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What's the deal with D.A. candidate Carmen Trutanich?

May 12, 2012|By Robert Greene
  • Carmen Trutanich is running for Los Angeles County district attorney
Carmen Trutanich is running for Los Angeles County district attorney (Los Angeles Times )

So what’s the deal with Carmen Trutanich, anyway? Is he the goofy but dangerous loose cannon, power-hungry crazy man that so many former supporters love to hate? Or is he the reform-oriented outsider who, in his own description, made a few high-profile missteps in his first few months because he was unfamiliar with the culture of City Hall, and then settled down to be a solid administrator of an office that dispenses sound advice to city leaders and prosecutes dangerous criminals and nuisance violators?

It is in many ways the key question in the June 5 race for district attorney. Few voters have likely heard much about any of the candidates except Trutanich, 60, because in 2009 he ran for and won, in something of an upset, the job of Los Angeles city attorney. That has put him in the news, and in many ways put him in “the system”: Potential donors know who he is and whether he can help them or hurt them. He has the highest profile, the most weighty endorsements, the biggest campaign treasury and the most experienced team. In this race for an open seat, Trutanich is the closest thing there is to an incumbent.

That gives him the strongest position, but also the most awkward one. What does he stand for? Is he the candidate of change or of the status quo? Is he still the outsider, as he was when he went up against Councilman Jack Weiss three years ago? Or is he now the ultimate insider?

A former Republican, he has won endorsements from prominent Democrats including Gov. Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor endorsed him. Even Shaquille O’Neal is on board. So is Sheriff Lee Baca.

On paper, Trutanich appears to grasp the fact that California in general, and Los Angeles County in particular, are at a crossroads and must decide whether to finally refocus the criminal justice system on rehabilitation, restorative justice and reentry -- where possible, without putting communities in danger from improperly released criminals -- or whether instead to hunker down, resist change and lock more people away.

Still, some of us at the Los Angeles Times editorial board were puzzled by the “Blueprint for Justice” he left with us when he came in to discuss an endorsement. We read this stuff -- pretty carefully. And it was disconcerting to see in it (Page 10) that he wants to reestablish the California Youth Authority. Really? Because of investigations and lawsuits in the 1990s and more recently, the CYA became a discredited network of youth prisons where juvenile wards were abused instead of educated and rehabilitated. It was replaced by the Division of Juvenile Justice, which still struggles to perform its mission. The Times has called for keeping the DJJ in place until counties have the resources to supervise the most troubled young offenders, but there are few calls anywhere to reestablish the CYA.

Trutanich’s blueprint promises to establish a Public Integrity Division (Page 17) with a supervisor to lead “ongoing investigations in protection of potential abuses committed by public employees.”

Huh? There already is a Public Integrity Division, established 12 years ago by Cooley. And -- “protection of potential abuses”?

We finally matched up the document he left us with the (thankfully) revised version of his blueprint online and were relieved that his thinking, or at least his language, was updated somewhat. Still, the idea is not to play “gotcha” because he presented us with a poorly written and reviewed draft but to express some concern about what Trutanich’s beliefs truly are about the justice system and the role in it of the district attorney.

As for exactly what he would do in office, his outline is no better -- but to be fair, no worse either -- than that offered by the other candidates. Missing from the campaign are “white papers” of the type that Cooley, when he was first running, presented to show exactly how he would handle three-strikes cases, questions about the reliability of police witnesses and similar matters. Trutanich does promise a neighborhood prosecutors program, modeled on the one in place in the city attorney’s office, and advisory councils modeled on the city’s neighborhood councils.

Many of Trutanich’s ideas are based on a commitment to find new funding. His track record in the city attorney’s office is mixed on that score: He has had his budget slashed deeply, and like many city workers, his lawyers had to absorb furlough days. To the credit of his lawyers, though, many kept working without pay on their forced days off. Meanwhile, Trutanich created a program that allowed volunteer attorneys to get some trial experience while giving the city legal representation at little cost.

Trutanich participated in a Los Angeles Times candidates’ forum May 2, but he has made few other appearances with rivals Danette Meyers, Jackie Lacey, Bobby Grace, Alan Jackson and John Breault III.

The Times' editorial board bases its decision on what we can learn about the candidates, their ideas, their abilities and their character by talking with them, but also with people with whom they have worked with, for and against.

Our endorsement will be published Sunday, May 13.

ALSO:

Jackie Lacey looks to move up

Alan Jackson, winner with jurors, makes case to voters

Prosecutor Bobby Grace makes his play for L.A. district attorney

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