Well over a year ago, District Attorney Steve Cooley was having lunch with one of his most respected former prosecutors, Curt Livesay, at a favorite spot — probably Langer’s Deli, although Cooley no longer recalls for sure.

Enjoying his sandwich, Cooley was making final a long-considered decision that carried the potential to badly backfire on the D.A. He was going to openly push for the election of Livesay’s colleague at a busy private law firm, political unknown and former prosecutor Carmen Trutanich, in the 2009 Los Angeles city attorney race against odds-on favorite and mayoral ally Jack Weiss.

The last D.A. to be returned to office for a third term by county voters, before Cooley won that distinction, was Buron Fitts, a larger-than-life prosecutor from 1928 to 1940 who once got shot in a volley of gunfire, was indicted for bribery and then acquitted, and later worked in Army intelligence. Between Fitts and Cooley, voters consistently forced the D.A. out after one or two terms.

Cooley has survived in that hot seat partly by avoiding embarrassing controversies. Yet here he was, deciding to take on a deep-pocketed downtown political apparatus run by the hyperpolitical Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has spent much of his time not addressing city problems, but instead building a political machine that includes much of the Los Angeles Unified School board and even the chief of police, William J. Bratton.

With less than two weeks until the May 19 election, Cooley’s decision at Langer’s has not backfired. Instead, it has set City Hall on tenterhooks and spurred an old-fashioned, mud-slinging race between two very different candidates that is either man’s to lose.

“It’s a hot election, I’ll tell you, with a lot of heat and a lot of rancor,” says Cooley today. “But you know what? This is healthy. It’s healthy. It’s really, really, really good for L.A.”

Without the Los Angeles Times poll to offer its predictions (it went defunct last fall), nobody knows who has the momentum. But both candidates have cause for sleeplessness.

In the March primary, Weiss, a city councilman, beat Trutanich 36 percent to 27 percent, giving Trutanich a bigger hill to climb to victory in May. Yet many analysts saw the primary as a big “anybody but Weiss” vote, because four candidates — Trutanich, Michael Amerian, David Berger and Noel Weiss — captured 63.76 percent of the vote and forced Weiss into a runoff.

Dick Rosengarten, editor of the respected political newsletter CalPeek (calpeek.org), says he was “in shock” when Weiss got only 36 percent. “Now my belief is: Carmen Trutanich, it’s his race to win or lose.”

Trying to explain how Weiss ended up on the defensive, Rosengarten says, “There’s an old saying in politics, ‘You can’t hit people and expect them to like you.’ … It was more than a bunch of disgruntled homeowners. It’s the [proliferating] billboards. It’s the overdevelopment without concern about traffic issues. It’s environmental issues.”

Then several days ago, Sheriff Lee Baca slammed Weiss for his “reckless disregard for the truth” — and yanked his endorsement of Weiss after having spent months praising both men. The cause of Baca’s ire: Weiss’ negative campaign, being run by opposition research expert Ace Smith.

Political consultant Leo Briones says “that’s not good” for Weiss. Briones gives a slight edge to Weiss but says, “Clearly Trutanich is catching up to him…. I would right now — just from my feeling — I would say it’s a toss-up.”

Another development indicates a real horse race as voters begin mailing in their absentee ballots. Although Weiss vastly outspent Trutanich in March — by about $1 million — that was no longer the case by mid-April, when Trutanich slightly outdid Weiss in campaign fund-raising and, thanks to city matching funds, had more cash on hand than Weiss.

Political consultant Parke Skelton says Cooley’s endorsement isn’t influencing voters “by any stretch of the imagination.” And in fact, endorsements generally have little effect on what most voters do. But key endorsements can dramatically raise an unknown candidate’s profile and ability to raise funds.

That’s what has unfolded since Cooley decided more than a year ago that, in a city the size of L.A., the election of its top lawyer shouldn’t be pre-ordained at City Hall.

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