Former prosecutor Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich's come-from-behind victory in the race for Los Angeles city attorney served as the latest in a string of setbacks that could complicate Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's decision on whether to run for governor.
Villaraigosa already had a weaker than expected showing in his March 3 reelection campaign, securing 55% of the vote against nine poorly funded opponents. His solar energy plan, Measure B, fell short of passage on the same ballot.
Now, the electorate has delivered a "slap" to Villaraigosa with the defeat of Councilman Jack Weiss, the mayor's closest City Hall ally, Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who did not endorse either candidate, said Wednesday.
"Politically speaking, it puts him in a weaker position," said Councilman Dennis Zine, a Villaraigosa friend who nevertheless backed Trutanich.
Villaraigosa supporters contend that Weiss, not the mayor, should be held responsible for Trutanich's victory. Political experts also said that Weiss, an eight-year councilman, was simply a tempting target for an electorate in an anti-incumbent mood.
Still, one longtime Democratic Party activist saw a connection between the city attorney's race and Villaraigosa's next move.
"I'm sure the frustration he feels about last night's outcome will be part of his consideration about whether he runs" for statewide office, said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
'A little earthquake'
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who persuaded Trutanich, 57, to run for the seat, took a much harder line, saying that the election exposed the limits of the political apparatus created by the mayor and his allies, a group that includes union leaders, real estate developers, environmentalists and Democratic Party activists.
"Hopefully, this is a little earthquake to let them know that a machine is not going to dominate the city, with a puppet and a puppeteer," said Cooley, making a thinly veiled reference to Weiss and the mayor.
Villaraigosa acknowledged the sting felt by Weiss on Wednesday but promised to work with Trutanich. And he brushed aside any talk of gubernatorial aspirations, saying that his priority is the city's budget crisis, not statewide office.
"I've got to focus on what's at hand. I've just said that we've got big problems in the city. But I will say something about Jack, because that's the kind of guy I am," Villaraigosa said during a news conference at a downtown fire station.
"Jack's like a little brother to me, and he is because I sat with him on the City Council. I saw his intellect, his integrity, his honesty."
For weeks, Trutanich and Weiss were locked in the most negative city campaign since 2005, when Villaraigosa handily defeated incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn. During that race, Weiss served as Villaraigosa's right-hand man, skewering Hahn from the sidelines and providing his friend and ally with logistical support.
Villaraigosa began returning the favor two years ago, helping Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, raise money and line up endorsements for his own citywide campaign. In recent weeks, the mayor promised to go "anywhere and everywhere" to help Weiss win.
Still, the mayor's efforts were complicated by Weiss' own eight-year track record. His colleagues complained that he had been unnecessarily dismissive of them. And a coalition of constituents portrayed him as arrogant and unresponsive, saying that he failed to properly scrutinize development projects in his traffic-choked district.
Weiss, 44, repeatedly touted his constituent services and described critics in his district as part of a tiny minority. Meanwhile, one longtime Weiss critic said Tuesday's results offer a warning that goes well beyond the mayor or a single councilman.
Mike Eveloff, president of the Tract 7260 Homeowners Assn., said each City Hall politician should not underestimate the increasingly sophisticated networkings of neighborhood groups. "What this [election] should teach people downtown is, treat your constituents well," he said. "And if you don't, with the viral nature of communications these days, you will pay a higher price than you would have in years past."
Noting that Weiss had a tenuous hold on his council district, which ranges from the Westside to Encino, political experts said Villaraigosa will need to ensure that his standing in Los Angeles is solid before embarking on a statewide run.
"I think he's going to have to think long and hard about whether this is a race that he wants to make," said political consultant Bill Carrick. "Part of that consideration is -- is his political base in Los Angeles secure?"
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who backed Trutanich in the campaign's final days, said the election results could make her colleagues less accommodating when they disagree with the mayor. Hahn already moved earlier this month to block the mayor from creating a $205,000-a-year executive position at the Port of Los Angeles.