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Carmen Trutanich Was Knocked Down. Can He Get Back Up? 

Humiliated in the DA's race, "Nuch" is trying to hold onto his job as City Attorney

Thursday, May 9 2013
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At midday, it's not crowded along the San Pedro waterfront. Amid acres of free, legal public parking, one white SUV is parked in the red, directly in front of the San Pedro Fish Market.

It belongs to Carmen Trutanich.

The SUV is his police escort — one of the perks of being Los Angeles' city attorney, a position Trutanich has held for the past four years. Now both the underdog and the incumbent, he's up for re-election May 21.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich
  • PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
  • Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich
 
 

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Trutanich has San Pedro in his veins. The blue-collar enclave 25 miles south of the city's center is full of dockworkers and descendants of Adriatic fishermen. Trutanich, the fourth child of seven, once worked in the StarKist cannery across the channel, where his father was foreman. At night, he attended the now-defunct South Bay University College of Law. True to his roots, to this day, he answers to "Nuch," which is his Croatian family's word for "junior."

Barrel-chested and tense, Trutanich is pacing outside the restaurant, where — against the advice of his campaign staff — he has agreed to meet a reporter for lunch. He's talking into his cellphone, shoulders hunched.

"I want to extract a promise from this guy," he says. "If we're going to do this, he's got to take care of those kids."

A large part of the job of city attorney is resolving disputes. In this case, the owner of a sportfishing business has died. The son is trying to sell the business, but he needs to clear up a debt he owes to the city. He also needs a lease extension at the city-owned port. Enter Trutanich: son of San Pedro, big deal at City Hall.

Trutanich is willing to help, but in exchange he wants the new owner to offer paid sportfishing internships through the local charter school. The school, which prepares local kids for port-related trades, is one of his pet causes.

"This is a whole process of negotiation," he says into the phone. "But at the end of the day, I want those kids to have jobs."

Trutanich can hardly walk 25 yards in San Pedro without running into someone who has known him for decades. In the parking lot outside the restaurant, a man runs up. "Hey Nuch! Nuch! What's up, baby? Good to see you. Everybody at the gym says hi — Lance and Joe. Where you been?"

"Working too hard," Trutanich says.

Inside the restaurant, Trutanich spots his boxing coach, Mark Lozano. The two chat for a while.

Later, Lozano says that Trutanich has lost a lot of weight: "He says it's stress."

Trutanich, 61, came into the city attorney's office with a head of steam in July 2009. A registered independent in a city of Democrats, he'd campaigned vowing to "shake things up," and he more than kept his promise. Within a few months of taking office, he had threatened to jail a city councilwoman and to launch a criminal investigation of AEG, one of L.A.'s most powerful companies.

He battled marijuana dispensaries and billboard companies, and held one super­graphic scofflaw on $1 million bail. He sought investigators so he could launch his own inquiries, and lobbied for grand jury powers.

Inevitably, Trutanich overreached. When he started to raise money to run for district attorney after just two years in office, violating his pledge to serve two full terms, his opponents hammered him for it. He also faced criticism for his blustery style and his aggressive power grabs.

Last June, the voters handed him a resounding defeat. A onetime frontrunner, he finished a humiliating third.

Once you've been knocked down in politics, it's not easy to get up off the canvas. Trutanich has had less than a year to remake his public image, and he now faces a daunting re-election campaign against Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a veteran politico who is his opposite in many ways: understated, nuanced, bereft of bluster.

The voters have already rebuked Trutanich once, so the question becomes whether he deserves a second chance. Has he changed? Has he learned anything? Would he do anything differently in a second term?

"I think he was a little bit humbled," says his nephew Anthony Santich. "I think he definitely changed his approach."

But Trutanich himself isn't so sure.

"In terms of doing the job, nothing's changed," he says. "I haven't gotten any smarter."

On another occasion, he bristles at the question: "There's no new Nuch," he says. "I'm the same guy."

When Trutanich ran for DA, he tried to go over the heads of the press. He announced he was running in a press release, and refused to grant interviews. (His campaign then got angry when no one quoted from the press release.) He also refused to debate his opponents, expecting that his superior fundraising and name recognition would carry him through.

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