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Op-Ed

'Nuch': Odd man in at City Hall

Carmen Trutanich exists outside City Hall's main political currents and is uninhibited by its usual constraints. He's also a bit odd.

January 25, 2011|Jim Newton
  • Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is considered a potential successor to L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, should Cooley step down after his current term.
Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is considered a potential successor… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is a refreshing presence at City Hall. He exists outside its main political currents and is uninhibited by its usual constraints. He's also, well, a bit odd.

In a city government dominated by the slick and the connected, Trutanich is gruff and emotional. He's built like an old-school boxer, barrel-chested, with big hands. He calls himself a "knucklehead," insists he's not a "bellyacher," laughs boisterously at his own jokes. He loves to talk — and rambles around an answer, distracting himself so often that it can take him 10 minutes to return to his original point. He speaks with great conviction, and his eyes dampen a bit when he shares such thoughts as "All I want to do is to do my job."

Since arriving at City Hall 18 months ago, Trutanich has made his share of enemies. He beat Antonio Villaraigosa's pal, former City Councilman Jack Weiss, to win his office, and he had barely warmed his chair before he was in a beef with Tim Leiweke, the lord high general of Staples Center and L.A. Live, and a guy who's used to getting his way. One battle between Trutanich and Leiweke got so heated that Trutanich — possibly in jest, possibly not — threatened to have a city official arrested if he granted Leiweke the billboard permits he was seeking. It's not your average lawyer who proposes to arrest his client.

Trutanich then galumphed his way around Sacramento, where he pushed for a bill to give him a grand jury to investigate misdemeanors. He insists it was just to enhance his office's ability to secure evidence; others saw it as a power grab. "Everybody got up in arms," he acknowledged with a shrug. "It died."

Today, Trutanich — "Nuch" to his friends and just about everyone else — is the subject of much City Hall chatter, as he's considered a potential successor to L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who has served in that office since 2000 and, having just lost a close race for attorney general, may step down after his current term. A handful of relative unknowns are circling, but Trutanich, a close friend of Cooley, would be the front-runner. (This despite Trutanich once pledging to serve out his term if elected city attorney. His novel campaign promise was that if either he or Weiss jumped to another office, the jumper would be obligated to donate $100,000 to a charity and take out a full-page ad admitting "I AM A LIAR." Weiss refused to agree, so Trutanich doesn't consider the deal binding).

Over lunch last week at Ciro's, a Boyle Heights spot that is one of Trutanich's favorites — he ordered his regular, the Mexican plate — the city attorney did not announce for Cooley's job, but he enjoyed being asked.

"As far as I'm concerned, Cooley's the D.A.," he said between bites of chile relleno and enchilada, a flour tortilla in hand to scoop up the beans and rice. Unlike most elected officials in the city and county, the district attorney is not subject to term limits, so Cooley could seek another term. But what if Cooley doesn't run? "If my mom had wheels, she'd be a Buick," he said, dodging and chortling.

One more try: Would he like the job? "It's a great job," he allowed. "Does the job have appeal and attraction? You bet it does."

Cooley has, among other things, not one but two grand juries, civil and criminal; that appeals to Nuch.

For now, Trutanich said, his focus is on the city's rolling budget disaster, which has claimed more from his department than any other city agency, a fact that annoys Trutanich no end. From the moment he took office, the mayor who opposed his election has been hacking at him, cutting more than 100 positions and more than 30% of his budget.

At our lunch, Trutanich tried — oh, how he tried — not to knock the mayor and the council. Asked to evaluate their work, he shook his head. "No comment," he said. Asked again: "My mom always taught me to be polite."

But as our conversation progressed, he couldn't help himself. The budget process, he said, is political, not substantive. Suggestions from the city attorney's office on how to raise revenue — by, say, giving the office the power to collect city debts and oversee fines for violating administrative codes — are routinely allowed to "age nicely," as Trutanich put it.

Criminals are watching this process, Trutanich insisted, producing a note posted on an L.A. Times message board that he is convinced was put there by a tagger gloating over cuts to graffiti abatement. "HAHA," the message reads, and Trutanich takes it personally. "He's saying 'HAHA, Trutanich is getting screwed.' He's right. I am."

Trutanich's schedule for the past 18 months lists 170 public events through the end of 2010, and he rattles off another half a dozen just since last week. At times, that's taken a toll. He was hospitalized in December 2009 after suffering abdominal pains that doctors attributed, in part, to stress. Now he's feeling better, working long days, showing up at events and churches, pressing the flesh.

"I'm not as healthy as I want to be," he said. No time for racquetball with all the obligations. But Trutanich says he's raring to take on the next challenge. He makes the point by patting his stomach. "You don't get this fat by not eating," he said. He laughed.

jim.newton@latimes.com

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