DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Story 1) Mike Feuer had to be pleased. He had finished first in the Los Angeles City Attorney primary and was on to the runoff, where he would go one-on-one against the City Hall insider he had just beaten. Feuer had run a solid, effective campaign and proved himself an able fundraiser. He had secured battalions of high-profile endorsements, including the influential Los Angeles Times.
While that describes 2013 — Feuer bested incumbent Carmen Trutanich 44%-30% in the March 5 election — it applies to 2001 as well. That was the year that Feuer, then a City Councilman, beat Rocky Delgadillo in the City Attorney primary. Then the gloves came off, and in the runoff, after some hefty independent expenditures from the NRA and the billboard industry, Delgadillo won with 52.4% of the vote. Many political observers felt Feuer blew a race he had no business losing.
Speaking last week at a Civic Center coffee shop, Feuer claimed not to think much about the 2001 defeat. He thinks this race is very different. He thinks he is well positioned to win.
“I think that the electorate has a very firm impression of Mr. Trutanich’s record and an increasing impression of mine,” he said between sips of tea on a sunny afternoon. “There is, I think, a very firm idea in the public mind as to who each of us really is, and that is going to be very helpful to me in this election.”
Story 2: Mike Feuer is funnier than you might think. In a column last July I referenced the 2001 race and opined that the defeat makes him unthreatening to current opponents. “The only living creature he frightens is my 12-year-old cat Lou, and she’s scared of everyone,” I wrote.
Three days later my phone rang. The receptionist said it was Mike Feuer. I steeled myself, expecting him to chew me out. Put the call through, I said.
“I have your cat,” pronounced Feuer, and I burst out laughing. I thanked him for having a thicker skin than most politicians. He told me that when I picked up the phone he considered just going, “Meow.”
Story 3: To supporters, Feuer is an experienced leader and a seasoned campaigner. To opponents such as Trutanich, he is a “career politician.” He is 5-1 in elections, having served on the L.A. City Council from 1995-2001 (two wins) and in the state Assembly from 2006-2012 (three victories). The lone loss was the defeat to Delgadillo.
Story 4: After the cat conversation, we arrange to meet at a South Park cafe. I arrive a few minutes before Feuer, who pulls up in a Prius. He parks across the street. Although the one-way road is virtually dead, with no traffic coming, he refuses simply to cross the street. Instead, he walks to the end of the block and waits patiently at the intersection until the white “walking man” sign appears. Say what you will about the guy many believe will be the next City Attorney, but he’s no jaywalker.
Story 5: Feuer, 54, was born in San Bernardino, the eldest of three boys. He attended Claremont Men’s College for two years, then transferred to Harvard, graduating in 1980. He finished at Harvard Law School two years later.
In 1986 he took a job as director of Bet Tzedek, which provides pro bono legal services. He was, he recalls, only 28 or 29. On his first day he called the entire staff together.
“I spoke for a few minutes about my aspirations for the office and how pleased I was to be there,” he says. “I could tell there was tremendous skepticism in the room because of my age, because many of not just the lawyers, but the paralegals and administrators and legal secretaries, almost everybody was substantially older and more experienced than I was.
“I’m a big first impressions person. I believe it is essential in everything one does to take advantage of that moment when you can define yourself to folks.”
He stayed at Bet Tzedek until 1994. The following year he won the council seat vacated by Zev Yaroslavsky.
Story 6: Feuer and Trutanich had their first face-to-face debate in Sherman Oaks last November. A raffle took place at the end of the testy proceedings. Both candidates picked tickets. One winner was Feuer’s mother, Stella. “The question is, which one of us drew her ticket?” Feuer asked with a laugh last week. The answer is still unknown.
Story 7: During the primary Feuer faced Trutanich, who had only entered the race after unexpectedly losing the District Attorney election in June, and Greg Smith, a private attorney who spent $737,000 of his own money on the campaign. Smith and Trutanich repeatedly bombed Feuer with the accusation that he is not qualified to be City Attorney because he was never a trial lawyer and thus lacks necessary experience.
Feuer responds in a few ways, first by blasting Trutanich’s record and noting the incumbent’s fractured relationships with the City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He also defends his resume.
“I litigated in state and federal court, argued in state and federal court,” he said last week. “I’ve argued in the Court of Appeal and trial courts. I’ve been successful in every aspect of being a lawyer.”
Story 8: Although Trutanich is the current City Attorney, Feuer has emerged as the frontrunner. He has received the lion’s share of the major endorsements. In the primary he spent more than $1.2 million. Trutanich spent just $770,000.
Story 9 (the long one): The money has emerged as a source of controversy. Feuer and his chief campaign strategist, John Shallman, worked out a deal wherein Shallman would not be paid during the primary, but would receive a bonus if Feuer won outright. This provided Feuer more money to spend on other aspects of the campaign. It also allowed him to stay below the approximately $1.3 million spending ceiling to receive city matching funds. He ended up getting $300,000 in city cash.
When we sit down, I tell Feuer that he may not have done anything illegal (Trutanich’s campaign thinks otherwise), but I do think he found a loophole and exploited it. “You gamed the system,” I say, and maybe it’s not the wisest thing to say to the probable next City Attorney. I add that this is particularly troubling because it is counter to the very ethical, high-standing person Feuer has been throughout the campaign.
He answers very carefully.
“As I have in every aspect of my career and my personal life, I addressed this issue in the most honorable way I know,” he says. “I went to the City Ethics Commission and I described this agreement long before it was an issue, and asked them, ‘Is this agreement one that complies with all the applicable rules?’ A few days later I had a conversation with the commission, and the commission made clear that the agreement does comply with applicable rules. I unilaterally sought that view. I got it, I acted on it, and the campaign has proceeded.”
I then pull the reporter trick of asking the same question in a slightly different way, though I blow my trickiness by telling Feuer I’m doing exactly that. I also restate what to me is so troubling: The move is inconsistent with the person I’ve seen running for office.
His cell phone rings, telling him he is late for his next appointment. Feuer ignores it.
“Let me say it this way,” he says. “This is how honorable candidates act, right? I’m a candidate who raises an issue on his own with the agency that is in charge of the program and says, ‘Is this permissible? Does it comply with the rules?’ They say yes. I move forward.
“That’s the essence of what I’m trying to say.”
I start to speak but Feuer cuts me off. He continues and references Trutanich.
“I think it’s very important that this issue is being brought forward by a desperate candidate who is pursuing every tactic he can to hold on to a job that he sought to leave and was unsuccessful in doing so, and now he is trying to save that job, and apparently he will do anything to save that job. The city of Los Angeles deserves better than that, and I intend to be a City Attorney of whom all of Los Angeles will be proud.”
Election day is May 21.
Contact Jon Regardie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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