Carmen Trutanich burst onto the Los Angeles political scene less than a year ago as an upstart candidate for city attorney, taking on the establishment candidate and presumed front-runner, then-City Councilman Jack Weiss. Trutanich was so little-known that when many people heard his first name they assumed he was a woman. He withstood harsh attacks from the Weiss campaign, who cited clients that Trutanich had defended to claim he’d favor corporate interests, and garnered enough votes in the March primary to force Weiss into a May runoff. Weiss continued the attacks in the runoff campaign, alienating many of his own backers in the process; some, like Sheriff Lee Baca, shifted loyalty to the Trutanich camp. Trutanich prevailed in the runoff, winning 55 percent of the vote; he took office on July 1. Trutanich, 58, is a San Pedro native who spent much of his youth working alongside his father in a fish cannery, then decided to go into law. He spent a decade in the District Attorney’s Office, prosecuting gang members and environmental crimes before returning to the private sector as a corporate defense attorney. The Business Journal met with Trutanich in his City Hall East office to discuss his career, priorities as city attorney, and how he intends to tackle controversial issues such as the spread of billboard advertising and medical marijuana dispensaries.
Question: As a teen, you worked at the old Star Kist packing plant alongside your father. What did you do and what was that like?
Answer: I started working at the cannery when I was 15: I worked evenings and weekends. My father was a foreman at the plant. Back then, the pay was $1.17 an hour, which was a lot of dough. All my buddies wanted a job there, so I felt lucky to get in. I worked a number of jobs at the plant.
Q: What was the most difficult one?
A: Working in a place called the screw, where anchovies literally fell from the sky. The anchovies were offloaded from ships, then funneled into the top of the plant. My job was to shovel the anchovies into this giant shredder – the screw – where they were sliced up. Sometimes I was hip deep in anchovies. That was really tough; it took forever to get cleaned up afterward.
Q: But you stayed on, even after high school and while you were in college.
A: Yes, I did. But by then, I was working with my uncle in the procurement division, negotiating contracts with foreign governments. As I was doing this, I realized that I needed some education in contract law, so I enrolled in law school, taking night classes. That’s when I discovered I really liked the law and decided to go on and get my law degree. I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working at the cannery.
Q: What happened next?
A: I left the cannery and decided to start my own law practice. It was a bit daunting at first, because here I was a nobody just opening up. All I had was an electric typewriter; I was my own secretary and janitor. But within a day or two of opening my practice, someone walked in the door and hired me. My first case was a probate case. I also had my share of civil and criminal cases.
Q: You must have worked long hours. How did you find time for your family?
A: My wife, Noreen, worked as an airline flight attendant. It was very tough to work out our schedules and find time to raise four children. But there was one great perk with my wife’s job: She was able to get first-class seats on planes. In fact, many of our vacations were with those first-class seats. We’d stay overnight in a hotel and then rush right back.
Q: So how did you end up working at the District Attorney’s Office?
A: I felt I needed more experience actually trying cases before I continued on my own. So I decided to apply for a job with the DA’s Office. At that time, the L.A. County district attorney was John Van de Kamp. I almost blew it, though.
Q: What do you mean?
A: I almost missed my interview. I was in Chicago on one of those vacations with my wife when a call came through for an interview slot at 2 p.m. that day. So I hastily arranged a flight home. But the flight turned out to be fully booked and I could not board. They were closing the doors; I knew if I didn’t get on that plane, I had no chance of getting back to L.A. in time for that interview. I thought that was it for my chances at the DA’s Office. But at the last minute, an ambulance came to the plane. It turned out that a lady had either gotten injured or become ill and was taken off the plane. I was able to take her seat on the plane and made it back in time for the interview and I got the job.
Q: So what was it like at the District Attorney’s Office?
A: I learned how to practice law. It was a whole new world for me: In my own practice, I really only dealt with people in the community I knew best around San Pedro. At the DA’s Office, I interacted with the best lawyers from all over the county.
Q: Tell me about the environmental crimes unit.
