An Empty Suit, an Empty Head, and a Guy Named Smith

MAILANDER ON POLITICS - The leftover financial dispute between Carmen Trutanich and John Shallman over services rendered, a private dispute that was never private, began to reheat at the LA Times early last week and spilled into the blogosphere on Friday.

The dispute is a real treat for editors, scribes, and political insiders with both cards and grudges to play.

But the truth is that ordinary voters are not much interested in it--and if it lingers, it could be hurting both Trutanich and his real nemesis in the coming City Attorney's race: Shallman's new candidate, Mike Feuer.  As it happens, neither one of these two candidates--unlike the third notable in the race, private attorney Greg Smith--are presently being perceived by voters as addressing any issues specific to the next City Attorney's race.  Both could suffer as a result of the mudslinging.

By being so willing to take what should be a private dispute to media, Shallman appears to be politicking on behalf of Feuer, who has a reputation for being a bit of an empty suit.  By making the private dispute public, Shallman gets to attack Trutanich directly while Feuer stays above the fray.

Media to date have fallen for the tactic, giving Shallman's candidate a bit of an unsullied upper hand well in advance of election day in March.  By being lavish by teasing media with the narrative of his own experience with Trutanich, Shallman continues to net free ink that continues to make his opponent look bad while keeping his own candidate in a neutral corner where he can't be touched.

While Shallman's tactics are often much maligned, even by other consultants, his win with halting, ruffled, geeky Bennett Kayser over a Latino machine candidate, Luis Lopez--in a school district race that was drawn under Voting Rights Act authority to elect a Latino--was a recent-history masterpiece.

Shallman has previously been unwilling to entertain the notion that the blogosphere converts key high-impact political people at key times--a trait that might have cost him dearly in the CD 2 and CD 15 races--but his recent actions in sliming Trutanich may demonstrate that he's evolving--in his own special way.

As for Trutanich, those who had heard of him well before 2009 had not heard much that anticipated a successful tenure as an elected official.  Early in his term, he seemed not merely brash, but petty and vindictive as well, and soon garnered far more critics than friends--even among people who used to be friends, like District Attorney Steve Cooley.  He failed to calculate that pettiness and a vindictive streak, while generally not much admired, are especially harmful to the reputation of an office-holder empowered by voters to help administrate justice.

But for the beleaguered City Attorney, whose portrayal in media is less typically that of an empty suit and more that of an empty head, a willingness to discuss his dispute with Shallman publicly may also be in part a ploy to turn the whole re-election campaign into a circus--a kind of campaign he may think he can win after his solid drubbing in the District Attorney's race.

Of course, the incumbent is mostly trying to call attention to the fact that he feels victimized by a former campaign confidante who is uncharacteristically talking out of school.  But as for the financial side of it--couldn't he accomplish as much by simply not paying Shallman's bill, and take his chances on inviting Shallman to try to collect?

Both camps and certainly the city at large would be better served if these men kept their private dispute private and instead started to talk about what makes a good City Attorney.

The third man in the race, Greg Smith, is already doing this, even if media are largely ignoring him in the heat of the Shallman/Trutanich celebrity cage match.  The often overlooked third candidate in the race, Smith can skate a little while the two scary monsters slam things out.  I've interviewed and profiled outsider Smith, and once the present November election cycle is over, it will be easy for media to see he's competent enough to do the job.

Smith could yet emerge as the kind of outsider Trutanich himself was four years ago.  Having won quite a few judgments against the city, he's got some great ideas on how the city can minimize its damages payouts, ideas that should be picked up, regardless of whether he wins the race or not.

Smith as a private attorney also seems aware that the office they seek requires a quiet dignity.  

Shallman and Trutanich should similarly stop their nonsense and start focusing on actual issues that might actually bring dignity to a formerly dignified office.  They should even start engaging media in real terms, over real issues, rather than through these private bickerings they are making as public as possible.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at

Vol 10 Issue 82
Pub: Oct 12, 2012