Trutanich ad for L.A. city attorney draws criticism

In the midst of a bruising final few weeks of the Los Angeles city attorney’s race, two groups are calling on candidate Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich to stop running a television commercial that they say unfairly depicts Latino men as gang members.

But Trutanich’s campaign consultant contended that the complaints were orchestrated by supporters of City Councilman Jack Weiss, who is also running for the job.

Trutanich’s campaign aired the ad last week highlighting his record as a deputy district attorney in the 1980s and his endorsements by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca. The shot in question features seven men cast as gang members -- one dressed in a white tank top, others in sweatshirts, baggy shirts and hats -- against a backdrop rendered to look like downtown Los Angeles.

As a siren wails, a voice says: “Trutanich worked in the hard-core gang unit prosecuting robbery, assault and murder,” with each of those words accompanied by a sound like the closing of a jail cell.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project was the first group to complain about the TV spot. In an e-mail to Trutanich’s campaign, also sent to reporters, the group’s president, Antonio Gonzalez, referred to the ad as race baiting. Gonzalez said in the statement that it was “shameful that Mr. Trutanich portrays the Latino community as burglars, murderers and gang members.”

The political director of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, a group that has endorsed Weiss, weighed in over the weekend with a letter to the Trutanich campaign demanding an apology for what he described as “racially insensitive” content.

John Shallman, Trutanich’s campaign consultant, called the criticism “absurd” and said the statements suggest the groups did not see the commercial, which he said features men of different races.

“The three-second scene depicting gang members is multicultural -- including whites, Latinos and an African American,” Shallman said. Shallman noted that Trutanich’s wife is Latina.

“These are all groups and organizations that are closely tied to Weiss that are serving as his surrogates,” Shallman said .

Weiss’ campaign consultant, Ace Smith, said the suggestion that the campaign coordinated the complaints was “insulting.” When pressed on whether campaign representatives directly contacted the groups about Trutanich’s ad, Smith said: “We brought this to the attention of a number of people, who brought it to the attention of a number of other people. . . . We make no apologies for that.”

“The notion that any campaign could tell those groups what to do is insulting,” Smith said.

Clark Lee, the L.A. Democratic Party’s political director, said the advertisement was called to his attention by a voter. He declined to name the voter but said the person was not affiliated with Weiss’ campaign.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project has been criticized in the past for ties to one of Weiss’ closest allies, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. During Villaraigosa’s 2005 mayoral run, the campaign of his then-opponent, incumbent James K. Hahn, alleged that during a registration drive, the group refused to sign up voters who said they were supporting Hahn -- a charge the group disputed.

Around the same time, Villaraigosa appeared at a golf tournament for the group, and one of his top fundraisers, Ari Swiller, told The Times that he had raised tens of thousands of dollars for the group’s voter-registration drive. The nonprofit advertises $35 bobbleheads of Villaraigosa on its website.

Gonzalez said he was not aware of any contact by Weiss’ campaign with his group and added that the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project does not advocate for any candidate: “We have been scrupulously nonpartisan for more than 30 years.”