A: Environmental cases were difficult; there was so little precedent at that time. We had brazen midnight dumping where people just took 55-gallon drums and dumped them and simply didn’t care. Companies were committing felonies when we were on the premises. There was one company we visited where the ground was completely blue because of copper that had been dumped. And there was no attempt made to hide this during our visit. We prosecuted the first felony hazardous waste disposal case in L.A. County: the dumping of 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
Q: Why did you leave the District Attorney’s Office?
A: Money. I had four children to put through college and the pay in the DA’s Office was just not enough. So I decided to go back to the private sector. I joined a law firm and became their main L.A. partner. I practiced environmental law and also handled civil cases. I primarily represented companies in environmental cases.
Q: After you spent years prosecuting companies for similar crimes?
A: My goal was to be the best lawyer that I could be, regardless of who my client was. I was not a crusading environmentalist. The companies I represented generally were facing regulatory issues. But my experience as a prosecutor did prompt me to make sure the first thing I always told my clients was that they should immediately stop any violations and get in compliance. Then we could deal with the monetary issues.
Q: What made you decide to run for city attorney?
A: I had been looking for another challenge. Don’t get me wrong: The legal profession has been very good to me. I love the law: It’s a wonderful profession if you work hard. But I wanted to do something to give back to the community; I just wasn’t sure what that was going to be. Then, on Labor Day back in 2007, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley called me and asked me to run for city attorney. I said I needed some time to think about it.
Q: So you had some reservations about running?
A: Well, yes. I had absolutely zero political background and had never run for any office. I wasn’t one of the players, the politicos. What’s more, I didn’t really know everybody downtown or in other parts of the city. But when I talked about this with my wife, she really encouraged me to run.
Q: Was it as tough as you thought it would be?
A: At first, yes. When my name first surfaced as a candidate, a lot of people were asking, “Who is she?” But I realized I could win this thing while I was at my first fundraiser: It was $500 a plate and 400 people showed up. I was completely blown away by that response.
Q: The campaign turned quite vitriolic. How did the attacks affect you and your family?
A: I’ve been having vitriol thrown at me by opposing lawyers my entire career, so it’s nothing new. In fact, I’ve had to deal with a lot worse, like having to get 24-hour protection for me and my family when I received some death threats while prosecuting some gang cases in the DA’s Office.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with the business community?
A: When I was growing up, I never envisioned myself being a lawyer. I wanted to be a business guy. So I’ve always had a respect for entrepreneurs and business owners. Later, when I was an environmental attorney, I learned that if we make the regulations so onerous, business will leave. We have chased employers out of the city over the years. Just look at the furniture manufacturing industry – most of them have left because it was too expensive to comply with all the regulations. That said, if there are laws, businesses must follow them. I’m pro-business, not pro-pollution.
Q: You’ve inherited a mess in terms of the city’s attempt to control the spread of digital billboards and building façade-covering supergraphics. How do you intend to address this?
A: As far as I’m concerned, we’re done playing softball on this issue. If a sign is permitted, then you won’t have a problem from my office. But if it is not permitted, we’re going to go after you. If you have an illegal sign or billboard, get it down, now. As for the sign ordinance, I intend to make sure one gets in place as quickly as possible. If billboard companies challenge the ordinance, I intend to win the lawsuits.
Q: What is your office going to do about the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries?
A: This is a public safety issue. We have evidence that a lot of the marijuana that is being sold out of these places comes from Mexico. The medical marijuana law that voters passed simply says that people can form a collective, grow marijuana and distribute it amongst themselves to those with a doctor’s permission. You don’t go to a Mexican drug cartel and buy illegally smuggled marijuana. If we let the drug cartels get hold of the marijuana trade here, you’re going to have the same kind of violence here that we’ve seen in Mexico. We cannot allow this to happen.
Q: So are you going to close the dispensaries down?
A: If they are not following the medical marijuana law as passed by voters, yes. And if those store owners want to sue, we’re going to fight back.
Q: You list boxing as one of your hobbies. Have you boxed professionally?
A: No. I enjoy going to the gym and sparring with people. But since I became city attorney, I haven’t had time to go to the gym, even for exercise. I go to work at 7 a.m. in the morning and then, on most evenings, I’ve got some meeting or other, so I don’t get home until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. at night.
Q: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
A: My dad told me that you only take a couple things with you in life: your reputation and your memories. I always tried to make sure I had
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