Carmen Trutanich makes rare appearance at LA County district attorney debate

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After avoiding his opponents for months, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich Wednesday attended a forum for candidates vying to succeed L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley.

With the most campaign cash and the best name recognition, Trutanich has been the frontrunner in the race to be L.A. County’s top prosecutor. He could afford to lay low. So why show up to an L.A. Times forum?

“As I’ve said all along, I would come to these forums when I felt like it was appropriate and the timing was right," Trutanich told a small group of mostly campaign consultant and lawyers on the sixth floor of the Los Angeles Times building downtown.

The timing comes five weeks before primary day. The top two candidates advance to a November runoff.

Five of six candidates attended the forum. Only one said she supported a ballot initiative to end the death penalty in California.

“We are not executing people on California’s death row," said Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers. "There are over 700 inmates on death row. We are spending billions and billions on housing them.”

Another prosecutor from the DA’s office seeking the top job is Chief Deputy Jackie Lacey. Lacey — who is backed by current D.A. Cooley — said there are too many roadblocks to carrying out the death penalty. “The issue is how to get through the red tape of the appeals," she said.

Lacey touted her management experience as director of central operations, assistant DA, and now as Cooley’s right hand.

“You need that experience, you need that seasoning in order to lead that office," Lacey said.

Meyer piped up: “If that were the case, Steve Cooley would not have been the DA.” Cooley never served in top positions before voters elected him in 2000.

Meyers and Lacey are seeking to become the first black female D.A. in L.A. Meyers is backed by former D.A. Gil Garcetti and the L.A. County Democratic Party — even though the office of District Attorney is non-partisan.

“Democrats have a distinctly different mission," Meyers said. "Even though this is a non-partisan race, our ideals are very different — the issues of environmental crimes, juvenile justice and reform of that system."

Another candidate from the D.A.’s office — Deputy D.A. Alan Jackson — took umbrage at that.
“This is a prosecutor's office. This is not a politician’s office," he said.

Jackson, a Republican, pointed to his years prosecuting some of the toughest cases in L.A. While he’s spent his career sending people to prison, he said the DA should do more than that.

“There needs to be a balance between prosecutions and a compassionate view toward rehabilitation, a compassionate view toward reintegration," Jackson said.

As the state shifts responsibility for more and more prisoners to counties, that’s an increasingly popular view among local prosecutors.

A number of the candidates took shots at Trutanich, a former deputy DA who has not prosecuted cases in two decades. The city attorney said that’s not what it takes to lead the L.A. DA's office, which prosecutes 60,000 felony cases a year.

“In times of dwindling budgets, when governments are challenged, it takes people who are willing to think outside the box,to be smart about prosecution," Trutanich said.

He said he’s balanced budgets during deficits, and started an innovative volunteer prosecutor program as L.A. City Attorney.

The most experienced man at the table was Deputy DA John Breault. “I go back 43 years in the DA’s office — beyond John Van de Kamp," he told the audience. But Breault has raised little money, and has no campaign website.

Yet another Deputy DA who wants to lead the office — Bobby Grace — was in trial and could not make the forum.

One question at the end of the event, if Carmen Trutanich were elected, how long would it take for him to start running for State Attorney General? Three years ago, he had pledged when he ran for city attorney that he would not seek another office before serving two terms.

Trutanich laughed: “I’m making no pledges."

Later, he reiterated that he broke his pledge because he feels like he is the best man to be LA District Attorney.

The primary is June 5.

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