Carmen Trutanich Was Knocked Down. Can He Get Back Up?
ILLUSTRATION BY TIM GABOR
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.
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.
That approach failed miserably, so Trutanich has adjusted. Now he is eager to debate Feuer, and has done so more than a dozen times.
He is, however, initially cool to the idea of having lunch with the Weekly. Asked several times when he would be available, he says, "Never." His advisers also are against it.
"I'm trying to figure out why we should do this," says his campaign spokesman, John Schwada. "Do I really want to have Nuch stand in front of an open pit, with you getting ready to shoot him with a machine gun of crap?"
But eventually, Trutanich relents and agrees to get lunch. His wife of 35 years, Noreen, comes along. She has been appearing more regularly with Trutanich during his re-election campaign.
Trutanich orders swordfish sandwiches, and Noreen tells the story of when they first met. Then a flight attendant, she'd come to the beach to run by herself. Trutanich and his friends happened upon her as she was making conversation with an older man.
"He's making rude comments," Noreen recalls. "Like, 'Why is that young girl running with that old man?' ... I knew they were making fun of me."
When the older guy left, Trutanich announced to his friends, "I don't know about you, but I'm running with her."
She ran with him for four miles, she says, "because he was so cute." Within a month, they were engaged. Eight months later they were married.
When he was still in his 30s, Trutanich considered running for public office. But with four children at home, it was not an option. Years later, when DA Steve Cooley approached him about running for city attorney, those children were out of the nest.
"I felt it was something we were supposed to do," Noreen says. "I almost felt it was God's wish."
Now she is not so sure. "After what happened to him — it's so hurtful," she says.
Trutanich does not see his defeat in the DA's race as a rejection of his personality or his policies. In fact, he relishes defending his handling of the city's most controversial issues.
Mostly, he blames his campaign consultant, John Shallman, who now is working for Feuer.
"We have a real good campaign," Trutanich says now. "We have a campaign that's interested in winning, not in making money."
He acknowledges that he's learned a few things in four years in public office.
"Maybe we tried to do too much too quickly," he says. "I learned one thing. You're not judged by what you do. You're judged more by how you do it, because it's interpreted by so many people. In private industry, it's very easy to define success. Your business grows. Your bottom line expands. You increase your sales. You increase your employees. ... In public life it's a little different."
"The numbers are all in your favor," Noreen says.
For her part, Noreen is still angry about the treatment her husband endured in the DA race. (The L.A. Times, for one, ran an editorial titled "Carmen 'I Am a Liar' Trutanich"; the Weekly dubbed him "Carmen the Barbarian.")
"What happened in the newspapers was a horrible shame," Noreen says. "They portrayed him for somebody he was not. ... That was really hurtful. It was awful what happened. It didn't have anything to do with who he is as a person."
So why is he running for another four years of abuse?
"He's not a quitter," she says.
Mike Feuer has no reticence about sitting down for lunch. When asked for his availability, Feuer's spokesman offers four different windows within the following four days. Feuer agrees to meet at Canter's Deli, then keeps the appointment even though he's visibly sick.
With an open-seat race for mayor, it can be difficult to attract reporters to cover the campaign for city attorney. Only a few reporters typically show up to press conferences; the debates are rarely covered.
Feuer is eager to make the case that Trutanich has been a failure. Trutanich comes at the job as a litigator, and tends to see it in terms of wins and losses, dollars won or saved. Feuer suggests he would operate more as a corporate general counsel would, resolving complex controversies by bringing the parties together before litigation starts.
"My own theory of the office is, 'Are we solving problems in the city?' " he says. "The job of being city attorney requires an array of skills few offices require. You have to have terrific political skills and a sense of community priorities."
Trutanich, he argues, has neither. The way he has gone after certain problems — most notably, medical marijuana — has made them worse.
As Feuer orders chicken soup, a man walks by. "You're Feuer," he says. "I'm voting for you."
"You would not believe how much time it took to set up that encounter," Feuer deadpans. "It took days of planning." A few moments later, the waitress brings a plate of rugelach — on the house.
