Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich raised some eyebrows when, during a recent candidates forum, he referred to himself as "an outsider."
That might be a tough description for an incumbent to justify. But Trutanich, facing three challengers in the city's March 5 primary election after a failed run for district attorney, has embraced it.
"I'm not a career politician," Trutanich told the audience at Temple Israel in Hollywood last week. "I got into this game at 57, not 27."
The age reference seemed to be a dig at past city councilman and former state Assemblyman Mike Feuer, widely viewed as Trutanich's main competitor as he seeks a second term (although Feuer was 37, not 27, when he won the council seat). The two other candidates on the ballot are private attorneys Noel Weiss, known around City Hall for his land-use battles, and Greg Smith, who has pumped his own money into the campaign. Smith has won millions for police officers and firefighters who have sued L.A. and other local governments in injury, discrimination and whistle-blower cases.
In the race for a post that prosecutes misdemeanors, drafts and reviews ordinances and represents the city in lawsuits, challengers have made Trutanich, 61, an issue. They've attacked the effectiveness, priorities and character of the plain-spoken man who has been the city's top lawyer since upsetting the mayor's choice to win the seat in 2009.
In that election, Trutanich, a first-time candidate heading a private law firm, signed a pledge not to seek another office until serving a full two terms at City Hall. But he changed his mind and jumped into last year's crowded district attorney primary, the best financed of all the candidates and the presumed front-runner. Then, after failing to make the runoff, Trutanich announced he would seek reelection to his city job. And he has been on the defensive ever since.
"How can we believe anything you say now?" Smith asked Trutanich at the forum.
Trutanich calls his decision to run for D.A "a mistake" and has tried to get past it by focusing on his accomplishments.
Among those he cites most often are reducing the amount the office spends on outside lawyers, cracking down on illegal billboards and using injunctions to reduce drug-dealing on skid row. He claims to have saved taxpayers $284 million by winning "favorable outcomes" in 134 of 147 civil suits brought against the city. He said he's achieved this and more while enduring steep budget cuts as the city grapples with severe financial problems.
"I did everything I said I'd do," Trutanich said recently. "All I'm asking is to get my job back.... I still have some things I want to do."
Trutanich's blunt style — "I am not here to win a popularity contest," he said shortly after taking office — and what some see as a tendency to try to usurp the council's policy-making authority on such issues as regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, have won him few allies at City Hall. Just one in four Los Angeles voters chose him in the D.A's race (though the Trutanich campaign highlighted a poll conducted recently for KABC-TV Channel 7 that showed him with a slight lead in this contest). Two of his former campaign operatives, one of whom he is suing in a billing dispute, now are working for competitors Feuer and Smith. And the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which spent three-quarters of a million dollars to support Trutanich four years ago, has decided to sit this one out, at least during the primary.
Campaign finance documents show Trutanich had collected $540,451, including $158,570 in city matching funds, by the Dec. 31 end of the latest reporting period.
Feuer, who began his run in the fall of 2011, has raised the most — nearly $1.2 million, counting $300,000 in matching funds. He also has compiled a long list of endorsements, including those of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He recently released a list of about 600 community activists and other "grass roots" supporters.
Harvard-educated Feuer, 54, ran the nonprofit Bet Tzedek legal aid firm for eight years before winning a City Council seat in 1995, representing parts of the San Fernando Valley and the Westside. He ran for city attorney in 2001, losing in the runoff to Rocky Delgadillo, and worked in private law practice before winning an Assembly seat in 2006. Before leaving Sacramento due to term limits at the end of last year, Feuer wrote bills on environmental protection, gun violence, education and transit-oriented development.
"My whole life has been about public service," Feuer said, adding that he believes he has a range of experience that makes him the best-suited candidate to run the city attorney's office. And he disagrees with allegations by Trutanich and Smith that his lack of courtroom experience would be a problem.
Feuer said combating gun violence and improving school safety would be his top priorities, and he promised to strengthen the "neighborhood prosecutor" program launched by Delgadillo but reduced by Trutanich.
Smith, 59, who represented the first whistle-blower in the Bell municipal corruption case, said his career makes him best suited to bring a fresh, practical perspective to the city office and enable it to save money in payouts from lawsuits against the city. He said his election would help break the "insider" status quo at City Hall and said his substantial investment in his own campaign has been necessary to "get my message out." Of the $718,381 he raised by the end of the year, $620,000 came from his own money.
Weiss, 61, who ran for the post in 2009, said he hasn't raised anything for his campaign.