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Trutanich: I am a liar

February 9, 2012 |  2:46 pm

This post has been corrected. See note below.

Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich officially announced his candidacy for county district attorney  Thursday. That took a good deal of chutzpah because during his 2008 campaign, he signed a pledge to seek a second term as city attorney and to forgo running for any other office, including district attorney. If he violated his promise, Trutanich said four years ago, he would donate $100,000 to an after-school program and take out full-page newspaper ads declaring "I am a liar." As far as we can tell, The Times has yet to receive an ad request from his campaign -- and Trutanich hasn't addressed his seeming hypocrisy. Below, editorial writers Jon Healey and Dan Turner debate the issue. 

Healey: When running to succeed City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, Trutanich argued that Delgadillo's outsized political ambitions made him a distracted and ineffective leader of the city's law office. His target wasn't just Delgadillo; it was also then-City Councilman Jack Weiss, the front-runner in the race for city attorney who was also viewed as a political climber. Trutanich hammered home this point in late 2008 by publicly swearing to serve two full terms if he were elected and reelected. He also challenged the other candidates to join him in signing a pledge to "not seek any other elected position including Mayor, U.S. Congress, Attorney General or Los Angeles County District Attorney while serving as Los Angeles City Attorney."

By his own standards, Trutanich is a liar. And considering his willingness to lie to voters, I don't expect him to keep his pledge to the local print media or to the L.A.'s Best After School Program either.

Turner: There are certain words and phrases that, when emitted from politicians' mouths, have ceased to have much meaning. When I hear them being uttered, I tend to substitute them in my head with those muted horns used on the old "Charlie Brown" specials whenever an adult was talking. (In Charles Schulz's world, the words of adults were so superfluous that they could be reduced to background noise.) So, for example, when Mitt Romney pledges not to "go negative" against his fellow candidates, what I hear him saying is "Wah wohh, wah woh, wah wa wa wa." Another good phrase worthy of a mental horn section: "If elected, I will not use this position as a springboard to higher office."

Well, of course you will. Politicians routinely lie about this for the same reason most job seekers lie about the same thing: If I'm applying for a lousy job at a banana stand because I need to beef up my resume so I can apply for a commissioned job selling used cars, I'm not going to admit that to my prospective employer -- and woe to the banana-stand owner who’s naive enough to believe me when I claim that it is my greatest ambition in life to spend my career selling chocolate-covered bananas. In 2003, a former Assemblyman named Antonio Villaraigosa claimed he was solely interested in serving on the City Council and wouldn't interrupt his term to run for mayor; two years later, I doubt he stopped to think twice about whether to jump into the mayor's race. When Jerry Brown was running for California attorney general, he told The Times' editorial board that he had no interest in higher office -- he was too old and tired to consider running for governor, he said. We all know how that ended.

Obviously, just because it's common doesn't make it right. And Trutanich's promises were so emphatic that he now finds himself in an unwinnable position: If he honors his promise he has to admit to being a liar, while if he fails to honor his promise he is implicitly a liar. But another problem with this kind of about-face is that neither Trutanich -- nor Brown, Villaraigosa or any other politician guilty of such a flip-flop -- was necessarily lying at the time they made the promise. Many of them might genuinely have thought they were telling the truth. But circumstances change; an office that seemed unattainable might suddenly open up because an unbeatable incumbent chooses not to run, for example. There's nothing wrong with adapting to changing circumstances. You just have to explain your reasons to voters, which is a case we have yet to see Trutanich make.

Healey: I'll concede that the job of city attorney is a political one, so it's not necessarily bad for voters if the person holding that office sets his or her eyes on higher office. After all, term limits force those who win the job to think prematurely about where they'll go next.

The problem with Trutanich is that the centerpiece of his sales pitch to voters was that he wouldn't do that. The office had been so neglected by Delgadillo, he argued, that its main client -- the City Council -- refused to rely on its advice. The lawyers there needed a committed manager who could turn them into the city's best law firm. So, three years into the job, Trutanich finds out that the office doesn't really need a full-time, hands-on manager?

I don't think that's what Dan means by "circumstances change." Trutanich didn't have a revelation about the city attorney not really needing to focus on, you know, his job. He had a revelation that Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley wasn't going to run for a fourth term after all. Trutanich also evidently learned that he liked being an elected official and figured he'd enjoy it more in a more powerful seat.

Humble, deferential people do not win a lot of elections. Ambitious ones do. Yet there's a difference between pols facing term limits who cast about for the next place to land and those whose eyes have been on a different prize all along. Now that Trutanich has made it clear that the city attorney's job was just a stepping stone, he's put himself into the latter category. And that makes me wonder whether he's really interested in being district attorney, or is that just a rung on the ladder too?

Turner: Your point about Trutanich making his pledge a centerpiece of his campaign is a good one. Now, it's up to voters to decide whether they can forgive him for that. Trutanich surely knows that he's got some explaining to do, but I'm not sure that we should fault him for not yet coming to the plate -- he just announced his candidacy today, after all. He's got plenty of time to lay out his rationale for changing his mind.

Personally, I'm not sure why it matters whether or not Trutanich considers the district attorney job to be just another rung on the career ladder (Next stop: state attorney general?) If he is a successful DA, he might deserve to be elected attorney general; if he isn't, he won't win. Don't we want successful politicians to bring that success to higher offices? When managers succeed in the private sector, they get promoted, which is good for the company, and the same principle can and should apply to government. But I take your main point: The real question is whether Trutanich can be trusted. If he's lying about his future ambitions in order to get elected, what else is he lying about? I just think that in politics, there are forgivable lies and unforgivable ones. "I did not sleep with that woman" seems a forgivable lie because it's one that powerful married men conducting affairs can be expected to tell, and it doesn’t really impact a politician's job performance. "I am not a crook" -- when you've been caught eavesdropping on political opponents and performing an array of other dirty tricks -- seems like an unforgivable one.

On this scale, I tend to put "I promise not to seek higher office" on the forgivable side. But I'll be more or less convinced about that depending on Trutanich's skill in justifying his actions.

[For the record, 6:09 p.m. Feb. 9: Good grief! The original version of this post misspelled Charles Schulz's name. Rats.]


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Photo: L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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