Greg Smith Turns the Tables on the City Attorney's Race

MAILANDER TALKS POLITICS - "There is no advantage to being an outsider in this city," the surprise outsider candidate for City Attorney, Greg Smith, tells me on Thursday over breakfast at Say Cheese, the venerable cafe and fromagerie on Hyperion in Silver Lake.  Smith's candidacy for the office currently held by widely unpopular Carmen Trutanich brings some deserved attention to one of the other marquee races that will be just down the ballot from the Mayor's race in the City primary early next year.

The path of Smith into city politics is an uncharacteristic one.  A Vietnam-era Navy vet and LA native who became a high-profile attorney specializing in cases involving retaliation against whistleblowers, it took him six months just to find a political consultant willing to take him on.  

The moderate Democrat ultimately hooked up with John Thomas, the downtown-dwelling hotshot who recently propelled the almost completely unknown Alan Jackson over Smith's opponent Trutanich when Trutanich recently ran for District Attorney.  It's no secret that Thomas's candidates typically lean a little right.

"He really is a Democrat.  That's making it easier for me," Thomas joked across the table.

Having represented plaintiffs in high profile cases against the city--the Tennie Pierce and Frank Lima cases are among the most notable recent ones--Smith believes he has seen a side of the City Attorney's office that the office itself doesn't get to see: from the other side of the courtroom.  His own success in cases against the city demonstrates to him that the City Attorney's office could do things far more efficiently.

In a way, if there's a stigma in politics in being a trial attorney, by staking his candidacy on his ability to reform the way the city defends itself from lawsuits, Smith is turning state's evidence on his own trade.

Smith believes that Trutanich has run the City Attorney's office into the ground; he believes morale is poor, staffing is furloughed and even equipment is behind the times.  He has led a twenty-person law firm and says he's a consensus builder.  Of the two other City Attorneys in recent memory, Smith believes that James Hahn had a very good run and says that he was less impressed with Rocky Delgadillo's tenure.

Handicapping the 2013 race for City Attorney--which will include newcomer Smith, career politician Mike Feuer and Trutanich--at the midpoint of summer is a difficult chore.  

Conventional wisdom runs that the voters won't pay much attention to city races until after the national election is over.  But the people who back the candidates are certainly paying a lot of attention to the races, as the war chests that the Mayoral candidates are hoarding for their race are already immense.  Both Feuer and Trutanich figure to be able to raise a lot of cash, even if Trutanich's star power is vastly diminished from three years ago.

Also, Trutanich and high-priced political consultant John Shallman parted company after Trutanich's disastrous run for DA, and the opportunistic Shallman hooked up with Feuer soon after, adding a special touch of intrigue to the race, as certainly Shallman knows Trutanich's soft spots--but now has to worry also about a formidable outsider.  

Paul Krekorian was also widely rumored to be interested in the job, but he announced this week that he would not run.  Krekorian has a bad rap against him: he has never spent more than four years in any office to which he has been elected.  In the shark tank that this race is likely to become, Krekorian, who went from Burbank School Board to State Assembly to City Council in a scant six years, may not have wished to risk being stigmatized as a career office grasshopper.

I reminded Smith that another outsider candidate for citywide office, Austin Beutner, couldn't seem to stir any enthusiasm in the early part of the race.  Smith told me that Beutner didn't stir enough enthusiasm as a candidate, especially when he spoke to crowds.  

He also thinks that having miles-distant San Franciscan Ace Smith as his campaign's top name hurt Beutner's chances also.  With Thomas sitting at Smith's side at our breakfast, there's obviously a lot of very direct contact between candidate and consultant.

As a candidate, Smith is highly critical of Trutanich's implementation of the so-called "porcupine defense" in defending the city from lawsuits, in which Trutanich claims that trial attorneys "may eat me, but I'm not going to taste very good going down."  

When pressed by the Times last year about a spate of judgments against the city in which the trial attorneys were more typically devouring the city as a rare truffle, Trutanich blamed his own deputies' lack of experience.

"The porcupine defense has been a fiasco.  It clogs up the courts.  Yes, they [the City Attorney's office] are bust because of it," Smith assured me.  He's careful to let Thomas pick up the tab for breakfast.   "i don't want to get into any campaign violation trouble here," he smiles.

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

Vol 10 Issue 62
Pub: Aug 3, 2012