He far outpaced opponents in fundraising, enjoyed the backing of the political elite and was a battle-tested campaigner considered the favorite in a crowded field of relatively unknown prosecutors vying to become Los Angeles County district attorney.
But L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich’s polished television ad, dramatic online videos and supportive robocalls from the governor and others were not enough to connect with voters and overcome attacks he faced on the campaign trail.
If Wednesday’s vote tallies hold, Trutanich would finish third, setting up a historic runoff election between two veteran L.A. County prosecutors — Jackie Lacey, the chief deputy district attorney, and Alan Jackson, a supervisor in the office’s major crimes division.
Lacey, the top vote-getter, is hoping to become the county’s first African American and first female district attorney. Jackson is a star among trial attorneys who gained national attention for his successful murder prosecution of legendary music producer Phil Spector.
“It’s a very big upset,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “I had to look at the numbers a bunch of times to make sure there wasn’t a typographical error.”
Sonenshein said he was among many who had thought the primary election’s biggest question would be whether Trutanich would be able to avoid a runoff by winning a majority of votes.
Lacey, who raised just over $500,000 compared with Trutanich’s $1.5 million, said voters sent a message that they would not be influenced by hefty campaign spending. “The voters are saying the D.A.'s office is not for sale, it’s not like any other political office,” she said.
With more than 750,000 ballots counted, Lacey, a registered Democrat, won 32% of the vote; Jackson, a registered Republican, took 23.7%; and Trutanich, who is registered “decline to state,” garnered 22.3%. There are 162,000 ballots still to be counted.
Trutanich, whose term as city attorney expires next year, said Wednesday that he intends to campaign for reelection in the city.
“You get wounded but I’m not dying,” he said. “You work hard, get a lot of financial backing from all over the county, you try your hardest and you come up short. That’s humbling.”
Trutanich said he took responsibility for the problems of the campaign. Among the factors working against him, he said, was a promise he made during the 2009 city attorney campaign to donate $100,000 to an after-school program and to take out full-page newspaper ads declaring “I AM A LIAR” if he ran for another office before finishing two terms in the city.
“Obviously it hurt,” Trutanich said. “It was the most vitriolic, nasty campaign that I’ve seen in a long time.”
The race was marked by unusual agreement among the candidates on the need to expand crime-prevention programs and rehabilitation of more nonviolent offenders to help keep limited space behind bars for the most serious criminals. In the absence of real disagreement on the issues, the campaign ultimately focused on what sort of district attorney Trutanich would make.
“This whole race was a referendum on Trutanich,” Sonenshein said.
In his three years at the city, Trutanich won plaudits for aggressively pursuing powerful special interests, including outdoor advertising companies that erected billboards without city approval. But his brash style also made him enemies, and he has been accused of being too heavy-handed with political protesters and others.
Trutanich came under fire from Jackson in particular. A website set up by the Jackson campaign attacked Trutanich for violating his pledge not to run for another office and asked when the city attorney would make good on his promised donation and take out the newspaper ads.
Jackson also sued to prevent Trutanich from listing himself on the ballot as “Los Angeles chief prosecutor.” A judge ultimately ruled that the proposed designation was “misleading” and said Trutanich could use “Los Angeles city prosecutor,” which political experts considered a less attractive title for voters.
Trutanich’s attempts to attract voters during the campaign also raised questions.
His campaign claimed that nearly 725,000 views generated for two campaign ads on YouTube showcased “broad support behind Trutanich’s candidacy from a vast online and grass-roots audience.” But the campaign later acknowledged to The Times that it had paid an Internet marketing firm to generate many of those views. In addition, YouTube suspended the accounts of most of the users who left positive comments on the Trutanich videos, citing violations of its policy against commercially deceptive content.
The Times also detailed varying accounts Trutanich gave about an incident in which his campaign said he was surrounded by gang members and shot at in a South Los Angeles park while working on a murder case as a young county prosecutor during the 1980s. Trutanich, who has repeatedly cited the incident while running for election, did not mention being shot at or being surrounded during a 2008 deposition in which he was asked what had happened.
The city attorney came in for stinging criticism from several talk radio hosts. He also failed to garner the support of major newspapers that endorsed him in 2009, including The Times, which backed Lacey. The Los Angeles Daily News and its sister newspapers ran an editorial urging voters to remember “ABC: Anybody But Carmen.”
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, a strong supporter for Trutanich’s city attorney bid, was sharply critical of his old friend’s decision to run for district attorney and threw his support behind Lacey. “People wanted someone other than Trutanich,” he said Wednesday.
With the city attorney’s election only nine months away, Trutanich is facing an uphill fight. In the district attorney’s race, he failed to win within the city limits, coming in second place with 24.4% of the city’s vote compared with Lacey’s 32.9%.
John Shallman, Trutanich’s campaign consultant in the D.A.'s race, has already spent months working on the city attorney bid of Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). Feuer has raised more than $345,000 and has locked up his own list of prominent backers.
In the district attorney’s race, Lacey’s performance on Tuesday makes her the front-runner, said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. Lacey, he said, could also benefit from the high election turnout expected in November, when more black and Democratic-leaning voters are expected to cast ballots than did so this week.
“You’d have to favor Lacey,” Guerra said. “Having said that, the conventional wisdom of political pundits doesn’t always bear out. As Carmen Trutanich will tell you.”