The race to become Los Angeles County's top prosecutor took final shape Wednesday in what promises to be an election dogfight, with one candidate announcing plans to sue to prevent L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich from calling himself "chief prosecutor" on the June ballot.
With Wednesday's deadline up for would-be district attorney candidates, the field is set for Trutanich and five county prosecutors to battle for the chance to run the most powerful office in the county's criminal justice system — one responsible for prosecuting roughly 60,000 felony cases a year, including murders, rapes and robberies.
The campaign has already grown heated, with some candidates attacking Trutanich's about-face from a pledge he made during the 2009 city attorney's election not to run for higher office until he finished two terms.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for one of the candidates, Alan Jackson, accused Trutanich of trying to deceive voters with his ballot description and said Jackson's campaign would file court papers on Thursday to force the county to change the designation. Trutanich's campaign defended its description as accurate and countered that Jackson was himself guilty of misleading voters with his ballot description.
The 2012 election marks the first district attorney race without an incumbent in nearly 50 years, but the campaign has so far followed the same type of bruising scripts that have become a staple of D.A. contests. The campaigns have traditionally generated such heat in part because so much is at stake for members of the 1,000-lawyer office who put their careers on the line to support one candidate or another, knowing that some winners have given their opponents undesirable assignments once the votes were counted.
"The election for county D.A. tends to have a 'Borgias' quality to it — intrigue and loyalties, betrayal and retaliation," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "D.A. races can be really bruising."
Sonenshein said Trutanich, whose fundraising has far outpaced his rivals, is an early favorite. If he can win more than half of the votes on June 5, he will avoid a runoff in November.
The city attorney has secured the backing of the county's Federation of Labor and has won plaudits for aggressively pursuing powerful special interests, including outdoor advertising companies that erected billboards without city approval. But his brash style has also made him enemies, and he has suffered several early missteps in the race. Last month, his campaign touted "broad support … from a vast online and grass-roots audience" when two of his videos garnered more than 725,000 views on YouTube, without mentioning that a marketing firm was paid to generate many of those views.
"He's been enough of a lightning rod — both positive and negative — that the race may end up being about him," Sonenshein said.
Also hoping to succeed Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is retiring after three terms, is the office's chief deputy, Jackie Lacey. Lacey, who has Cooley's endorsement, would be the county's first African American and first female district attorney if elected.
So would Deputy Dist. Atty. Danette Meyers, who has tried dozens of murder cases and several death penalty cases in her quarter century with the office. Most recently, Meyers handled the high-profile drunk driving and theft charges against actress Lindsay Lohan.
Two prosecutors who had previously been campaigning have dropped out in the last week, including Mario Trujillo, who had raised more than $400,000, and Steve Ipsen, who made an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Cooley in 2008.
Other county prosecutors in the race are John L. Breault III, a 43-year-veteran prosecutor; Bobby Grace, a major crimes division prosecutor who tried serial killer Chester Turner; and Jackson, who prosecuted music producer Phil Spector for murder.
Jackson's campaign strategist, John Thomas, blasted Trutanich for calling himself "Los Angeles Chief Prosecutor" on the ballot, saying such a designation wrongly implies that he is the county district attorney. Trutanich's office prosecutes misdemeanors in the city; the district attorney prosecutes felonies.
"We see this as an egregious violation of the truth," Thomas said.
Trutanich's political strategist, John Shallman, said he was confident his client would prevail in court. About 70% of arrests in the city of Los Angeles result in prosecution by Trutanich's office, he said. "The chief prosecutor of Los Angeles is Carmen Trutanich," he said.
Shallman accused Jackson of hypocrisy, noting that Jackson described himself as "gang homicide prosecutor" for the ballot and offered "hardcore gang prosecutor" as an alternative. Jackson, the assistant head of the office's major crimes division, moved from the district attorney's office's hardcore gang unit several years ago.
"I'm wondering which gang Phil Spector was associated with — hair club for men?" Shallman said.
Thomas defended the ballot wording, saying Jackson has spent much of his career prosecuting gang cases and teaching others how to do so. He said Jackson is currently assigned to try two gang members accused of carrying out a contract killing.