A Democrat, Feuer has been around L.A. politics for 20 years. He grew up in San Bernardino, the descendant of Russian Jews. His father, Melvin, flew in World War II, and was shot down over France in 1944, then held for a year in Stalag 17, the German POW camp. After the war, he became a teacher and school principal.
"I've always had a sense that life is very short," Feuer says. "Circumstances can intervene. You have to make a large impact in a short time, because that's all we have."
Feuer earned both a bachelor's and a law degree at Harvard. From there, he clerked for a California Supreme Court justice, then got a job at an L.A. law firm with close ties to Democratic politics. At the age of 28, he was tapped to run Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a public-interest law firm. Eight years later, he won a seat on the City Council, representing the Westside.
In 2001, Feuer ran for city attorney, narrowly losing to Rocky Delgadillo. He then served three terms in the state Assembly. Anticipating that he would be termed out in 2012, he started raising money to run for city attorney again.
Like most people, Feuer, 54, expected that Trutanich would be elected district attorney, leaving an open seat. But when Trutanich unexpectedly lost and decided he wanted to keep his job as city attorney, Feuer had to decide whether to face an incumbent.
"It took about a second to decide to stay in the race," he says.
Trutanich's defeat in the DA's race hurt more than just his pride. It also hurt his wallet.
When he first ran for city attorney, he made the pledge to serve two full terms and not seek higher office. If he violated that pledge, he promised, he'd donate $100,000 out of personal funds to the after-school program L.A.'s BEST.
At first, he tried to wriggle out of the agreement. But after his defeat, his advisers concluded that if he had any hope of being re-elected, he would have to find the $100,000.
Trutanich could not afford the full amount. So last August, he cut a check for $10,000, and his San Pedro buddies agreed to pick up the rest. His nephew Anthony Santich arranged for his employer to pay $20,000. Other friends pledged the remainder, with the full amount scheduled to be paid off in 2015.
One friend, Ruben Garcia, agreed to pay $25,000. And Garcia's generosity didn't stop there. He and his company, Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc., have since spent an additional $50,000 on mailers supporting Trutanich, making him the largest single contributor to the re-election campaign.
Garcia is new to the Trutanich inner circle. Trutanich and his buddies unwind at the Havana Lounge, a San Pedro cigar club. They come in about twice a week, usually after 10 p.m. Garcia has become part of that crowd, according to Santich.
But the reasons for Garcia's benevolence go beyond mere friendship. Garcia has been pushing the Port of Los Angeles to approve his company's emissions-control technology, called AMECS, for shipping terminals and rail projects. So far, port officials have refused to require companies to use it.
The most recent case is the proposed BNSF rail yard at the port. Garcia and his supporters have been pushing the port to require BNSF to use his technology to capture emissions.
"We have nothing against it, but it's not quite ready for commercial deployment," says Chris Cannon, the port's environmental manager. "When something is still under development, it's not something we use for mitigation."
Garcia has enlisted the support of Jesse Marquez, an environmental activist, who says he plans to sue the city over the BNSF project. Though Garcia's technology has yet to be certified by the state Air Resources Board, Marquez wants the port to mandate it — which would cost BNSF roughly $8 million.
Marquez, a Trutanich supporter, says he has spoken with Trutanich about the technology.
"He supports it 100 percent," Marquez says.
A competitor, Clean Air Engineering, is developing a similar emissions-control technology. (In fact, Garcia and Clean Air Engineering now are embroiled in a patent suit.) Garcia's rival seems to have won greater favor with port officials: They've invested roughly $500,000 in developing the technology at the TraPac terminal, Cannon says.
In an interview with the Weekly, Trutanich confirms that he believes Garcia's technology represents a major advance in environmental mitigation. "I believe it's a game changer," he says.
Though Trutanich has no official role in the issue at the moment, his office could be brought into the controversy if Marquez makes good on his threat to bring an environmental suit against the BNSF project. Should it come to that, Trutanich's office could decide to settle such a suit by agreeing to mandate AMECS.
