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Dissecting the biggest political upset of 2012: Why Carmen Trutanich lost his bid for LA district attorney

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, you would have been hard-pressed to find a political consultant in Los Angeles who didn’t think Carmen Trutanich would make a strong showing in his bid for district attorney. Maybe he wouldn’t secure more than half the votes to avoid a runoff. But, the thinking went, he certainly would be the top vote-getter among six competitors and advance to November

As city attorney, Trutanich had the best name recognition. He also raised the most money — three times more than his closest rival — and he aired the most TV commercials.

That’s why spirits were high Tuesday night at the Croatian Hall in San Pedro, where burly fishermen who’ve known the Trutanich family for half a century mixed with political supporters like State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Sheriff Lee Baca and L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel (who, of course, is also running for mayor).

Early in the evening, near the bar, two men who'd spent years on the sea drank beer and laughed. Ivo Labar, 73, said he's known Trutanich almost all of his life. "Fifty years! ... He is an honest man, good family man," Labar said. "We would love to see him win the election."

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Carmen Nuch Trutanich." Councilman Dennis Zine is trying to rev up the crowd, shouting "Nuch, Nuch, Nuch!" That's Trutanich's nickname. But Trutanich warns it's early.

By 1 a.m., the candidate everyone thought was unbeatable — the one who’d outspent his opponents three to one - was beginning to explain his loss.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more vitriolic, negative campaign against anyone," Trutanich said.

Trutanich complained of attacks by his opponents that distorted his record. His political consultant John Shallman echoed the sentiment.

“They had a pretty nice trap set when Trutanich got in the race," Shallman said.

But many would argue that the trap was set by Trutanich himself when he pledged three years ago to serve out his term as city attorney before running for another office. Opponents called him a liar, and the campaign offered varying explanations for the switch. Trutanich called the pledge a “gimmick.” Shallman labeled it “silly and political.”

Some voters seemed unconvinced.

Trutanich also blamed the media, especially talk radio hosts who he said regularly attacked him. Shallman said he counted 42 negative news articles. He defended Trutanich’s decision to limit media interviews and debate appearances.

“I don’t know that there’s anything he could have done with the tidal wave of negativity," Shallman said.

Cal State L.A. political scientist Raphe Sonenshein, who heads the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, doesn’t accept the argument that Trutanich was a victim of negative attacks.

"That’s politics," he said. "And he’s been a lightening rod. He has strong supporters and strong opponents. That’s kind of the nature of his politics.”

Whether more press interviews or participation in debates would have helped is itself open for debate. Sonenshein said editorial support of Trutanich’s opponents was also probably a factor in his defeat.

“Newspaper endorsements rarely matter very much," he said. "But when very few people turn out to vote — and the turnout in L.A. was quite low — then you tend to have what they used to call newspaper voters.”

The top vote-getter, Jackie Lacey, received endorsements from the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles News Group, which includes newspapers throughout the county.

Another setback for Trutanich came when a judge refused to allow his title on the ballot to be "Chief Los Angeles Prosecutor." The judge said that would be misleading. Instead, he was listed as "Los Angeles City Prosecutor."

Lacey expected to face Trutanich in a runoff.

“I am surprised," Lacey told KPCC. "He had the most name recognition. He had the governor.”

But Lacey had the backing of incumbent D.A. Steve Cooley. He may have lost his bid for California attorney general in 2010, but Cooley remains well known and popular with both Democrats and Republicans.

Trutanich spent more money than any other candidate on expensive TV ads. Lacey, on the other hand, used her limited resources to buy space on mailers targeted to both Republican and Democratic households in what is officially a non-partisan race.

As for second-place finisher Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson, he may have benefited from being the top Republican in the race — backed by the state party. He also attacked Trutanich early and often on YouTube and in debates as an opportunist politician.

“Mine was the only campaign to really take the fight to Carmen Trutanich," Jackson said.

In San Pedro on election night, Trutanich, usually full of bravado, was subdued as he ended his comments to a more than half empty hall. He said "thank you," and told his wife there is no reason to cry.