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"I'm Not a Thug," Says the Man Who Would Be D.A. 

Thursday, Mar 3 2011
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Roosters are crowing in East L.A. Directly outside the brick-and-plaster storefront of Ciro's Mexican Restaurant sits a big, black SUV, parked in a red zone.

Inside, amid a haze of sizzling grease, sits the man attached to that SUV, the leading contender for L.A. district attorney. In a silver suit, Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich is presiding like a Mafia don over a Formica table set for six.

Steve Cooley, the D.A. for the last 11 years, has been known to swagger, but he dilutes it with plodding moderation. Trutanich is all swagger. It's no secret that he'd like to graduate from pursuing misdemeanors as city attorney to leading the largest D.A.'s office in the world. But getting there could be tricky.

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He and Cooley are friends, but it's not an equal partnership. As Cooley nears a decision on retirement, Trutanich has told friends he's planning to run. Cooley is said to be angry about that. Reportedly, he thinks Trutanich can't win. But maybe he's also afraid he will.

For whatever it's worth, Trutanich says things between them are fine.

"He's my buddy," he says. "There's no rift."

The leading candidate for D.A. doesn't want to talk about the race. Officially, he isn't running, and he won't be lured into announcing over a taco plate. About all he'll say is that Cooley has been a "firm hand on the tiller." But what unfolds over lunch can be taken as a preview of coming attractions.

What Trutanich really wants to talk about is the cosmic unfairness of the cuts being considered for his office. Also at the lunch table are two press officers and Bill Carter, a former federal prosecutor who serves as Nuch's top deputy. Carter is sketching budget charts on a piece of scratch paper. Somewhere in the room is a plainclothes LAPD officer who serves as Nuch's driver and guard.

Like a middle-school tough who just got decked by an upperclassman, Trutanich seems more surprised than hurt that the mayor wants to hack his budget. (There are rumors he's being punished for his abrasiveness.)

Trutanich describes his conversational style as "Socratic," but it's more like boxing — trading jabs, probing for a weak spot. It's no surprise to learn he used to spar three times a week.

He has been in the news lately for cracking down on peaceful demonstrators, and has been described as a "schoolyard bully."

Was he a bully in school?

"I'm a regular guy," he says. "If anything, I would protect against bullies."

Asked more about his upbringing in blue-collar San Pedro, Trutanich opens up about his first day of work at the StarKist cannery.

His father, the son of a Croatian fisherman, rose to foreman at Plant No. 4. When Nuch was 15, he went to work in "the Screw." (The press officers have heard this story before but are quietly indulgent.)

Baked anchovies poured out of a chute. Trutanich's job was to shovel them through a grate in the floor, where a large screw would grind them up. There was another worker in the room — an older, African-American man, lean and muscular, "the King of the Screw."

They shoveled baked anchovies from 7:15 a.m. until 10, without a word passing between them. At the break, he stuck out his hand and said, "Hey, my name's Nuch."

The older man's response: "Shut up, boy, and work."

"That was the biggest lesson I learned in life," Trutanich says. "I learned that working with your back is a lot harder than working with your mind."

Trutanich, the fourth child of seven, went to law school at night and became a prosecutor.

The conversation comes back around to Trutanich's crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, which leads into a Trutanich nickel history of the civil rights movement.

"Rosa Parks went from the back of the bus to the front of the bus," Trutanich says. "She didn't lie down in front of the bus."

Of course, the point of protest is to be disruptive, and what Parks did was disruptive enough to get her arrested and, ultimately, to bring Montgomery, Ala., to its knees.

Since those days, most authorities have decided to handle passive resistance not with dogs and firehoses but with a jujitsu move of equal passivity. File no charges, perhaps issue a nominal administrative fine, and you give protesters less to resist.

Trutanich has no use for that approach. We live in "ordered liberty," he says, and he intends to supply the order.

After a while, he grows annoyed with the topic. "I'm not a thug," he says.

Carter pipes in: "Y'know, Nuch is actually an intellectual."

What was the last book he read? "The Black Hand, by Chris Blatchford," he says, referring to a potboiler about the Mexican mafia.

And what is he reading now?

"Decision Points, by George W. Bush."

"It's a good book," he says. "It gives a different view of the guy."

After lunch, Nuch's SUV is still parked illegally, and what do you know, there's no ticket.

"I'm not the driver," he says.

When reminded that the guy who enforces minor infractions in this town can be a real hard-ass, he smiles and says, "I hear he's a good guy."

 

Reach the writer at gmaddaus@laweekly.com

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