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Newton: The bitter battle for L.A. city attorney

The race between Assemblyman Mike Feuer and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich will be intense — and rancorous.

October 08, 2012|Jim Newton
  • Assemblyman Mike Feuer, left, is running for L.A. city attorney against incumbent Carmen Trutanich.
Assemblyman Mike Feuer, left, is running for L.A. city attorney against… (Los Angeles Times )

In this city election cycle, most of the attention so far has been devoted to the big event: the early maneuvering in the mayor's race, as the field takes shape and the leading contenders attempt to define themselves. While that's going on, though, the undercard has been largely overlooked, and there the contest for city attorney pits two of the region's better-known — and quite different — public officials against each other in what promises to be a tough and consequential bout.

In one corner is Assemblyman Mike Feuer — earnest, experienced and capable, a wiry middleweight with a solid record. This last legislative session, he carried a host of bills that made it into law, and their range is testament to Feuer's interests and ability. Among other accomplishments, he got state clearance for Los Angeles voters to consider extending the half-cent sales tax for transportation; he successfully carried a measure protecting consumers from predatory car loans; and he won approval for Californians to be able to register and vote on election day.

In the other corner is incumbent City Atty. Carmen Trutanich — tough, personable, slightly goofy, more of a ham-handed brawler. Trutanich came to office as an outsider who fought his way past City Councilman Jack Weiss and Weiss' chief supporter, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. From the start, Trutanich signaled his intention to act outside of City Hall's ruling elite, and he's been true to his word. He's blustered and threatened and boasted, all while having to absorb deep budget cuts. To his supporters, that's proof of his independence; to his critics, it's evidence of his recklessness and willingness to forgo responsible leadership in favor of headline-grabbing stunts.

The differences don't stop there. Soon after he was elected, Trutanich threatened to file charges against Councilwoman Jan Perry if she allowed downtown powerhouse AEG to erect new billboards at its L.A. Live center. Perry was being threatened, in effect, by her own lawyer, since the city attorney represents the council. So it's no surprise that the council has since hired its own attorney, a clear vote of no-confidence in Trutanich. Feuer, by contrast, draws on experience as a council member and speaks of wanting to establish a close working relationship between the city attorney's office and the mayor and council president.

There is poisonously bad blood between the Feuer and Trutanich campaigns. John Shallman was, until recently, Trutanich's campaign consultant. It was Shallman who guided Trutanich's disastrous campaign for district attorney, in which the city attorney, having broken his pledge not to run for another office during his term, failed even to make the runoff against a field of lesser-known opponents. Like many, Shallman had expected Trutanich to win, and figured he would then represent Feuer in the city attorney race. When Trutanich lost, Shallman dumped him and jumped to Feuer. Incensed, Trutanich sued Shallman, demanding an accounting of the campaign's finances. Rick Taylor, who's now running the Trutanich campaign, lashed out hard at Shallman when we spoke last week. What Shallman did, Taylor said, was "beyond despicable.... He stabbed his client in the back."

Even by the standards of politics, that's pretty rough, and it's worth pointing out that Shallman isn't the candidate, so it's also diversionary. (It's safe to say that it would be easier to run against Shallman than Feuer.) Still, it's an indication that the race is shaping up to be more than your average tussle.

As it heats up, here are some things to watch for: Taylor will work to reintroduce Trutanich to the electorate, this time drawing more heavily on Trutanich's family, and will try to brush off Feuer as a pipsqueak career politician. Shallman will lean on Feuer's long public service and commitment to the poor (before running for City Council and later Assembly, Feuer ran Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal representation to tens of thousands of people), and will challenge Trutanich's record.

There is, by the way, a third candidate in the race, lawyer Greg Smith, but he's not playing at the same level as the others. The early edge — despite Trutanich's incumbency and strengths — has to go to Feuer, if for no other reason than the loss in the district attorney's race bloodied Trutanich and revealed real weaknesses in his political standing.

Indeed, the results there were worse than most people know. Trutanich not only lost outside Los Angeles, where voters presumably knew less about him; he also lost big in the city he represents, winning fewer than one in three votes. Indeed, in 14 out of 15 council districts, he pulled less than 30%. That's a big hole to climb out of, even for a heavyweight.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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