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Carmen Trutanich Was the Front-Runner in the DA's Race — Until He Failed to Even Make the Runoff. What Went Wrong?

Carmen Trutanich
Carmen Trutanich
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

Until the returns came in, the crowd at the Croatian American Club of San Pedro on election night was in an ebullient mood. The bar was open as prosecutors rubbed shoulders with lobbyists and longshoremen, all confident that City Attorney Carmen Trutanich was going to be the next district attorney.

In such a setting, speeches are required. So Assemblyman Isadore Hall quieted the crowd to deliver a tribute to Trutanich: "It was Abraham Lincoln who said, 'If you want to test a man's character, give him power.' "

It was hard not to see the irony: Trutanich has been put to that test for three years, with discouraging results. As L.A.'s city attorney, he has targeted a host of low-level offenders, from "noncompliant" marijuana dispensaries to political protesters — pushing for jail time or unusually high bail. The ACLU called one of his signature programs, which targeted street artists, "unquestionably unconstitutional" (see our Feb. 23 cover story, "Carmen the Barbarian").

By the end of the night, it was clear the voters had given Trutanich a failing grade. With each fresh tally, the room emptied a little more. Once the undisputed front- runner — he had out-raised his nearest opponent by a 2.5-to-1 ratio — Trutanich did not even make the runoff. That race will feature two veterans of the DA's office, Jackie Lacey and Alan Jackson.

Well after midnight, the candidate delivered a few self-pitying remarks. He blamed his downfall on an "onslaught" from the media. "I don't know what we did wrong in terms of running the city of L.A.," he said.

In private, he was scathing toward his longtime campaign strategist, John Shallman. Sources close to the campaign say that, in the days following his defeat, Trutanich complained bitterly about Shallman's missteps. As he mulls a run for re-election as city attorney, it appears Trutanich will have to find a new campaign manager. "The relationship with Shallman is over," one source says.

He was even angrier at DA Steve Cooley. Once close friends, the two had a falling-out over Trutanich's decision to run for the post.

"He blames Cooley 100 percent," say Mort Allen, a close friend of Trutanich's. "He's devastated. He's a broken man after what happened on this."

There's no shortage of blame to go around. But while Shallman deserves some of it, Trutanich deserves blame not only for how he campaigned but also for how he governed as city attorney. In fact, the roots of his defeat go back to how he won that job in 2008.

Trutanich's first campaign was designed to get him elected city attorney, not to launch him into the DA's office. It also was intended to ward off a serious threat to Cooley: L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss.

Cooley hated Weiss, and feared that he would use the city attorney's job as a springboard to the DA's office. So Cooley recruited Trutanich to run against Weiss. To heighten the contrast with Weiss, Trutanich signed a pledge to serve two terms.

Trutanich later would describe this as a "dumb tactic," but at the time it underscored a central theme of his campaign, which was that Weiss was a striving politician and Trutanich was not. What made the pledge "dumb" was Trutanich's subsequent decision to violate it.

During the campaign, Trutanich focused on neighborhood issues. Weiss' constituents were upset about illegal billboards, so Trutanich talked about illegal billboards. And, once in office, those were the sorts of issues he focused on. He waged war against marijuana dispensaries and ignored more serious public-safety concerns.

"Nuch came out of his campaign for city attorney convinced that some issues that were more fringe issues were really important," says political consultant Bill Carrick, using Trutanich's nickname. "Billboards are irritating to people, but in terms of saliency, crime and public safety are way above that."

But Trutanich didn't have anyone in his office to tell him that. He'd stocked his administration with friends — many of them retired law-enforcement officials — who knew next to nothing about politics and communications.

"He relied too much on a small cadre of effectively loyal cronies," Cooley says. "Over time, there were multiple instances of him not showing good judgment, and not accepting well-intentioned advice from people that did like him and were invested in him."

Trutanich blundered his way through his first few months in office, alienating supporters and bullying opponents. Within three weeks he had made an enemy of a former ally, ex-controller Laura Chick, who called him a "demagogue" for reneging on a promise to drop a lawsuit against her office.

While he was locking up billboard scofflaws, he expressed little interest in gang prevention and school safety — two issues that would be key to a run for district attorney. Though he would later claim to be focused on schools, his calendars show he never met one-on-one with John Deasy, the new LAUSD superintendent. (Instead, he met frequently with City Hall lobbyists and had lunches with the Croatian consul general.)

To some, Trutanich's aggressive tactics could seem refreshingly blunt. But when Trutanich threatened to jail political protesters, Carrick says, he "took a little turn to the dark side."

Then, after losing a race for attorney general, Cooley announced his retirement from the DA's office. Trutanich, who is 60, realized that if he was ever going to be DA, he would have to do it now, violating his pledge.

But Cooley announced that he intended to hold Trutanich to the pledge. He was furious when Trutanich opted to run.

Trutanich could have handled the broken pledge with a little humility. He needed to give "some sort of mea culpa," says Doug Herman, a political consultant. "Instead, it was sort of, like, 'What pledge?' "

That set a pattern for the campaign. Trutanich was tagged as a liar, and each time he shaded the truth, he reinforced that reputation. When he tried to use a trumped-up ballot title, "Los Angeles Chief Prosecutor," a judge ruled it was misleading. (Trutanich privately has blamed Shallman for pushing the inflated title.)

And when the L.A. Times caught Trutanich embellishing a story about being attacked by gang members, Shallman insisted on sending a letter to the attorney general, asking for an investigation into whether his personnel records had been stolen. Bill Carter, Trutanich's chief of staff, is said to have warned against doing so, but Shallman was adamant. That resulted in even more bad headlines when it turned out that Trutanich knew all along that his files hadn't been stolen.

Shallman had Trutanich run on a platform of fighting gangs and keeping kids safe at schools. But Trutanich didn't have the record to back that up. In fact, he had backed off on gang injunctions and prosecutions, and assigned some gang prosecutors to chase after street artists.

Trutanich's loyal inner circle argues that Shallman should have emphasized the candidate's record on marijuana and billboards.

"Shallman intimidated him," Allen claims. "He was doing a great job for the city, and Shallman never talked about it. He never brought it up."

Despite everything, Trutanich expected to finish first, and was stunned not to make the runoff. He was so unprepared, and so at odds with Shallman, that he couldn't manage the perfunctory task of issuing a concession.

On Friday, more than 48 hours after election night, the city attorney's spokesman was asked if Trutanich would concede the race. "The results speak for themselves," the spokesman replied.

Carmen Trutanich
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI