Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Reiner, Running for DA as Democrat, Amasses Democratic Votes, Defeating Philibosian
By ROGER M. GRACE
105th in a Series
ROBERT H. PHILIBOSIAN and IRA K. REINER battled it out in 1984 for the ostensibly nonpartisan post of Los Angeles County district attorney, in which partisan politics played the decisive role.
It was a race which Philibosian lost because of what the current DA, Steve Cooley, terms “incredibly bad luck.” He explains that Philibosian—a Republican who had been appointed in December, 1982 to a vacancy in the office—faced the electorate in a primary that was a magnet for Democratic voters.
It was the year of a presidential election. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, U.S. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson were Democratic hopefuls. They were “slugging it out” in “the California winner-take-all Democratic primary,” Cooley says, continuing:
“Democratic turn-out was huge. On the other side, [President Ronald] Reagan...going for his second term, had no opposition. Republican voter turnout was nominal, and I think it was a ‘perfect storm’ where Bob was, frankly, better qualified, but didn’t have a chance.”
The DA recalls that Reiner “did a very good job” as Los Angeles city attorney, “through a lot of public posturing and press conferences,” of convincing the public “that he was the district attorney.” [Cooley] adds:
“[The public] didn’t know Bob Philibosian. And Bob, despite the fact that he raised a ton of money, could not raise enough to overcome Reiner’s built-in name ID—which was positive.”
Cooley remarks that “[i]t was an exciting time when Bob was here” but bemoans the brevity of his tenure. It was 23 months.
Why would the fact of Reiner being a Democrat have any effect on a nonpartisan race for DA?
“Ira Reiner, absolutely, as a politician, made it a Democrat vs. a Republican race,” Philibosian comments.
The African American-community was saturated with a slate mailer. Willard Murray (later a member of the Assembly) sold space on it. Designed to be taken into the voter booth as a guide, the mailer contained a reproduction of the official ballot, with an “X” by the name of the recommended candidate—except that, with regard to the District Attorney’s race, Philibosian notes, the filled-in mock ballot listed a party for Reiner—“Democratic”—and one for him, “Republican.” No political parties appeared on the actual ballot in any nonpartisan races. (No party was listed for the third candidate in the race, Deputy District Attorney Hyatt Seligman.)
An analytical piece in the Times on June 7, two days after the primary, says:
“Campaign advisors decided about two weeks ago to emphasize Reiner’s partisanship, believing that a predicted higher turn-out of Democratic voters would work in Reiner’s favor and against Philibosian.
“About 962,000 Democrats voted in the county Tuesday, compared to 525,000 Republicans who had little incentive to vote because President Reagan was unopposed. This clearly hurt Republican Philibosian’s chances of winning his first elective office against a well-known Democrat, even though the district attorney’s office is technically nonpartisan. Philibosian won only in such heavily Republican areas as Glendale, Burbank and Palos Verdes Peninsula.”
That Times article, by staff writers Claudia Luther and Richard Simon, starts off:
“Voters in black areas of Los Angeles County that went heavily for Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson also strongly favored City Atty. Ira Reiner, giving the Democrat about half the votes he needed in his defeat of incumbent Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian.”
Prior to the election, the Philibosian camp was cognizant of the fact that African American voters would come out in droves to vote in the Democratic primary for Jackson, the first member of their race in serious contention for the presidency, and that they would also likely vote for the seeming Democratic Party candidate for DA, Reiner.
The challenge was: how, if at all, could this be counteracted?
Rod Wright (also later to serve in the Assembly, and now a state senator) was putting together a slate in competition to Murray’s, and Jackson was to be featured on it. Wright was the head of Jackson’s Los Angeles campaign office. Plans were being made for Philibosian to buy space on the mailer, when the Times got wind of it. The lead paragraph of Luther’s May 18 article reads:
“Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian, a conservative Republican, has offered to be the major financial backer of a ‘slate mailer’ that would go to predominantly black areas of Los Angeles with black Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson at the top.”
Reiner is quoted as saying:
“What you have here is a conservative Republican trying to trick Democrats into thinking he is a Democrat. He’s also raising Republican money to finance a Democratic campaign [for Jackson].”
Philibosian tells me:
“I was simply trying to buy space on a slate mailer for a nonpartisan office.”
Slate mailers are, of course, inherently deceptive, but by 1984 had become a virtual campaign necessity. The mailers generally bear the name of some nonexistent group, or a group that exists for no purpose other than to make endorsements. Candidates for the highest offices are “endorsed” at no cost to them, and other aspirants for election pay to be listed on the slates, deriving benefit from being associated with those at the top of the slates, in carefully targeted mailings. Reiner, in 1984, was on slate mailers touting each of the top three Democratic presidential candidates. As standard practice, Republican candidates for nonpartisan offices get on Democratic slates; Democratic candidates for nonpartisan offices get on Republican slates. Election year after election year, Democratic entrepreneurs put out mailers, sent to Republicans, with likenesses of the late President Reagan or the late tax reform crusader Howard Jarvis. In 1990, the (successful) Republican nominee for attorney general, Dan Lungren (now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives), held a press conference in front of the home of Democrat Fred Huebscher, a slate mailer vendor, to protest a pamphlet seemingly emanating from Republican quarters.
