Priorities, personalities shape city attorney race

In his three-and-a-half years as Los Angeles’ City Attorney, Carmen Trutanich has made headlines — and more than a few enemies — by directing some of his office’s 450 lawyers to prosecute ticket scalpers and Occupy L.A. protesters, as well as by drafting controversial city ordinances governing storefront marijuana dispensaries and vigorously pursuing people who put up illegal billboards. 

Mike Feuer, a mild-mannered former city councilman and California assemblyman who is making his second bid for L.A. city attorney, is promising to be Los Angeles’ “problem-solver-in-chief” and argues Trutanich’s tenure in the job demonstrates the incumbent’s misplaced priorities. 

These two candidates for the March 5 primary, along with two more, faced off in a debate at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Jan. 14. Their contest isn’t just a clash between attorneys who have strikingly different personalities; at the debate, Trutanich and Feuer presented two very distinct visions of what Los Angeles’ city attorney should do. 

The job is multifaceted: defending Los Angeles against civil lawsuits and prosecuting those who commit misdemeanor offenses, as well as providing legal counsel to the mayor, city council and various city departments. The city attorney’s office also drafts all of Los Angeles’ new laws and ordinances. 

On Monday evening, Trutanich, a trial attorney before winning his current post in May 2009, emphasized his role as an independent check on the power of the mayor and city council. He pointed to his record, saying he has saved the city $285 million in four years, and to his prior litigation experience before juries as reasons to re-elect him. 

Feuer, meanwhile, pledged to curb gun violence and keep schools and neighborhoods safe, while also promising to help advance job creation. Feuer argued that his experience writing laws and solving problems as a legislator, and before that his experience running Bet Tzedek, a Los Angeles-based Jewish nonprofit legal aid firm, makes him the best candidate for the job.

Two other candidates on the primary ballot were given equal time at the debate, which was moderated by L.A. Times editor-at-large and columnist Jim Newton. Greg Smith and Noel Weiss, both private attorneys who have never held public office, each directed attacks in multiple directions, vying for the audience’s attention in a race dominated by the two frontrunners.

As the 90-minute debate progressed, all four candidates — all, save Trutanich, Jewish — lobbed attacks at one another. For their parts, Feuer attacked Trutanich for not taking a pay cut when the rest of his staff had to and for not writing city ordinances in a timely manner. Trutanich called out Feuer for his lack of experience arguing cases before juries. 

Unless someone receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the primary’s top two vote-getters will face a runoff election in May, and all indications suggest a tight race, in part due to Trutanich’s failed bid for Los Angeles County district attorney last year. Trutanich called that run “a mistake” on Monday night. 

Feuer, who lost his bid for city attorney in 2001, has been preparing for this campaign for more than a year. He leads in fundraising with $940,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2012 — far more than Trutanich, who had $313,000. But, according to a Loyola Marymount University poll, on Election Day in November 2012, Trutanich led the field with support from 36 percent of informed voters. Feuer got 32 percent — but eight out of 10 voters polled said they didn’t know enough to choose a candidate.

Among Los Angeles’ Jews, many are supporting Feuer, who has built strong relationships over years of work within the Jewish community. 

David Lash, who succeeded Feuer at Bet Tzedek as executive director, said it’s Feuer’s experience as a public-interest lawyer that would make Feuer a great city attorney. 

“Mike’s background brings a perspective that I don’t believe we’ve ever had in the city attorney’s office,” said Lash, now at O’Melveny & Myers. “In the right hands, the city attorney can have a huge impact on the lives of the poor and the forgotten and the needy of this city.”

Trutanich is, meanwhile, something of a polarizing figure.

“Trutanich has always been what they call in politics a ‘strong flavor,’ ” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a Journal columnist and executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “He has strong supporters and also people who don’t like him very much.”

Trutanich’s personality was particularly in evidence during a portion of the debate when candidates were invited to ask questions of one another. Smith, a lawyer who represents police officers in their suits against the city and has invested $620,000 of his own money into his campaign, posed a barbed inquiry to Trutanich that questioned the incumbent’s credibility. 

Trutanich responded with mock gratitude. “I want to thank you for that kind-spirited question,” he said, before answering. 

When Trutanich’s turn came next, he turned to Weiss, who is making his second run for city attorney. 

“Mr. Weiss,” Trutanich asked brightly, “would you like to punch Mr. Smith?”

The line drew laughter on Monday night, and Trutanich — or “Nuch,” as he is known — has his own share of Jewish supporters. Fred Gaines is a councilman and mayor pro tem of the city of Calabasas, and so can’t vote in L.A. city elections. Gaines has supported Trutanich’s past campaigns and is supporting him again this time, because, in Gaines’ words, Trutanich knows “how to win for L.A.”

“He knows how to try cases and strategize cases,” Gaines, a land-use attorney who has argued numerous cases against the city, said. “And the city, in the relatively short time that Nuch has been in there, he’s turned that around in terms of winning these cases and reducing their liability.” 

Gaines called Feuer “a thoughtful and good-intentioned public servant,” but he wasn’t confident in Feuer’s abilities as a litigator. “I’m not sure he could find the inside of a courtroom with a flashlight and a subpoena,” Gaines said. 

Feuer contests that characterization, pointing to his early experience as a law clerk for the California Supreme Court and his work running litigation teams at Bet Tzedek. 

Despite his post, Trutanich continues to call himself an “outsider” candidate, while Feuer, who has won endorsements from the California Democratic Party and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has pledged to work closely with the mayor and city council president, if elected. 

The starkness of the contrast may be due, in part, to the nature of the job. Burt Pines served as L.A. city attorney from 1973 to 1981. Now a retired judge, Pines said every city attorney shapes the position based on his priorities. 

“Because of its broad powers, it offers the opportunity to go after a lot of wrongdoing, not just on the street, but white-collar crime and crime by corporations, as well as by individuals,” Pines said. “It just depends on what you want to do.”