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Los Angeles district attorney race: Carmen Trutanich leads crowded field

Skid Row activists surround Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images
File: Skid Row activists surround Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

He is by far the best known of the half-dozen candidates seeking to lead the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. But L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich promised when he got elected three years ago that he’d finish that job before running for another.

“It was a campaign gimmick," Trutanich has said.

The decision to run cost Trutanich the support of District Attorney Steve Cooley, who says he should have kept his pledge. Cooley is retiring after a dozen years on the job.

The L.A. County district attorney is an enormously important position in the criminal justice system: The office prosecutes 60,000 murders, rapes, public corruption and other felonies a year. That person also has influence over statewide crime policies. A candidate must garner more than half the vote Tuesday to avoid a November run-off. Analysts have said a run-off is likely.

With the most money and endorsements from Gov. Jerry Brown and Sheriff Lee Baca, Trutanich has led the campaign. He’s also avoided his opponents, participating in just one debate. Trutanich preferred TV advertising to news interviews.

"Carmen Trutanich — 30 years in the courtroom," blares one ad.

Trutanich, 60, was born and raised in San Pedro. He was a prosecutor in the DA's hardcore gang unit in the 1980s before he worked for two decades as a defense lawyer, in part representing companies accused of violating pollution laws.

As city attorney, he’s won praise for filing civil cases against billboard companies and banks accused of illegal foreclosures. Critics accuse him of using a heavy hand. Trutanich had one businessman arrested at his home in an illegal billboard case. He once threatened to arrest an L.A. city councilwoman. And Trutanich suggested to the City Council that he might file criminal charges to recoup city costs for the Michael Jackson funeral. He never did.

Trutanich said his management experience as City Attorney is good training to be DA, but one of his opponents wonders about his temperament — especially for the job of top prosecutor.

Chief Deputy DA Jackie Lacey pointed to questions about Trutanich’s story of being shot at in South L.A. when he worked as a prosecutor. In court testimony, he spoke only of hearing gunfire. Lacey called that "a window into the soul of a leader.”

"We’re talking about somebody who needs to tell the most interesting story in order to feel important," Lacey said. "That particular ego is not needed in the district attorney’s office. What we need is somebody who has a steady mind, who has a steady hand, who is the adult at the table.” Like her, she said.

But Lacey offered her own conflicting testimony in an employee relations hearing last year. She chalked it up to her low blood sugar at the time.

Lacey, 55, is the number two in command at the DA’s office now. She has the backing of incumbent Steve Cooley. She joined the office in 1986 and says one of her achievements is winning the county’s first conviction in the racially motivated murder of a black person. Lacey, who grew up in the Crenshaw District, is black.

Lacey talks a lot about realignment — the state’s shift of prison inmates to local lockups — and the need to make it easier for less serious criminals to avoid incarceration.

“Right now, the criteria is very stringent in order to get into alternative sentencing courts. You can’t even have had a misdemeanor assault," she said.

Lacey hopes to become the first woman and first African American D.A. in L.A. County.

Another candidate seeks to make the same history: Danette Meyers, who was born and raised in Compton.

“The D.A.’s office in the next four years needs a dynamic leader, somebody who’s not a technocrat,” Meyers said — referring to Lacey as the technocrat.

Meyers, 54, joined the office the same year as Lacey, and she's handled everything from murder cases to Lindsay Lohan. She’s supervised branch offices and presided over the L.A. County Bar Association.

Meyers said she led reluctant bar members to publicly oppose Proposition 8 — the state ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage. It’s an example of her willingness to lead, she said. Meyers is the only DA candidate who supports this year’s state ballot initiative to eliminate the death penalty.

"That initiative on the ballot should pass,” she said. “Why we’re spending $184 million on a system that’s not working, and at the same time we’re closing the doors to our Cal State’s and UC’s to our kids."

The DA’s race is non-partisan, but the L.A. County Democratic Party has jumped behind Meyers. The labor union that represents frontline prosecutors and former DA Gil Garcetti also endorse her. But Meyers has struggled to raise money. She's raised $160,000. Trutanich has raised $1.8 million. Lacey has raised $530,000.

One other candidate has raise more than half-a-million dollars: Deputy DA Alan Jackson, who might be described as the TV. prosecutor in the race. He appears regularly as a member of NBC Dateline’s “Unsolved Case Squad.”

At 46, Jackson is the youngest candidate. He is a Republican backed by the state party, and a member of the DA’s elite major crimes division. Jackson is widely regarded as a star prosecutor in the office. He led the team that won a murder conviction against record producer Phil Specter.

Jackson, who was born in Texas, said he’d address the influx of state prison inmates to the county under state realignment by sending them elsewhere.

“For instance Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada," he said. "It would allow us to ship them to an empty bed facility, usually at a cheaper cost.”

Like the other candidates, he said he’d also lobby for more state resources for rehabilitation programs. “Let’s make it easy on the newly released prisoner to integrate back into the community,”

That kind of statement heartens another candidate in the race - Deputy DA Bobby Grace. The major crimes prosecutor said he entered the contest to push the debate toward rehabilitation.

“All of the candidates have moved in that way," Grace said. "When the campaign first started, people were talking about jail people, jail people, jail people."

He may have influenced the discussion, but Grace, 51, has raised just $80,000.

The final candidate is 69-year-old Deputy DA John Breault. He's filed no campaign finance report and has no campaign website.