How Michael Trujillo, California's Bad Boy of Politics, Screws the Opposition
Exhausted political consultant Michael Trujillo
PHOTO BY AMANDA LOPEZ
Michael Trujillo can't quite shake this cough. He's had it for weeks, picked up on the campaign trail. He needs to meet his mother in the Valley to get one of his old inhalers, which he places on his desk next to a laptop and a bottle of Advil.
"There's a lot of personal deferred maintenance when you're on a campaign," he says. Laundry, car repair and the gym all lose out to work and sleep. "That's probably why I'm single."
Trujillo studies the news as if reading entrails, looking for a sign. The Hollywood Reporter has just posted a story online: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has endorsed Wendy Greuel in her race to replace Henry Waxman in the Westside's congressional district. Though he won't admit it, Trujillo, Greuel's campaign manager, almost certainly fed the item to the paper.
This is one of Trujillo's many tasks — plant news stories that are good for his candidate and bad for the other side. They call it spin, and all political operatives do it, though none in Los Angeles, or perhaps all of the West Coast, with as much zeal and enthusiasm as Trujillo.
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It's several weeks before the June 3 election for Congressional District 33, in which Wendy Greuel will go down to defeat. But Trujillo believes she is going to win. And to make sure, he's doing his best to take bites out of her opponents.
There's one story he really wants out there, but no reporter is biting. A recent candidate forum drew 15 of the 17 CD33 candidates — that is, all but Greuel and state Sen. Ted Lieu.
The reason Greuel didn't show up, Trujillo is trying to persuade reporters — off the record — is this: The moderator was a Turkish guy named Cenk Uygur, a left-wing activist who has, in the past, suggested that the Armenian genocide never happened. Furthermore, Trujillo says, the debate's host, The Young Turks, takes its name from the group partly responsible for the 1915 massacre.
Trujillo spent the forum furiously texting the one reporter who was there, trying to get her to cover his Armenian angle.
She wasn't interested. After a few more prodding texts from Trujillo, she bluntly replied: "The average voter doesn't give a fuck about that."
He can't just come out and accuse the other candidates — that would be negative campaigning. He's an unseen hand, and he needs a helpful reporter or somebody else to put the story out. The phone rings.
Answering, Trujillo asks the caller, somewhat manically: "Hey, are you seeing this stuff I'm sending you? ... It makes sense for you to do it because you've been an Armenian your entire life. I don't want them to endorse. I just want them to say why we didn't attend. Wendy and Ted did the right thing, that's the point."
The man, representing an Armenian group, resists. Trujillo gives up.
"How's your kid?" he asks, diffusing the tension. "Is your wife back at work?"
Finally, later in the day, an opening: The Matt Miller campaign puts out a press release criticizing Greuel and Lieu for missing the debate, calling Uygur a "knowledgeable moderator."
"It's time to engage," Trujillo says, taking to Twitter.
"Dear @mattmillernow," he types, addressing Miller, the former host of KCRW's Left, Right and Center and a wealthy corporate consultant for the likes of McKinsey & Company and Burson-Marsteller, "we don't attend debates where the host is a genocide denier."
He hits send and immediately types another tweet: "Why did 13 candidates attend a debate whose moderator denies the Armenian Genocide ever happened?" And another. And another.
His phone rings.
It's Sean Clegg, a noted San Francisco–based political consultant, who, along with veteran national political consultant Ace Smith, is heading Greuel's June 3 primary operation.
Trujillo worked with Clegg on Antonio Villaraigosa's first two mayoral campaigns and Hillary Clinton's presidential run, and Clegg is something of a mentor to him.
Clegg is also, in a way, Trujillo's minder.
Clegg calls at least 10 times a day to strategize — and to keep the 35-year-old Trujillo in line. He wants to know what's up with this Armenian stuff.
"I was being pretty snarky," Trujillo admits. "He had a press release saying the moderator's really smart, so I was just, like, 'fuck you.' I understand. ... I'm done. I'm not doing anything. Understood."
