If Labor Day is the mark for when political campaigns heat up, then it didn’t take long for the Los Angeles City Controller’s race to ignite. On Tuesday, the already controversial contest to be the city’s next fiscal watchdog burst into a raging bonfire.
The spark that ignited this political blaze was an open letter from former City Controller Laura Chick that targeted Kenneth Mejia, the left-leaning candidate who finished first in the Controller race during the June primary. Mejia and his backers responded as they often do: By pulling out the online flamethrowers and aiming them at anyone who dares counter their narrative.
This could be written off as a spat between candidates, but one element here is a true differentiator, and her name is Chick. Though Mejia in a tweet sought to dismiss her as “another career politician,” she is undoubtedly the best Controller that Los Angeles has ever had. If anyone understands the office and what it can do to protect taxpayers while improving how L.A. functions. it is most certainly Chick.
During his campaign, Mejia has been asking Angelenos what parts of city government they want to see audited. If he winds up with the job and gets audit happy, then he would be following the path carved by Chick. She became Controller in 2001, two years after a City Charter spruce-up that gave the office the ability to conduct performance audits on L.A.’s departments and projects.
Change happens more often than one may think in government, but it’s policy implementation that ultimately matters; Chick knew this and seized the opportunity. During her eight years on the job, she conducted in the vicinity of 175 audits, and it became a media cliché for headlines to refer to a Chick audit as “withering.”
This, of course, didn’t make her popular in City Hall. Although Chick had served on the City Council before becoming Controller, she showed zero inclination to kowtow to former colleagues, veteran pols or other power players. She focused on money and misuse. As she told a Downtown News reporter in 2008, “I use my knowledge of knowing where the big bucks are because I want bang for the buck.”
Chick was known to be very respectful of city government employees but at the same time, fearless and tougher than leather. Her work included an audit that revealed how the cost of the high-profile, under-construction police headquarters was spiking. And she took aim at inadequacies in the city’s gang-prevention efforts and clashed with the City Attorney over her office’s authority to audit his workers’ compensation program.
When she left City Hall, it was not for another elected office, but for a different watchdog post; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped Chick to oversee the state’s use of federal stimulus funds.
It’s true that anything that occurred before 2010 in Los Angeles politics can feel like ancient history. But her shaping and standard setting of the Controller role is what makes Chick’s eviscerating take on the 2022 race for the bully pulpit role matter. Her comments hold enormous weight.
And those comments are barbed. In her letter, Chick tags Mejia as “unfit for public office” and adds, “He has shown himself to be an erratic, intolerant and [an] extreme individual.”
Chick references LAMag reports and those of other publications that reported on Mejia, a Democrat, calling President Joe Biden a “rapist and a racist” on Twitter during his 2020 White House bid; she also notes how Mejia’s CPA license has expired or lapsed into an inactive status multiple times; Mejia was claiming publicly to be a CPA in these periods. She also points to protesters paid by his campaign staff who rudely disrupted mayoral forums during primary season.
Chick’s letter is on point in noting that Angelenos are angry about persistent problems, including a homelessness crisis and streets clogged with traffic. “But fixing those problems means electing steady (stable) and proven leaders, not loose cannons like Mejia,” she writes.
Mejia’s campaign seeks to cast him as a counter to the common politician, and no matter what one thinks of his policies, potential or past failed bids for Congress, strategically, he has been spot-on. He has tapped into a deep distrust of City Hall and augmented it with cute pictures of his Corgis. He has earned attention with billboards, regular references to the LAPD’s budget, and a constant stream of social media updates. He has made people care about a race that is often overlooked, and a flurry of low-figure campaign donations has provided him with more than $735,000 in city matching funds.
Mejia took in 43.1 percent of the vote in the primary, and the City Hall establishment is so worried that some politicians are looking at moves that could dampen his power. A recent Council motion asked the City Attorney to examine whether the Controller can unilaterally withhold an elected official or another city employee’s pay. It may have been sparked by current Controller Ron Galperin yanking Mark Ridley-Thomas’ salary after the councilman was suspended—but it also seems like a preventative measure against a so-called wildcard entering the office.
One name has not yet been mentioned in this column: Paul Koretz—the current District 5 Council member running against Mejia for Controller. Though he far outraised Mejia during the primary, he finished a distant second, with 23.7% percent of the vote.
No one I know who follows this stuff is excited about a Koretz candidacy. While this paragraph will probably be pulled completely out of context, his work in City Hall stands out mostly for how “meh” it’s been. I can count on zero fingers the number of people I have heard describe Koretz as a stellar fiscal watchdog or inspiring leader. Or even talk about him, really.
At the same time, most of those City Hall observers would rather see Koretz as the next Controller than Mejia, and this is for the same reasons that Chick espoused: Mejia has appeared erratic and intolerant and appears more interested in blowing up bridges than building them. The job is far too important to entrust to a man privy to the antics and with a nasty social media streak that Mejia has openly displayed.
After Chick’s letter grabbed headlines this week, one of the more compelling responses actually came in a Mejia tweet. After trying to bat away the criticism, the candidate wrote that his campaign is “serious about bringing a high level of transparency and accountability on how the city inefficiently and ineffectively spends our money and operates.”
It’s an important and worthy aim. It also happens to describe how Chick ran the office.
Election day is Nov. 8.
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