The Incumbent Underdog

  • 05/03/2013
  • Terelle Jerricks

Trutanich Needs His Pit Bull Tenacity in Uphill Re-election Bid

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

From his first day on the job as Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich has operated like an outsider.

He picked fights with politically connected developers and threaten to put city council members in jail. And, he does it all unapologetically. He has always positioned himself as a different breed of politician — different than the others who voters tend to hold their noses for when they elect them into office.

He is second generation immigrant of Croatian and Italian heritage, nicknamed “Nuch,” which is Croatian for Junior. He was given the name to distinguish him from the other Carmens in the family. In casual conversation,  Nuch sometimes makes his personal narrative sound like the film adaptation of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger’s life, Rudy or maybe Matt Damon’s character in Goodwill Hunting, though without the gift of being a polymath.

If nothing else, Nuch has shown he’s a genius when it comes to his determination and pit bull-like tenacity in achieving his ambitions.

Nuch reflected these qualities during a Saturday evening interview with Random Lengths, after a long day of hopscotching the City of Los Angeles campaigning with his wife and unofficial campaign manager, Noreen. During the course of the interview, she proved to be his affirming defender and able manager, keeping him on message.

“Maybe it was a mistake to run for DA,” he said a little remorsefully of his June 2012 run.

“The only reason I ran was because the 78 percent of those that are locked up are high school dropouts and [have a] a school district that drops out 50 percent of its students before they graduate from high school,” he said drawing a connection between the prison industrial complex’s dependence on a failing education system.

Nuch notes that though the City Attorney’s office has a truancy program, as the city’s top lawyer, he has no jurisdiction over juveniles because they’re governed by the welfare institution code.

“As a DA, I can do things in Juvenile Hall in terms of education. I can go to LAUSD and I can go to the governor’s office and say, ‘listen, we need to start from every school, every kid, every day for 35 minutes study the value of finishing school and life skills.’”

In that race, Nuch had accumulated a war-chest that was more than twice his nearest competitor but missed making the runoff by wide margin. His campaign woes included his foray into social media and YouTube videos, called Tru Stories. The webisodes had the look and feel of the late 80s-early 90s legal drama, L.A. Law, with its humor grounded in unintended farce.

The webisode highlight his time as a gang prosecutor and attempted to play up his fearlessness in recounting an incident where he was allegedly surrounded by and shot at by gang members while investigating a murder in a south Los Angeles park. The only problem is that there are no documents that indicate that this even happened.

Other issues included how Sheriff Lee Baca, who was just beginning to weather his own storm of controversy relating to alleged abuse by sheriff’s deputies in the county jails, wore his uniform in a campaign video endorsing Nuch.

Understandably, Nuch’s race for reelection has been an uphill climb. A Times-USC poll had Nuch down by double digits this past month. He puts that gap as being closer to 5 percent — striking distance from an upset win.

Nuch blames his poor showing in the March 2013 primary on the fact that he is an incumbent with three candidates attacking him.

“When you have three voices saying that you are a failure … that’s still three voices to one,” he said.

Despite his 30 years as a successful practicing lawyer Nuch, still sees himself as the little guy that everyone tends to underestimate.

The Settlement
On April 23, Nuch’s office announced that he reached an agreement with the Los Angeles Times delivery women who were mistakenly shot by the Los Angeles Police Department during the the manhunt for ex-officer Christopher Dorner. That a settlement was reached was not a surprise, but judging from chatter online, the $4.2 million was a shocker.

From Nuch’s perspective, this was a great deal.

“There were nine police officers there that day,” Nuch said. “The City of Los Angeles has a legal responsibility to defend those officers in civil court and that they were acting within the force of their authority.”

He noted that each of those officers would have needed their own independent lawyer. That would have cost the city at least $9 million. And, that’s just money to pay to try the case.

“They were doing their jobs,” Nuch said of the women. “Someone even put out that baloney that they didn’t have their headlights on. Wrong. They did have their headlights on. All of a sudden nine officers opened fire on them.”

To further hammer his point, he rhetorically asked, “How much money would you take right for letting me point an M-16 from 50 yards out at you?

He noted that if it weren’t for those newspapers in the truck, they would have been dead.