Trujillo hangs up, chastened. Matt Miller responds to him on Twitter. He doesn't reply.
Michael Trujillo has spent nearly half of his adult life in politics. At 18 he became the youngest city commissioner ever. Thirty-five campaigns later, after countless warm cans of Diet Coke, feuds and friendships and notorious emails that made him seem, at times, unhinged and un-hireable, he's still in the game.
Trujillo is renowned for his ability as an opposition researcher and shameless spinner, and for his hubris. As campaign manager for 2009's solar energy initiative, Measure B, he once bragged to reporters that he'd quit politics if the measure failed. It did fail — one of the city's biggest ballot upsets, given that Measure B was backed by the entire Democratic political establishment, which outspent the ragtag opposition $1.5 million to $65,000.
Trujillo didn't quit.
"He's completely addicted to politics, to the sort of the boom and bust of campaigns," says friend Tom Berman, also a political operative.
The CD33 race had the makings of a political comeback, and not just for Greuel, who was trounced by Eric Garcetti in the 2013 mayoral race. After all, Clegg and Smith ran the Department of Water and Power union's pro-Greuel Super PAC campaign, a $3 million effort that backfired, tainting Greuel, fairly or not, as being indebted to the IBEW public employee union.
Clegg and Smith jumped at the chance to run Greuel's congressional race. So did Trujillo.
"You're always coming back if you're a consultant," Trujillo says, insisting there was nothing special about Greuel's congressional bid, at least for him. "No matter what. You always lose. And you always win."
On the June 3 primary election night, the Greuel team is feeling confident. Their internal polls have her winning. For good measure, they've dropped some mailers attacking Ted Lieu — just to "let some air out of Ted's tires," Trujillo explains.
But when the early returns come in, Trujillo and Clegg looks ashen. Former city controller Rick Tuttle is heard singing in a room next door: "Happy days are here again. ... Wendy Greuel is going to win!"
Her victory party in Santa Monica slowly morphs into a wake. Longtime Greuel strategist Sue Burnside mutters, "It's fucking Marianne Williamson! She's taking our fucking votes!"
At 1:42 a.m. on June 4, Trujillo emerges from a closed-door meeting to announce that Greuel is calling her opponents to concede. Some of the staff has been crying. Trujillo has been up for nearly 24 hours. He's still coughing.
On the pivotal night of June 3, Wendy Greuel finishes third behind Republican Elan Carr and Lieu — another crushing blow. In two years, Greuel has run for two offices. She out-raised her opponents both times and lost both times. She tried different consultants, but the result was the same.
Despite the almost obsessive efforts made by consultants — not just Greuel's but all of them — the strange truth is that strategists and their back-door moves generally have little real effect on most races.
"A really good campaign means a point or two," concedes one of L.A.'s top consultants, Parke Skelton. "It doesn't mean 10 points."
More important are the candidate's personality, the mood of the electorate, the swell of other issues in the news cycle. But because there's no reward for second place, campaigns expend enormous energy on the tiniest details.
A few weeks before the June 3 primary, for example, Wendy Greuel must drive from a fundraiser in Beverly Hills to a debate at that city's Temple Emanuel. So the day before, paid staffer Catherine Landers will make the same drive at the same time, just to determine when Greuel should leave her fundraiser (12.5 minutes before 6 p.m., it turns out). The candidate's time is the most precious resource. All else is secondary.
During most of Greuel's campaign, Trujillo's experience and sense of humor actually make for a calming influence. Yet something happens inside him as Election Day approaches. A key turns. He gets a twitch.
Email and Twitter can be especially dangerous.
"Social media is just a horror for him, because he says whatever he wants," says Eric Hacopian, a campaign consultant who has battled Trujillo numerous times.
Trujillo solidified that reputation in 2011 when he announced, in an email that was quickly leaked to the press, that he was about to "put a political bullet" in the head of the candidate in the opposing camp.