Garcia could not be reached for comment. Cannon, the environmental manager, says Trutanich has never raised the issue with him.
"I'm a peon," Cannon says. "He doesn't talk to people like me."
Trutanich notes that he has no financial stake in Garcia's company, and that although he is the city's top lawyer, the final decision on a settlement would be up to the City Council.
"Because I like something doesn't mean I have a conflict," Trutanich says.
If friends are important to Trutanich, it also helps to have an enemy. In this campaign, he has gone after John Shallman, his former consultant, with the zeal of the trial lawyer that he used to be.
Shallman, one of the city's top consultants and currently lead strategist for mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, was recruited to run Trutanich's first campaign for office, an upset victory. But in the DA campaign, the two had a bitter falling-out.
Trutanich surrounded himself with a coterie of friends who had their own ideas about how to run for office. More lawn signs, they said. Perhaps overestimating the power of hostile bloggers, one of Trutanich's top deputies suggested the campaign buy up anti-Trutanich domain names, such as "NuchSucks."
That suggestion was ignored. Several of Trutanich's friends became fixated with David Berger, a British-born deputy DA and former candidate for city attorney who had launched a blog devoted to attacking Trutanich. The blog should have been a mere annoyance, but several of Trutanich's friends saw it as a serious threat. In an email to Trutanich's circle, obtained by the Weekly, one friend, Mort Allen, called Berger "a 'British National Phsycopath' [sic] who may be trying to front the major drug cartels trying to take over the DA office."
Shallman blamed Trutanich for listening to the wrong people. He also faulted Trutanich for not raising enough money — and, when Trutanich sued him after their falling-out, famously called him "the Kim Jong-il of L.A. politics."
"The fact is, Trutanich believes normal societal rules do not apply to him," Shallman said at the time. "He's dangerous, delusional and must be stopped."
Feuer had hired Shallman back when it looked as if Trutanich was headed for the district attorney's office. Other consultants might have dropped out of the campaign rather than fight a former client. But Shallman has continued to work for Feuer.
What's more, in the primary, he worked for free. Shallman's contract pays him $1, plus a $50,000 bonus if Feuer won the primary outright. Trutanich alleges that Shallman was gaming the city's public-financing system: The contract allows Feuer to keep his expenses below the $1.26 million expenditure cap, which allows him to take $300,000 in public financing.
Trutanich has tried to hammer this point in debates. Pacing in front the audience as though addressing a jury, his voice ranges through timbres of chagrin, indignation and rage. He gets especially worked up when picking through the details of Feuer's contract with Shallman.
"When you lie in court and you face a prosecutor, he's gonna put the documents up in front of you and jam them down your throat," Trutanich tells Feuer at a debate in Encino. "If I had an opportunity to cross-examine you, I would do just that."
Feuer stands up, narrow as a rake, and does an expert version of the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. A practiced politician, he probably could do it hopping on one leg.
"I don't think politics should be stooping to this level," he says, noting quickly that he cleared the arrangement with the Ethics Commission staff. "We should go on, and we would go on if he weren't trailing so badly in the polls."
After the debate ends, Trutanich walks up with a bundle of news clippings and ethics complaints, still trying to impeach the witness. "He's making up stories as he goes along," he says.
At another debate, Trutanich points to Feuer. "Pinocchio is right there," he announces.
Trutanich's other line of attack deals with prison realignment, the jargony term for the state plan to reduce prison overcrowding by transferring authority over nonviolent inmates from state to local authorities.
At debates, Trutanich brings up the case of Tobias Summers, the alleged Northridge kidnapper, whom he alleges was released under realignment. "Tobias Summers ... who raped a little girl, kidnapped her and raped her — tie it right to his neck," Trutanich says at one debate.
(For the record, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says Summers was not released because of realignment. Instead, Summers was assigned to county probation instead of state parole upon release. "He was not released early," spokeswoman Dana Simas says.)
In response, Feuer points out that Trutanich supported realignment when he was running for DA. During that campaign, Trutanich called realignment "an opportunity to fundamentally transform our correctional system."
