In his campaign to become Los Angeles city attorney, Mike Feuer has touted himself as someone who will work cooperatively with the mayor and City Council and avoid the squabbles that have marked the incumbent’s tenure.
During previous stints on the council and in the Legislature, Feuer repeatedly won over colleagues to approve pioneering laws on contentious issues, including gun control.
But even some supporters say Feuer’s stubborn, driven approach can also be antagonizing. Former colleagues describe the 54-year-old politician as a sometimes overly zealous — albeit intelligent — advocate for liberal causes.
“He had a reputation [as a councilman] as somebody who was not approachable, who wasn’t easy to work with, somebody who was not a team player,” said former Councilman Greig Smith, who has endorsed Feuer in the contest against City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who has also had a bumpy relationship with fellow officials since winning office four years ago.
Smith, who was chief of staff to another councilman during Feuer’s tenure, said Feuer is still intense, but has been easier to work with since a humbling election loss to Rocky Delgadillo in the 2001 city attorney’s race.
Feuer says his fervor can be partly explained by his upbringing. His parents instilled in him a strong commitment to social justice and activism.
Feuer was born in San Bernardino, the oldest of three sons. His father was a schoolteacher and principal and his mother a college admissions officer.
He has been married for 29 years to Gail Ruderman Feuer, an L.A. County Superior Court judge. They live in a Fairfax District home assessed at $1.1 million and have a son and a daughter, both attending Yale.
Feuer, a graduate of Harvard Law School, first made a name for himself as the chief executive of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which provides attorneys to low-income tenants involved in disputes with landlords.
In his eight years there Feuer tripled the number of volunteer attorneys working with the agency, expanded its clientele and created an action team to target the worst slum housing.
Feuer was elected to the City Council in 1995, representing a district extending from the Westside into the San Fernando Valley.
He quickly angered some colleagues with proposals to tighten restrictions on political fundraising and with his opposition to lifting a $10,000 spending limit on “officeholder” accounts that members used to pay for travel and meals.
Feuer also drew frowns with his call for a code of conduct for the council. Some members started referring to him derisively as “Saint Michael.”
“He had a way of speaking to the council that was preachy sometimes,” Smith recalled. One result was that members sometimes broke tradition and voted against Feuer’s position on controversial development projects in his own district.
At the time, then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said Feuer’s proposals were harming the council’s reputation by implying that City Hall was corrupt.
Today, Ridley-Thomas is a member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and says Feuer would make a good city attorney: “He is thoughtful and hard-working and very conscious of his moral compass.”
Trutanich, however, has questioned whether Feuer has lived up to that high moral standard. Trutanich’s campaign has charged that Feuer’s contract with political consultant John Shallman hid the true cost of the campaign and allowed Feuer to stay below a spending limit that allowed him to get public matching funds. Feuer counters that the contract was proper and that Trutanich, who finished behind him in the general election, is “desperate.”
Despite rubbing some colleagues the wrong way, Feuer was given leadership roles in the council, including chairmanship of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee.
Feuer also won colleagues’ approval of dozens of proposals, including gun control measures that limit the number of firearms Los Angeles residents can buy and require those buying bullets to provide a fingerprint so the police can track when they land in the hands of criminals.
Ron Deaton, the council’s former top advisor, recalls Feuer as a councilman of integrity who was intellectually sharp. He was also ambitious.
But Feuer lost the 2001 race for city attorney after finishing first in the primary.
After that election, he worked as an attorney for the law firm Morrison & Foerster and taught pretrial litigation techniques at UCLA.
Trutanich has attacked Feuer as lacking the legal experience to be city attorney, saying in one mailer: “Mike Feuer has never tried a single case in a courtroom.”
Feuer said he does have courthouse experience. He represented a firefighters group in a case that had him present oral arguments before a court of appeal. The court ruled against his attempt to invalidate a change in the Orange County charter, but Feuer won plaudits from his client for handling the complicated case.
Hungry for a return to politics, Feuer was elected to the Assembly in 2006 and served there until term limits forced him out of office last year.
Colleagues in both parties described Feuer as a smart lawmaker who sometimes over-reached in pushing an agenda of gun control, government regulation and environmental protection rules that made even moderate Democrats squirm.
“Most of his legislation I thought went too far,” said former Assembly Majority Floor Leader Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), who sat next to Feuer for two years in the Assembly.
Feuer introduced 112 bills during his six years in Sacramento. Sixty-one percent did not become law. Many died after failing to win sufficient support in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Fifteen of his bills were vetoed, all by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Yet, Feuer’s 39% success rate was better than the 32.7% average for all Assembly members during that period.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he was a gatekeeper for many laws that affected the criminal justice system at a time when budget problems forced deep cuts in the courts.
“He ran the committee as a partisan Democrat,” said Assemblyman Donald P. Wagner, the Irvine Republican who served as committee vice chairman. “Democrat bills went through without too much challenge, and Republican bills got challenged and stopped, which is par for the course with every committee.”
The most controversial bill backed by Feuer was AB 109, a so-called realignment that put nonviolent felons in county jails rather than state prison, and shifted oversight of those leaving incarceration from state parole agents to county probation.
“It was definitely a mistake,” Wagner said. “My concern is that we are releasing dangerous criminals who are out and not being adequately supervised and monitored.”
Feuer said the alternative would have been to have the courts order felons to be released from prisons to address overcrowding.
Despite such heated political battles, Feuer’s reputation for honesty remained intact throughout his tenure. While other lawmakers have been fined for ethical lapses, Feuer drew the attention of the state Fair Political Practices Commission just once. It issued a warning letter telling Feuer he violated the state’s gift rules when he accepted an expensive dinner and award from the group Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles.
The gift accepted by Feuer was worth $495, which exceeded the $420 gift limit. Feuer later paid back the $75 difference to the attorneys group.