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Can Trutanich survive Feuer in LA city attorney’s race?

L.A. City Attorney candidate Mike Feuer.
L.A. City Attorney candidate Mike Feuer.
Rebecca Hill/KPCC

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Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is fighting for his political life. The latest poll, by the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles, showed him down 11 points to his challenger, former State Assemblyman Mike Feuer.

His one ray of hope: The poll found 41 percent of likely voters remain undecided.

Trutanich is nothing if not a fighter. If Los Angeles were the O.K. Corral, he would call himself top gun. As proof of his toughness, the city attorney points to his fight with the powerful operator of Staples Center for the costs of the Michael Jackson memorial.

“I wasn’t afraid to stand up to AEG,” Trutanich said. “When everybody else was going to let that walk, I got $1.3 million from AEG and we reimbursed our general fund.”

Lately, the city attorney is focused on his challenger, former state Assemblyman Mike Feuer.

“I’m honest, he’s not,” said Trutanich.

Trutanich argues that his opponent cut a deal with a political consultant that made it look like Feuer was spending less than he really was on the race, which made him eligible for $650,000 in city matching funds.

While Feuer said the city ethics commission signed off on the deal, Trutanich maintains he never should have received that money.

“If I took that out of your bank account, what would you call me?” Trutanich asks. When Trutanich doesn’t get an answer right away, he persists. “You didn’t answer that question. I didn’t hear an answer.”

It’s classic, in-your-face Trutanich. Once, he threatened to arrest an L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry for supporting billboards he believed were illegal. 

“He’s a hard charging guy who came in from the outside to a very closed system,” Perry said. Even allies say Trutanich may have invited devastating budget cuts to his department because he didn’t know how to play nice at City Hall.  

But Perry, once one of Trutanich’s sharpest critics, now sees his maverick ways as positive. She’s endorsed him for re-election to a job that involves defending the city against lawsuits, giving city officials legal advice and prosecuting low-level crimes.

“While we may disagree at times, I respect the fact that he’s wiling to fight for his position,” Perry said. “And what you see is what you get.”

“You either love him or hate him,” says Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.  He said Trutanich, despite his style, would likely have been a shoe-in for re-election, had he kept his pledge to not run for county district attorney last year. He ran—and finished third.

“He did very badly, which made him very vulnerable,” Sonenshein said.

In this race, Trutanich and his challenger present stark contrasts.

Trutanich, 61, is the son of a San Pedro cannery worker. He graduated from the now defunct South Bay University School of Law, worked as a gang prosecutor before starting a private practice defending environmental polluters. He said he helped bring those companies into compliance with the law. For years, Trutanich was a Republican. He is now registered “declined to state.”

Mike Feuer, 55, is a lifelong Democrat, the son of a high school principal and a graduate of Harvard Law School. He is a former city councilman who ran the nonprofit legal aid group, Bet Tzedek.

At a recent candidate’s forum in South .LA., Feuer smiled broadly as he greeted voters.

Where Trutanich appears brusque, Feuer is polite – someone who promises to bring more collaboration to City Hall.

“We should be meeting every couple or three weeks, the mayor, the city council and myself, to figure out how we can grapple with the major issues of the day,” Feuer explains. He is more talkative, if less combative, than Trutanich.

Feuer said he’d focus on gun violence, safe passageways for kids going to school, and preventing lawsuits against the city.

“It comes down to priorities,” Feuer said. “Mr. Trutanich has pursued headline-grabbing cases at the expense of matters that really count for residents around the city.”

But opposition to Trutanich is also about politics. 

L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz believes the city attorney too often dismisses the need to confer with city labor unions. He also didn’t like Trutanich’s opinion that California law allows the medical use of marijuana—but not dispensaries where patients exchange cash for pot. At one time, Trutanich recommended the city close all dispensaries.

“I thought his position was unnecessarily harsh and negative and unhelpful from my point of view,” Koretz said. “I’m hopeful we get some better legal advice from a different city attorney.”

Feuer enjoys the backing of organized labor, the Democratic Party and both the Daily News and Los Angeles Times.

True to form, Trutanich dismisses his opponent.

“This is a job for a real lawyer,” he said.  “Michael Feuer has not tried one case his entire life.”

“This is the mark of Mr. Trutanich’s true desperation,” Feuer responds. “He’s only got one place to go, and that is to tear people down.”

Feuer said it’s true: He has not tried a case start to finish. But Feuer said he’s argued plenty of matters before state and federal courts, led litigation teams, and has the endorsements of the state and county bar association presidents.

He adds that the city attorney job is more about leadership than being good in the courtroom.

Feuer previously ran for city attorney in 2001.