The moment crystallized, for some voters, what politics has become: a dirty, cynical game that has absolutely nothing to do with real issues.
When Trujillo flashes his hard side, he seems ready to confirm all that.
"There are three rules I live by," he says at one point, sitting in a cheap Mexican restaurant in Torrance. "Loyalty, loyalty and screw the opposition. There are no black-and-whites, there is no gray area."
But most of the time, Trujillo is simply having fun, playing head games with other campaigns that have a Merry Prankster quality to them.
"There's not enough fun in politics these days," says Rick Orlov, who has covered City Hall for the Los Angeles Daily News since 1988. "Mike is kind of a throwback. He enjoys the game and he enjoys the contest."
His political odyssey began with his grandfather, also named Michael Trujillo, who owned a construction company and routinely donated money to local East Valley politicians. The elder Trujillo got invites to chicken-dinner fundraisers in hotel ballrooms for white politicians such as Ernani Bernardi, Hal Bernson and Joel Wachs, and he sometimes brought his 8-year-old grandson, his namesake.
"The silverware was the shiniest silverware I'd ever seen — you could look into them and see your face!" Trujillo recalls. "I really enjoyed the pageantry, the fanciness, the guy in a tuxedo serving you the three-course meal. I was not at all used to that."
He became enamored with politics. Trujillo remembers tugging on his mom's skirt inside a voting booth in 1988, pleading that she vote for George H.W. Bush. And while his high school peers were discovering drugs and alcohol, Trujillo was feasting on The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Rick Orlov's local politics column in the Daily News.
Trujillo's mom started Mission Hills' first Neighborhood Watch, and on Fridays she'd take her son to City Councilman Richard Alarcon's field office to make free Xerox copies of fliers. Trujillo knew from reading Orlov's column that Alarcon was going to run for re-election unopposed. The Birmingham High School senior needed a bit of extra credit for his college applications, and he had an idea.
Always something of a performer — at the time, Trujillo was in a breakdancing crew, and he'd later appear in three music videos, including Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time" — he thought, why don't I run for City Council?
The last thing Councilman Alarcon needed was some 18-year-old screwing up his re-coronation. So he called his would-be opponent and made an offer. And in December 1997, Trujillo was sitting at the City Council's "horseshoe" being confirmed to the Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families.
City Council President John Ferraro asked the young man if he had anything to say.
"Yes," Trujillo said. "I hope to sit in your chair one day."
Then Orlov marched up to Trujillo and said, "Hey! Tell me about yourself!" The next morning, his photo made the front page of the Daily News.
"He was delightful," Orlov recalls. "He was very energetic, very articulate, very assertive about himself. You always had a feeling that Michael was gonna go somewhere big."
"You always remember the youngest guy in the room," says Trujillo, who seemed to hold that designation for years. He was invited everywhere; everyone wanted to meet him or introduce him to someone. He was asked to introduce Mayor Richard Riordan at an elementary school, and Trujillo, the consummate performer, obliged.
"It was fun," he says. "I was like this bright, shining star back then."
Consultant Sue Burnside recalls showing Trujillo the ropes on a City Council race: "Mike was so bad in the beginning. He was like this little kid from Pacoima, all sheltered and everything."
Then he met the man who became his calling card, Antonio Villaraigosa. Here was a young, passionate, up-and-coming Latino politician brimming with energy — not unlike Trujillo. Trujillo became Villaraigosa's field organizer and sometime body man, shadowing the 47-year-old Speaker of the Assembly, whether it was driving his kids to school or sitting in late-night strategy sessions with consultants Smith, Clegg and Skelton.
"It was the best classroom ever," Trujillo says. "You heard [Villaraigosa] on the phone, you heard the deals that he was trying to get, to get endorsements, talking to other staffers to get dominos in place." The two formed a bond: "I would come in, he would ask me what I thought of his speech, did he do well."
