Trutanich Crime Ad: Tempest in PC Teapot

Until last Sunday, many if not most Los Angeles voters had probably only heard of one of the City Attorney candidates, the somewhat annoying Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss. But then the Los Angeles Times endorsed Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich and we suddenly realized a race was on. The Times assured its readers that "Nuch" was a man of vision and solid virtues. Weiss' backers have found more faults than virtues, however, accusing Trutanich of being either a member or sympathizer of the National Rifle Association, while also, as an attorney, having defended a man charged with shooting sea lions off Catalina Island. Perhaps the worst charge, though, was that a Trutanich television spot depicted L.A. gangbangers as menacing Latinos.

A word of advice to the Weiss campaign: Don't go there. Trutanich's

ad was just one in a historical library of law and order ads (i.e.,

"Riordan: Tough Enough for L.A.") that depict criminals as the enemies

of society. Where these ads get sleazy and truly divisive is when they

flaunt the race card, as did George H.W. Bush's infamous Willie Horton commercial, or Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant spot

showing Mexicans stampeding across dry river beds or past border

checkpoints. The Horton ad was sleazy because Bush's campaign staff had

a choice of cases and images to choose from, but picked one for which

Dukakis bore no responsibility - simply to use the image of a scary

black man.

Wilson's attack on illegal immigration did not have such a choice,

because no Canadians were climbing over fences to reach the Lower 48.

It was divisive, nonetheless: "They keep coming," the voice-over

intoned over scenes of Hispanic invasion. What made Wilson's commercial

so odious (and effective) was its telephoto shots of the "they" who

kept coming like a faceless herd. By focusing on teeming hordes, the ad

dehumanized the immigrants and played on the racial fears of


The Trutanich spot ("A True Crimefighter"), which emphasizes the

candidate's credentials as a former prosecutor, uses actors in a

rapid-fire, half-minute montage of images. The actors appearing in one

urban tableau certainly look like Latino gangbangers attired in

sunglasses and Pendleton shirts. But the image is gone in about two

seconds, before the eye can really focus on it. Is the spot reductive?

Yes, but that's the function of any political ad. More important, it

presents a statement about Trutanich's history in visual shorthand

without harping on its targets' backgrounds. Weiss' supporters should not

want to play a PC game about stereotyping that can only

backfire. The fact remains that L.A. has an entrenched

gang culture and most of it is Latino. The people who deny this reality

might as well picket West Side Story because one of its story's gangs is Puerto Rican.

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