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L.A. ELECTIONS

Trutanich's defeat sown in a broken pledge

The city attorney acknowledges his loss is tied to his ill-fated run for D.A.

May 23, 2013|Jean Merl and Abby Sewell
  • City attorney-elect Mike Feuer speaks with friends, family and supporters just before midnight at his election night party.
City attorney-elect Mike Feuer speaks with friends, family and supporters… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

The seeds of one-term Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich's resounding election defeat Tuesday were planted in his ill-fated run for district attorney last year. The candidate himself acknowledged that with less than a quarter of the ballots counted.

Observers have said that voters did not like that he went back on his pledge to not seek higher office until finishing two terms.

Mike Feuer, a onetime city councilman and a former member of the state Assembly, trounced the incumbent 62% to 38%, unofficial election returns showed. Feuer carried all but one of the 15 council districts, losing only in Trutanich's home turf that includes San Pedro.

"He's a very good lawyer," said William W. Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy and longtime friend from their days together as deputy district attorneys. "He's not a very good politician."

Trutanich wasn't the only officeholder that voters rejected Tuesday. In addition to choosing City Councilman Eric Garcetti over City Controller Wendy Greuel for mayor, they picked little-known Westside attorney and businessman Ron Galperin over Councilman Dennis Zine, 56% to 44%, to succeed Greuel as controller. It will be the first elected office for Galperin, who credits his experience on two city finance and government efficiency boards for giving him an edge with voters.

"It would definitely seem that people did their homework," Galperin said of his win over Zine, a retired LAPD sergeant and three-term councilman from the San Fernando Valley.

Galperin's wide margin was unexpected but didn't come close to the 24-point lead that Feuer piled up over Trutanich, who reaped little benefit from the usual advantages of incumbency.

Four years ago, Trutanich, an up-by-the-bootstraps career lawyer and first-time candidate at age 57, parlayed his outsider status into an upset of a close ally of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But that status also had its downside, as Trutanich soon learned during his rocky first months on the job. His combative style found him tangling with several council members on issues such as how to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and decide signage at entertainment giant AEG's downtown complex. One council member proposed that the council hire its own lawyer rather than rely on the city attorney's advice.

The dust-ups tended to overshadow Trutanich's accomplishments, which included reducing the city's reliance on costly outside lawyers and getting newly minted attorneys to volunteer in exchange for experience trying misdemeanor cases.

Then came the district attorney's race, which Trutanich jumped into despite his pledge. His opponents hammered him on the broken promise and he failed to make the runoff. His vulnerability exposed, Trutanich was far behind in fundraising when he pivoted last summer to seek reelection to his city post.

Had he not run for district attorney, Trutanich could have been reelected, say close observers of Los Angeles politics.

"This race only happened because he had made the decision to run for district attorney," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, who heads the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. When Trutanich lost, Sonenshein said, "everybody's plans were scrambled, including Trutanich's."

Late on election night, Trutanich acknowledged as much.

"I got beat up by the pledge, obviously, and I guess it's hard to get forgiveness," he said. "I made a mistake and I can't turn back the clock."

Despite the contentious campaign, Trutanich telephoned Feuer after conceding and offered to help with the transition to a new administration. Feuer said Wednesday he was "very grateful" for the offer. "He'll play an integral role in the transition," Feuer said.

The city attorney-elect will face at least one challenge that dogged his predecessor -- steep budget cuts that sharply reduced the staff and required remaining attorneys to take unpaid days off.

"The budget has been decimated and that creates enormous difficulties," said Feuer, who expects that his experience running a nonprofit legal aid group on a shoestring will help him "make do with little." He also plans to lobby for a better budget by "developing particularly strong relationships with the council and mayor" and to demonstrate the importance of adequately funding the office.

Feuer reiterated his campaign promises to make priorities of building stronger communities, including revitalizing the popular neighborhood-prosecutor program, while combating gun violence and working with other elected officials to lower the city's exposure to lawsuits.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.

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