Position on Gun Control
It’s no secret that Nuch switched party registration from Republican to “decline to state,” but his views aren’t entirely driven by ideology. In recent press releases, Nuch praised the Los Angeles’ public safety committee for its unanimous vote for an ordinance on large capacity magazines for high capacity magazine clips for guns that accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

“I’m in favor of reasonable gun control,” Nuch explained. “I’m not an extremist on either side. If you look at what’s been done in the city we have always been in the center, always. If you got a 10 clip magazine, what do you do.”

Nuch imitates the sound of machine gun “boomboomboomboomboomboombooom. Flip it over, and you shoot it again in seconds. Bad guys are going to do bad things. And the only way you’re going to stop bad guys from doing bad things is by taking away their access to magazine clips.”

He said he believes the National Rifle Association’s hardline stance on reasonable gun control measures is wrong.

“The Supreme Court said that states have the right to reasonably regulated gun control. And nobody is trying to do anything but reasonably regulate it.“

He asked the state Attorney General, Kamala Harris’ office to release the Dealer’s Record of Sale documents to his office. These are documents sellers have to complete before a gun is sold.

“You can’t just go to a gun show and buy gun,” Nuch said. “You have to submit to a background check.”

Nuch said he requested the documents after reading a Rand study that shows potential gun buyers are 200 percent more likely to obey the law. The records must include the correct name and addresses on them. With the Dealer’s Record of Sale records, Nuch said he sent out letters informing gun buyers that they could not be strawman buyers. At the cost of a 42 cent stamp Nuch noted, he was able to determine the reliability of the Dealer’s Record of Sale records and improved them at the same time.

Courthouse Closures
When asked what his position was on the closing of local courthouses, he flips the script by asking the baiting question, “Who’s the head of the Judiciary Committee?”

Nuch doesn’t make distinctions between what branch of government or which agency is responsible for what when he makes these broadsides. But he makes absolutely sure that whatever it is, he sticks it to his city attorney race rival, Mike Feuer.

“He’s the one that allowed the budget of the state courts to be cut. He’s the one that made it so that people won’t get justice in our courts,” Nuch said.

Gov. Jerry Brown forced the Judicial branch to cut $544 million from its budget after years of smaller cutbacks.

“The courts are the last resort for people to get redress of their legal grievances. In the old days we would go out into the middle of the street and have a gun fight. Now we can go to court as civilized society. That’s what we do. Cutting the budget of the courts so that the people don’t have redress is just wrong.People should be up in arms over this.”

Nuch pounced on the state assembly’s inability to balance its own budget by sounding off populist themes. They didn’t have their budget cut by 35 percent and get half their money cut.

“I’m the only elected city official that’s balanced his budget,” Trutanich noted. “Through all four years I’ve been in office, I had a surplus. And I did that while achieving 92 percent favorable verdict rate.”

And most importantly, he did it while going after the big guys such Deutsche Bank for its neglect of foreclosed homes and Home Depot for pollution.

Environmental Record
Nuch has a pretty stellar record when it comes to the environment.

He’s able to boast that the environmental crimes and consumer protection prosecutors in his office have recovered nearly $25 million in penalties for violating the city’s environmental and consumer protection laws. Some of the cases that were settled or still pending include $1.75 million from Crimson Oil for an oil spill in the Los Angeles Harbor and multi-million dollar settlements from regional and statewide cases.

Environmental justice activists and founder of Communities For a Safe Environment, Jesse Marquez endorsed Nuch.

“The primary reason [I endorsed Trutanich] is because he created the Environmental Task Force to crack down on polluting businesses in Wilmington,” Marquez said. “I like Feuer but he has no prosecuting experience. He has never tried a court case, even though he has a law degree.”

Despite his office representing the city on behalf of the clean trucks program, which reached the Supreme Court recently, Nuch attempts to cast a narrative that mirrors that of the American Truckers Association.

“I’m not saying that the Clean Truck Program is bad,” Nuch said. “I’m saying that as a city, for those 1,500 independent truckers we need to make those electric trucks affordable to them and put within their budget. If they want to become an employee, then fine, but it shouldn’t be mandated.”