Some still speak wistfully of Villaraigosa's idealistic and strangely romantic 2001 mayoral campaign against City Attorney James Hahn. With endorsements from outgoing mayor Riordan and the Los Angeles Times, the Villaraigosa team could taste victory. Then, Hahn strategist Bill Carrick played his trump card — the rare kind that alters the path of an election.
In 1996, Villaraigosa and other politicians had asked President Bill Clinton to commute the sentence of convicted cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali — whose dad just happened to have donated to Villaraigosa's legislative campaign. Carrick crafted a vicious attack ad, which included a close-up of a crack pipe and the tagline, "Los Angeles can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa."
"It made Villaraigosa look like a drug dealer," Trujillo says.
Villaraigosa's loss left the 21-year-old Trujillo depressed for an entire year, and he took away a bitter lesson from the veteran Carrick: Negative campaigning works. Dirt works.
"I internalized it," Trujillo says. "When Villaraigosa ran in '03 [for City Council], we eviscerated [incumbent] Nick Pacheco. We didn't let this guy up for air at all."
When Villaraigosa ran for mayor again in 2005, Trujillo had developed a reputation as a fearsome opposition researcher. When, purely coincidentally, he moved across the street from the home of James Hahn's then-spokeswoman Shannon Murphy in Manhattan Beach, she became convinced that Trujillo was going through her garbage.
She bought an industrial-strength paper shredder.
"It was a very, very ugly campaign," Murphy says. "It was some black-ops shit. Trujillo, Ace and Sean — they made Hahn seem like he was pay-to-play" - unfairly, as it turns out, since the mayor was never linked to any wrongdoing. "That speaks to Trujillo's strength on opposition research."
Trujillo also began slamming Hahn on the then-anonymous political blog Mayor Sam's Sister City, under the name Chief Parker. It was fun — but as Trujillo now admits, "If reporters were ignoring pitch calls from the campaign when we were trying to give 'em dirt on Hahn, then fuck it, I'll put it online."
Villaraigosa, whose inaugural address was titled "Dream With Me," was disappointed to learn that his 26-year-old protégé was moonlighting as a trash-talking blogger. "That's not how I do things," Trujillo recalls being told by the new mayor.
Yet Villaraigosa put Trujillo to work numerous times throughout his eight years in office. Trujillo helped lobby Sacramento legislators to pass AB 1381, which handed control of L.A.'s failing school system to the mayor. When the courts overturned the bill, Trujillo helped recruit four candidates to run for school board and institute school reforms that way. Eric Hacopian recalls meeting with Ace Smith, Green Dot Charter School founder Steve Barr and Trujillo over what to do about Jonathan Williams' flagging campaign against Marguerite LaMotte, who later won.
"It was an insane meeting," Hacopian says. "Steve Barr nearly stood on the table. Mike Trujillo made a presentation, not knowing I was in the room. He said, 'You could hire a rip-off artist like Eric Hacopian.' ... I had never even met the guy."
(Trujillo later apologized, but it would not be their last run-in.)
Days after Villaraigosa's reform slate gained a slim majority on the school board, Smith hired Trujillo to be California field director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign — an enormous task, which included overseeing some 24,000 precinct captains.
Smith's plan was to target women over the age of 50 who had a history of early voting, and he executed it to a T. On Super Tuesday, early voting helped to secure the state for Clinton.
Smith and Trujillo then shipped off to Texas to run the same play, where they won again for Clinton. Then it was on to North Carolina, where Smith warned him: "We're down 15 points. Our goal is to maybe get it down to 10 points [behind]. That's it. If you ever utter 'We might win,' I'll fire you on the spot."
That didn't stop an exuberant Trujillo from boasting to a crowded gymnasium packed with Hillary Clinton supporters: "We are undefeated. ... We do not lose ... I do not lose." The scene was witnessed by an NBC reporter, who dubbed Trujillo and Smith "Clinton's dream team."
