With nursery rhyme characters, giant inflatable rats and “high noon” debate challenges, it’s getting hard to quibble with those who complain that the tone of the Los Angeles city attorney’s race has gotten downright sophomoric.
After a series of shrill debates and two new negative campaign advertisements from Jack Weiss airing over the weekend, Jaime A. Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs, said the race between the Westside councilman and defense attorney Carmen Trutanich has become “an avalanche of negative campaigning on both sides” -- and predicted that it will get more combative in the three weeks before the May 19 election.
“Usually there’s a buildup to the negative, but right off the bat in the primaries they were locking horns and seeming to try to outdo each other,” Regalado said. “The hope is to so damage the other person’s credibility that that person’s positions on the issues, or record on the issues, won’t matter much.”
Cal State Fullerton political science professor Raphael J. Sonenshein noted that it has been in each candidate’s interest “to make the race a referendum on the other.”
“With one candidate [Trutanich] who is unknown -- whose record could be made an issue -- and another candidate [Weiss] who is a bit of lightning rod,” Sonenshein said, alluding to the failed 2007 effort to recall Weiss by constituents who said he was too quick to side with developers, “it’s a recipe for a slugfest.”
That slugfest began earlier this year but has intensified. In the primary, as Weiss ratcheted up his criticisms of the gun groups and environmental clients represented by Trutanich’s law firm, some voters opened their mailboxes to find ads with Weiss’ head superimposed on a puppy seated on the lap of his campaign chairman, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
A different mailer -- depicting Weiss as various characters in Mother Goose -- impugned the councilman for accepting contributions from developers and noted that he was fined by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission for failing to disclose several mass mailings in the 2001 election.
When the runoff debates began, representatives from the painters’ union -- which has endorsed Weiss -- began arriving at debates with a 16-foot inflatable rat to accuse Trutanich of being a union buster, which the San Pedro attorney’s aides say is a manufactured charge.
And after a torrent of boos and jeers at last week’s debate at the Westside Jewish Community Center, the moderator all but threw up her hands when the audience refused to settle down, leading the Trutanich campaign to announce that he would no longer appear with Weiss because of “staged antics and a stream of disruptions from planted audience members.”
On Monday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who had endorsed both candidates but appeared in commercials for Trutanich, withdrew his support of Weiss.
In an interview from Germany, where he was attending a conference, Baca said Weiss crossed the line with his new ads, which question Trutanich’s representation of companies accused of environmental pollution, several USC athletes accused of sexual assaults and a client arrested on gun possession charges that were ultimately reduced to a misdemeanor.
“The people who are not supporting Mr. Weiss are not going to be emboldened and turned around by these ads -- they’re going to have another reason to say, ‘There he goes again,’ ” said Baca, who said the ads should raise questions about Weiss’ ability to be fair as city attorney. “I just think he could have taken a higher road. . . . It does smack to me of desperate politics.”
Bill Carter, former chief of environmental crimes for the U.S. attorney’s office’s Central District, supervised Weiss when the councilman was a federal prosecutor but is backing Trutanich for city attorney. Carter said Weiss was making “a ludicrous argument” by painting Trutanich with the crimes of some of his clients. “Anyone who understands our legal system understands the important role that attorneys play in providing assistance to clients,” he said.
Weiss’ ads allege that Trutanich “represented some of the worst polluters in Los Angeles, which is not true. And the reason I know it’s not true, I’ve personally prosecuted some of the largest polluters in Los Angeles,” Carter said. He also noted that Weiss has taken campaign contributions from firms that have defended companies accused of environmental pollution. The argument, Carter said, “can be turned on him very easily.”
Weiss’ campaign put out a lengthy memo listing the Trutanich cases referenced in the ad, and his campaign consultant Ace Smith accused Trutanich of “chickening out” by refusing future debates. Challenging Baca to debate Weiss in his stead, Smith said: “We’ll meet Sheriff Baca at high noon.”
“If you’re running away from the people of L.A. because you can’t explain why you represent gun companies and polluters, you shouldn’t be running for office,” Smith said of Trutanich.
While both candidates risk turning off voters with negativity, Sonenshein noted that they are competing for a sliver of voters in an election that is “likely to be very low turnout.”