Anyway, the mailer Wright was planning in 1984 did not materialize.
On May 20, the state chairs of the campaigns of the three serious Democratic presidential contenders held a joint press conference and proclaimed Reiner “our candidate.”
What all this reflects is that Reiner was, indeed, the de facto Democratic candidate for district attorney, though nonpartisan elections for that post had supposedly existed since the election in 1914.
When the vote was in, Reiner—who had never prosecuted a felony case—had been elected district attorney. He drew 52 percent of the vote, Philibosian received 41.5 percent, and Seligman collected the balance.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito was special assistant to the chief deputy then, and spent much time in the executive offices. He came to know Philibosian. His remarks (like all of those below) come in a solicited e-mail. Ito recounts:
“[T]the day after his election defeat was one of the saddest days of my adult life. Bob, based upon his experience as a DDA and love of the office and its mission, was clearly the better candidate. The DA’s Office was not just a stepping stone to him.”
The jurist goes on to say:
“I also learned a lot of practical political lessons. I will never forget attending an inner circle dinner the night of the election, going to some hotel ballroom to await the election results, only to see some of the same people I just had dinner with on TV at the challenger’s hotel ballroom.
“Many of my personal friendships within the office suffered due that political strife. I went down with the ship. I got assigned to...a grunt trial court assignment and my parking assignment was changed from Lot 11 behind the [Criminal Courts Building] to a lot in Chinatown. It was on the long walk to the courthouse in a wind and rainstorm that I decided to consider other careers.”
Another Los Angeles Superior Court judge who, as a deputy district attorney, left the DA’s Office after Reiner took over, is Abraham Khan. He remarks:
“I was hired into the District Attorney’s Office when Mr. Philibosian was the District Attorney. I believed then, as I do now, that he was a devoted career prosecutor who strove to do the right thing. He would ethically support and defend the policies of his office and those of his deputies. He did not act like a politician. He apparently did not have enough name recognition to overcome then-City Attorney Ira Reiner’s popularity, who ultimately was elected. Mr. Philibosian served this County with honor, dedication, and distinction, and would have continued to do so had he been elected. I chose not to work for the new district attorney, Ira Reiner, and left the office after his election.”
Why did he not want to work under Reiner? Khan responds:
“I felt he was an opportunistic politician, more motivated by a desire to grab headlines in the news than by a legitimate desire to serve the public. Every office he ever held seem to be punctuated by news conferences, from the time he was city controller until he became city attorney, seemingly with the purpose of furthering his own political ambitions. He did not appear to me to be the type of person who would truly care about the office or about the deputies under his charge. As it turned out, his own chief deputy ran against him.”
Khan moved over to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
Lee Kanon Alpert, an attorney and civic leader (currently president of the Department of Water and Power Commission), comments:
“[T]he only negative, in my mind, surrounding his tenure was that it was not long enough.
“That said, in my opinion, Bob did not retain his office, as he well deserved to retain, not because of any lack of those traits essential to being one of the finest law enforcement prosecutors in the nation (which he was), but because of what Bob was unwilling to do. He stayed true to his beliefs and refused to turn an election for this important office into a political farce. He refused to engage in banter that while perhaps making him a hero and leading him to personal victory, would be damaging to his office and to those whom he represented, the people. He refused to misrepresent, engage in unprofessional political rhetoric or hold media events that would benefit only Bob Philibosian, politically, and not his office or his task at hand. Bob Philibosian was and remains today, an honorable, effective, well respected and well skilled professional and human being.
“He has accepted failures with the same dignity and class with which he has accepted his many successes.”
Alpert credits Philibosian with having been “diligent, skilled, intelligent, thorough and thoughtful” as DA, “possessed [of] a quiet confidence,” and being “both tenacious and unflappable.” The former San Fernando Valley Bar Assn. president terms him “the classic prosecutor.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe expresses this perception:
“I really thought Bob did a great job as D.A., his only weakness was that he was not a very visible DA. He spent all his time just doing his job. He wasn’t the ‘schmoozer’ like many of the other DAs.”
Back to Ito. He observes:
“Bob’s career as DA is one of those historical asterisks: i.e. not an elected DA, short tenure and limited institutional legacy. But I can say that as a mentor and sponsor, he helped to reshape the judiciary here in L.A. and in O.C., and that impact continues to this day.”
Philibosian hired about 150 deputies, roughly half of them being women and a third members of minorities. For many of them, he was instrumental in securing an appointment to the Superior Court. After leaving office, Philibosian was on an inner-circle committee that provided advice to Gov. George Deukmejian on judicial appointments in this county…and was reputed to be particularly influential with him.
“Bob was the key to my appointment, as a moderate Democrat, to judicial office by a conservative Republican governor,” Ito relates.
In my first column on Philibosian, I quoted Cooley as saying, “Bob never had a chance to make his mark,” and Philibosian responding: “I made a mark—I wasn’t able to make a very long mark because I was there so short a time.”
In light of all of those he brought into the justice system who went on to serve it effectively at higher levels, Philibosian’s mark as DA, though a short one, is deeply etched.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company