Trujillo remembers vivid scenes, such as one during an eight-stop BBQ tour with Bill Clinton in North Carolina, which prompted an angry call from Hillary Clinton, worried about her husband's heart.
But Obama won North Carolina by 14 points, and Trujillo retreated to Los Angeles.
"Hillary Clinton's loss in 2008 had a profound effect on him," says Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party. "This is a guy who, he puts his heart in deep to what he does. Maybe sometimes too deep."
Trujillo, one of his colleagues says, "was a rising star. When he lost ... I think he didn't really know what to do after that."
The first rule of campaigning is do no harm — "no unforced errors."
On the Friday before Super Bowl 2011, Trujillo was running City Councilman Jose Huizar's re-election bid, a bitter, nasty campaign. The L.A. Times ran several damning stories about Huizar, including one about an "enemies list" he was supposedly keeping, and one about an alleged FBI investigation into Huizar's business dealings.
Trujillo and Parke Skelton struck back to save Huizar. Digging through public records, they got an old police report revealing that, for years, Huizar's opponent, Rudy Martinez, had been carrying a police badge belonging to an officer who'd died in the line of duty — a criminal offense.
This was opp-research gold. Trujillo thought: "We got this guy. Game over."
It was then that Trujillo fired off a bizarre, swaggering email to 28 members of Huizar's campaign team and City Hall staff, which was promptly leaked — and soon became legendary in California political circles.
It read: "In the book of Luke, the Bible says, 'If someone slaps you on one cheek/ offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat/ offer your shirt also. As a good Christian I believe we have run out of cheeks and to be clear there are no more coats to hand Rudy [Martinez].
"I treated him like i was a cat playing with a trapped mouse, well now he is going to be the dead rat he really is ... We are about to put a political bullet in between Rudy Martinez's forehead and make him pee in his pants too."
The email was signed "Chief Parker."
Trujillo explains today that he was just trying to buck up the campaign crew: "For folks answering constituent phone calls, they were taking to heart every single [L.A. Times] article they'd read."
An unknown member of Huizar's staff forwarded the email to the Martinez campaign, helmed by Hacopian. Hacopian says that Martinez, who ultimately lost to incumbent Huizar, cried when he read the email.
Martinez's brother had been shot to death when they were kids. And just a few weeks earlier, U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was gunned down at a supermarket in Tucson, barely surviving.
Trujillo was fired immediately. The next day, he also was fired from school board member Richard Vladovic's re-election campaign. His name became synonymous with the cutthroat politics that had come to epitomize the Villaraigosa era.
"I didn't care if I got in trouble," Trujillo says, flashing his hardened side. "My goal is to win. Whether or not I have to put a sword in my chest to make that happen, so be it."
Tom Berman defends him somewhat, saying Trujillo's timing was stupid, but "I didn't understand why that much of the L.A. Times coverage was devoted to Trujillo-gate. The email wasn't malicious. The intent of it was really just — it was like an excited kid playing Xbox."
For a time, Trujillo had to fly under the radar. One consultant says the mayor's office kept all of Villaraigosa's meetings with Trujillo off the official schedule. And when Trujillo was putting together City Councilman Joe Buscaino's campaign team, his position was unofficial — he wasn't even paid.
Trujillo says he worked off-book because he was sitting on both the city's and the school district's influential "redistricting commissions" at the time and was advised by the city attorney not to work on political campaigns.
Others say it was because his name had become radioactive.
"Mike put himself in a box with the Huizar email," says Brian Van Riper, whom Trujillo hired to run Buscaino's field operation — organizing the volunteers who telephone voters and knock on doors. "I give him a lot of respect, because he didn't get beaten down by it. He just pivoted and found a work-around. I think a lot of people would've quit and moved in with Mom."