Trutanich now says that he was simply playing the hand he was dealt.
"When you're given lemons, what are you going to do? Say the sky is falling?" Trutanich says. "No. You make lemonade."
Trutanich also tells the Weekly he supported realignment because he did not fully understand it.
"It transferred the burden of payment to the locals," he says. "I didn't realize that."
Trutanich calls his approach to defending the city "the porcupine defense: You may eat me, but I'm not going to taste good going down." He says he has made a point of fighting cases, not settling out of court.
At a recent press conference, Trutanich appears alongside a mock check in the amount of $300 million. The check is made out to "Taxpayers — Los Angeles" and signed by Trutanich. "While that check may be symbolic," he acknowledges, it represents the savings his office has created by taking cases to trial.
"Trutanich has done a great deal to inspire a sense of esprit de corps inside the city attorney's office," says Schwada, his spokesman. "They saw in him the promise that he would not be a patsy for every civil litigant who walked in the office and said, 'Oh my God, you've got to pay me off.' "
Most deputy city attorneys contacted by the Weekly decline to speak on the record, for fear of alienating either candidate.
However, Phil Sugar, a veteran deputy who is retiring in June, is willing to speak up. Sugar also faulted Trutanich to the Weekly more than a year ago for focusing heavily on marijuana prosecutions. Since then, he says, little has changed.
"Things have just continued to not improve, to put it gently," Sugar says. "Most people feel we really do need a change in direction and a change in attitude."
The city attorney's staff is undergoing furloughs, which amounts to a 13 percent pay cut. Promotions and hiring are on hold, and the office has brought in unpaid interns to handle the caseload.
Trutanich does not decide his own budget, but some in the office blame him for angering Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council, which resulted in cuts.
"The city attorney has to keep in mind that the City Council is the body that holds the purse strings," Sugar says. "You live and die by the size of your budget."
At debates, Trutanich brags that he is the only department head to finish each year under budget. He also complains that Villaraigosa repeatedly cut his budget, forcing him to trim back each year in order to finish in the black.
Trutanich's critics in the office say he was so new to City Hall that he did not understand how to play the game. The first rule: Don't go under budget, or future budgets will get cut.
Sugar, who works in civil liability, also doubts that Trutanich has saved anywhere near $300 million.
"There's very little correlation between that and reality," he says. "I don't think we've saved the city that kind of figure."
As Trutanich addresses the handful of reporters who show up to his press conference, the wind picks up and knocks the check over.
"There you go," he says. "God has spoken."
Trutanich's friends say he is upbeat about the election. Although Feuer has outraised Trutanich by about $500,000, making this the rare case in which the incumbent is the underdog, Trutanich feels like he has momentum. While a recent L.A. Times/USC poll has him trailing by 11 points, he was behind by 14 points in the March 5 primary, so one could make the case that he is gaining ground.
"Nuch is a positive person," longtime friend Mort Allen says. "His feeling is that in the hearts of the people, he will (win). But if he doesn't, he can go back to making money and making a better life for his family."
Every once in a while, Trutanich gives a hint that he knows the odds are against him. For his part, Allen wonders why he still wants the job. "As a friend, I truthfully feel he should get the hell out of there," he says. "What does he need it for?"
After lunch at San Pedro Fish Market, Trutanich has to race to City Hall to talk about a settlement in the Christopher Dorner manhunt case. Two women had been delivering newspapers in Torrance when LAPD officers mistook them for Dorner and riddled their truck with bullets.
Because of intense interest in the Dorner case, 13 TV cameras show up at the press conference — many more than are there for campaign events.
Trutanich talks at length about the $4.2 million settlement. He says that he personally got involved in the negotiations, and that they became heated, and he talks about the porcupine defense, and about how at the last minute everyone came together to make a deal.
He keeps answering questions even as some of the camera operators fold up their sticks. His spokesman gives him the throat-slitting gesture, but he keeps going. He does not want to let go of the moment. It might be his last chance to take pride in the work of his office.
"Two years from now, it could be a different story," Trutanich says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.