighborhood prosecutor program to schools, to the geography on school campus and its environs. We created safe passageways to and from school. We put a prosecutor onsite at the school, Markham Middle School. We surveyed the kids and said whatever they wanted I’d get for them. So you figure it something like a skateboard park, video games, a concert by 50 Cents. But Number One on the list was stricter teachers. They wanted order just like all of us want. We bought them uniforms. Magic Johnson’s partner bought them shoes. We got them camera surveillance system.
Several gangs control the neighboring territory. So we created one entrance and one exit and had adults dealing with students when they come. We gave them a computer center, an after-school program. We changed some of the landscape. We made sure the custodian had a pressure washer to get graffiti out of the way.
The uniforms gave everyone a sense they were part of the institution. And it sent a message to the community. Kids going to and from school in uniforms, the LAPD is watching them and protecting them. Kids not in uniforms, the LAPD is watching them to make sure they don’t break the law.
RD: The graduation rate went from two out of three at the middle school to eight of 10 in one year. API (A measure of academic performance) went from 519 to 542, higher than the citywide increase. I was the keynote speaker at the school because we sort of adopted the school. I asked the principal if I could get the kids a gift. I asked her how many I should get. You wont need more than 300, I was told. I got them Freedom Writer. I’m shaking their hands and I ran out of books. And I had asked my staff to get 350 books just in case. I’m an elected official I like to give away things. But the most important thing is every kid’s hand I shook, the palm was sweaty which meant they were nervous and it meant something to them.
CC: Speaking of costs, recidivism is very expensive. Something like 120,000 people are paroled each year and 70 percent are back behind bars within two years.
RD: We’ve got to get on the front end. One thing we know about gang members and people who have been in prison is they tend to have a shelf life it tends to end. But if they’re young and active and they go out they do it again. Why? Because in prison they get to hang out with the best in their business. And we pay for it. Great health care plan. So when they get out, they go back to it again. So the answer is to send less in.
We have a program called “First Chance.” I grew up in Northeast Los Angeles. People would say they’ll give you a second chance. You can’t have a second chance until you have a first chance. This is a program for young, but adults who get into our system. Not where they’ve done a serious crime but we know they’re involved with gangs or negative activity. We allow them to go to job training and school and if they complete it, we drop the charges. It’s a much better investment up front then to try and deal with them after they’ve been in prisons. In there, it’s an abyss.
We’re working hard to make sure all our adults are interacting with our kids. We’re now at nine more of those middle schools in Los Angeles. Mentorship. Kids need more adults in their lives. We’re there talking to them about how we can encourage their future.
That comes from personal experience. I’ve been a Big Brother since the late 80s in the Catholic Big Brother program. Francisco Solomon – he’s married now, has a great job. At one point he was jumped into a gang. We worked together, his doing, but we worked together to get him out. I thought the young man’s life I would change was Francisco but in fact the young man’s life changed was mine.
Show them we care; they respond. We do not tap into that power enough that we have as adults in our society.
CC: How would you compare yourself with the other candidates for the job?
RD: I’m focused on the work of this office. I was elected by the people of this great city and I’m doing my job for them. There’s plenty of time to get into the comparison game later one.
CC: There were a few hits on the Internet about you being investigated by federal authorities in Northern California? I didn’t quite get that.
RD: Neither do I. I acknowledge I’ve made mistakes and I take full responsibility for them and I regret making those mistakes and I’m stronger for that. I’m staying focused on the fight for safer schools, health insurance reform, environmental justice and ending gang violence. We’ve taken on some of the most powerful in the land whether they be health insurance companies, or Wall Street and some of the most violent gangs in the country.
CC: Anything else I was too stupid to ask you about?
RD: Another thing I’m proud of is we brought the first civil damages action against gangs. We brought action against two gangs so far. Fifth & Hill controlled most of heroin in downtown LA. We got a $5 million judgment against them. 18th Street is the largest gang in America. The nine members we filed against are already in prisons. The action is alive 10 years and can be renewed.
18th Street ran most of its operations out of a tattoo parlor. We did a sweep of 18th Street that day with our partners in the U.S. Attorney’ Offices and filed unfair business practices with the tattoo parlor and ultimately shut it down. I’ve literally bulldozed the headquarters of the Avenues gang, which terrorized my neighborhood growing up. We need to take a comprehensive approach to crime. Gang crime is down dramatically, thanks to the mayor, the chief and others.
CC: Anything else?
RD: The overall theme for me is the role of government and the Attorney General in particular, is to give a voice that can be heard for those whose voices are normally drowned out, give a voice to the voiceless whether or not your Health Net insurance policy was canceled and we’ve given it back to you — 800 people now have health insurance because we gave it back to them. We proceeded against Kaiser Permanente, College Hospital in Orange County to hold them accountable for dumping the indigent on Skid Row, one of the most dangerous places in America. We could do so much as state Attorney General. We have half a dozen investigators in this office and the Attorney General’s Office has 700.
CC: Plus we didn’t even talk about the Division of Law Enforcement that has the DNA and fingerprint match-ups and all the other stuff to help local agencies.
RD: In the past, even today, it’s a top down approach. From above here’s what we’re going to give to you. What I’ve learned from this job is you have to go to the street level. Every neighborhood is different. And respond accordingly. If you’re the most diverse place in the world then everybody is different. One of the things I love about our state is we embrace people who are different. And that’s why these amazing things have happened here. The Internet was created here.
We’ve got to get to the grassroots level and listen. We in government talk a lot. We give speeches all the time. The most important endeavor is to listen to people. Neighborhood prosecutors they get a list from the community of problems. We look them in the eye and say we’re not going to do all of those. You triage for us. Tell us which are the most important.
Without talking to them we would just do the easy ones. OK, we’ll do Number 13 for you. But talking to the neighborhood you find out if Number 4 was solved, Number 13 would go away.
CC: Tony Blair has said a number of times that leadership always works better if you listen first.
RD: Let me give you another example. Jorge Aguilar is a student at (John) Adams Middle School in South LA. From kindergarten to fifth grade he’s missed an entire year of classes. He got D and Fs and still got promoted to the sixth grade. As I said, we now hold parents accountable for not sending kids to school. So we go to Jorge’s family and we find out — because we talk to them and listen — that in fact Jorge is a well-behaved kid. His parents were old, much older; he was kind of a mistake. They have two jobs. They’d come home and see him well behaved, in his uniform and they figured he had gone to school. So we got his older sister to get involved in his life. He’s now not only graduating from high school but interning in my office. In sixth grade, he got all As & Bs. A kid who basically skips a year and then gets As and Bs. That’s a smart kid. Without intervention, he would have been a CFO of a gang here. And that came from going to his parents and listening to them. (Los Angeles Unified Superintendent) Ray Cortines has called us the guardians on campus.
CC: How many studies have they done over the years, whether its health care or criminal justice, that say spending $1 now saves $7 to $10 later?
RD: It cost me $100,000 to put a prosecutor on campus. Markham Middle School got back $1 million in private sector investment because a prosecutor was asking for it. The school couldn’t have an after school program without a building. I went to a private sector contributor and said, “Can you buy them a building?” and he did. When we needed shoes for the kids I went to Magic Johnson’s partner. When we needed a pressure washer we went to folks who did that. The prosecutor got a washer and dryer donated to the school. Many of my mentors said you can get a lot more done if you give other people credit.
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