This completely misrepresents the situation, since it’s the trucking companies, not the individual truckers, who have decided employment status for the past few decades. But perhaps what is more telling is that in light of various forms of wage theft by the trucking and shipping companies in the form of pushing off to truckers extra fees and wait times that cut into their wages, as recent cases have begun to reveal (see “Truckers Advance Fight For Labor Law Justice”, p. 9),  Trutanich is actually siding against the vast majority of truckers.

Nevertheless, Nuch praises these drivers as the “guys that built this port when nobody else was coming down here when jobs were slow.” And called them “Teamsters,” seemingly meaning they are members of the Teamsters union, which they are not–independent operators can’t join unions. Although Teamsters were instrumental in helping to build the port, union representation was broken under deregulation. The long struggle to re-unionize is only now starting to pay off.

Nevertheless, he believes the right leaning U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the city’s favor (though the employee mandate provision has already been struck down in a lower court).

“Our Harbor Department lawyers are doing it themselves; we’re going to be fine,” he says, inaccurately, since the city is relying on outside counsel. “But I feel bad for the little guy,” he says, sliding backing to his personal narrative of growing up in working class family and working in the canneries to put himself through school.

“You have to remember, I didn’t grow up rich. I was the little guy. It’s partly the reason why I became the city attorney,” Nuch said.

NFL to Los Angeles
With reports swirling about the impending sale of AEG and Tim Leiweke moving on to other pastures, the city’s hopes for a National Football League team has been dashed yet again, at least for the time being. But Trutanich doesn’t see it that way, touting a written agreement he made with Leiweke.

“I was there in those negotiations,” he said. “They can’t just sell to any Tom, Dick, and Harry. We got first rights.”

According to Nuch and contrary to popular belief, he and Tim Leiweke are like brothers. “He calls my house, he calls me at night, on weekends.”

Norma chimes in, “That’s because they respect each other.” Nuch’s recollection of his relationship is like a playground stagecraft where two schoolyard rivals lock horns to establish respect.

“That’s because I stood up to Tim Leiweke,” said Trutanich  without missing a beat. “I’m the only guy in city government that stood up to him and told him, ‘No, you’re not going to do that today. You’re going to pay us back for the cost of the Michael Jackson funeral. You’re not going to push me around and he said, ‘You’re not going to push me around.’”

Trutanich cited the passage of California Assembly Bill 900, which cut key provisions from the California Environmental Quality Act process that would fast track developments, as reason to review the Farmer Field project.

“I believe most of them have settled with AEG for a significant sum of money.” Nuch said.

Marquez confirmed the news.

“AEG did settle with us and a few weeks later settled with the downtown LA Pico Groups which included PSR [Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles],” Marquez said. “We got about 40 more concessions than previously proposed.”

Marquez also noted that the settlement was worded so that if AEG was sold all conditions were transferable to the new owner.

Nuch hates to lose and he doesn’t easily concede defeat.

“My campaign manager ran the worst campaign ever… in the history of politics. I didn’t know of all the problems he was having. I trusted him. He was my friend.”

“We thought he was a professional.” Noreen chimed in.

“I’ve always been one of those guys, where if you come to me, I’ll look you in the eye, and tell you, don’t worry about it. You can count on me to solve that problem.”

And, just like that, he turned a conversation about last year’s DA’s race into a recounting of his compelling personal narrative.

“That’s why I got an AV rating. That’s why the Bar Association rated me as one of the Top 10 lawyers in the state of California. That’s why. A little guy from Pedro? I didn’t go to one of world’s greatest law schools. But you know what? That work ethic was instilled in me from the days I worked in the canneries for 14 years.

As Nuch talked about the early days, before he became a lawyer, he looked at Noreen, before continuing on.

“I was always thinking that the other guy was better and that I had to prove myself. That’s why she kept telling me, ‘You’re a great lawyer. You’re a great lawyer. Have confidence in your ability.’”

“Then one day she said, ‘You know what? I think you’ve finally realized you’re a great lawyer.’”

“It took forever,” Noreen said on cue.

“And it’s true,” Nuch said. “But you know, I had to keep winning, had to keep winning, had to keep winning. That’s the difference between me and every other politician I ever met.”

This could explain his sometimes contentious relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city council. This also could explain his high success rate in getting favorable settlements. This could explain how he won’t be going down without a fight on May 21.

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