Buscaino was a cop, a charming, almost comically polite San Pedro native. In 2011, running against career politicians such as Warren Furutani, who was backed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Buscaino was the surprise winner — an upset campaign essentially helmed, in secret, by Michael Trujillo.
Then, in the wee small hours of their election victory party, a missive went out from Trujillo's email account at 5:35 a.m.:
"Last night was my best professional day ever in my entire life. We showed that you dont need anything — the democratic party, the county federation of labor, seiu, ibew, park skelton, john shallman, eric hacopian, the speaker, the mayor, all of the city council, all of the assembly, all of the senate — years of making deals in city hall."
To this day Trujillo insists he didn't send the email, in which he seemed to take credit for a victory he wasn't even technically supposed to be part of. He says his "computer was left open and someone did a prank."
By whom? "My friend David who lives in Korea."
That account is called into question. One person says Trujillo texted him something very similar earlier that night, boasting about his victory against the upper echelon of L.A.'s political hierarchy.
"It was kinda dumb of Mike to do that," Van Riper says. "I don't know if he was inebriated or what."
If Trujillo was supposed to be atoning for previous sins, he wasn't doing a very good job. "He actually managed to fuck up his great night of glory," Hacopian says.
Buscaino handily defeated Furutani in the runoff, after a positive and dirt-free campaign — Trujillo's idea, in part, he says, to counter his reputation as "an evil person who only likes to go negative."
By 2013, Trujillo had somehow talked the guy who'd fired him for his "bullet in the head" email — newly elected school board president Richard Vladovic — into hiring him as a "communications consultant" to talk to the press (and, of course, to spin).
Then he openly ran Buscaino's re-election campaign, earning $18,000, and soon was working pro bono as a spokesman for Wendy Greuel. After Greuel lost her mayoral race, thanks to her linkage with the DWP union, she decided to run for Waxman's Westside seat.
Trujillo's ex-neighbor Shannon Murphy, who once feared he was rifling her garbage can, actually urged Greuel to hire Trujillo. "I'd rather have him on my team than working against me," Murphy says.
When Trujillo was in sixth grade, he went on a class trip to Malibu Creek Canyon Park. He slipped and rolled down a hill, crashing into a large boulder. His right kidney was fractured; he had to be airlifted to Westlake Medical Center and was still in a wheelchair for graduation.
Trujillo's family sued the school district, the state, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Park Rangers Association and the county.
It turned out that the rangers hadn't been expecting the class and didn't have enough guides, and the ranger in charge of Trujillo's group had taken a shortcut.
His family won a large settlement — money that has been sitting in a trust ever since, accruing interest. Trujillo says he just lets it sit, growing, waiting.
When Trujillo becomes introspective, this is what he brings up. "Knowing that I have that safety net, at least in terms of my career, I'm always sort of like dancing on the edge," he says. "I don't know that that's on purpose, I just think, subconsciously, there's probably this thought: You'll be fine no matter what."
Four days before polls opened on June 3, Trujillo sent Joel Pollak, a reporter for right-wing news site Breitbart.com, an email about Pollak's story handicapping the Congressional District 33 race. Pollak had given Greuel 10-to-1 odds. Trujillo wrote a sarcastic "thank you," which Pollak then posted under the headline "Hate Mail From the Wendy Greuel Campaign" — a preposterous exaggeration. But for those familiar with Trujillo's antics, it seemed all too familiar.
"He couldn't help himself," clucked one consultant working for a Greuel opponent.
When asked about his future, Trujillo shifts uncomfortably in his chair. He wants to work for Hillary Clinton's second go at the presidency, assuming she runs in 2016.
"If she's crazy enough to hire me, I want to work on her campaign," he says.
For some, Trujillo's flaw is that he loves politics as an end unto itself. Winning is what matters, not vision and not solutions.
Of course, Trujillo and his peers are not paid to consider these things. As for their clients — what's their excuse?
Editors note: A paragraph about James Hahn, quoting Shannon Murphy, was altered for clarification on June 12, 2014.
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