On the surface, Assembly District 43 legislator Mike Gatto is everything an up-and-coming California pol should be: young, polite, handsome, slightly wonky and not on the fringe. So it is something of a surprise that Gatto has incurred the enmity of a small cadre of bloggers, gonzo journalists and gadflies.
Garen Yegparian, a columnist for Asbarez, a bilingual Armenian online newspaper, described him in print as "probably the most reprehensible person to have walked the halls of the California Legislature in many years." Peter Musurlian, a sort of poor man's Michael Moore, calls Gatto a "thug" and a "bully." And Scott Johnson, a blogger for Mayor Sam's Sister City, has dubbed Gatto the "Infant Assemblyman."
"He acts like an immature brat," says Johnson, an L.A. City Parks & Recreation employee.
Last year, State Controller John Chiang told state legislators they wouldn't be paid because they hadn't passed a balanced budget, as mandated by Proposition 25. Gatto issued a press release criticizing Chiang, saying, "I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won't be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense."
So KFI radio hosts John and Ken started a canned food drive for Gatto's family.
Gatto, who just turned 38, is a former staffer of Congressman Brad Sherman's — and Sherman is "enough to drive anyone crazy," in the words of one insider. "I've already apologized for how I've said things," Gatto says today.
Underlying all this angst toward Gatto is the fact that some see Assembly District 43, which covers heavily Armenian Glendale, as an "ethnic seat" for Armenians — a touchy subject that few discuss. Gatto is plain vanilla mixed with Italian.
A lawyer, Gatto won the 2010 special election for the Assembly seat vacated by Paul Krekorian, an Armenian-American who left his elected seat early — to run for the far better-paying Los Angeles City Council.
Gatto, one of only a handful of political moderates in the sharply divided, 120-member Legislature, then had to run again months later in order to hang onto his new seat during the normal election cycle.
That's when Mayor Sam blogger Johnson was handed some "opposition research" into Gatto by one of his political opponents, which Johnson posted on Mayor Sam, a provocative if rough-around-the-edges blog owned by Michael Higby.
The posts relied mostly on rumor and innuendo. Gatto responded in an unusual way, for a politician: He had his lawyer send Higby a cease-and-desist letter, calling Johnson's posts "unprovoked, unsubstantiated and libelous."
One of the posts turned out, in fact, to be just that, falsely claiming that Mike Gatto had been evicted from his apartment in Westwood. That research was about a different Mike Gatto, and Higby had to issue an embarrassing correction. To be safe, he removed every post slamming Gatto, partly because Higby feared the cost of a lawsuit and partly because of "pretty heavy-duty harassment on their side" — a barrage of phone calls and emails from Gatto's team, and the creation of a website by a Gatto supporter that personally insults Higby.
"We pulled some stuff we probably didn't need to pull," Higby says.
Since then, his fellow blogger Johnson has referred to Gatto as the "Infant Assemblyman," always accompanied by a photo of a bawling baby. "He was ... like, running to a teacher when he got picked on in school," Johnson explains.
Gatto claims that Higby was "bought off" by Eric Hacopian, a political consultant who worked for Gatto's 2010 Armenian-American opponent, Nayiri Nahabedian.
"These charges are so stupid," Hacopian says. "He really said that?"
(To be fair, Johnson has taken the side of many Hacopian clients, including Nahabedian, Adrin Nazarian, Luis Lopez and Rudy Martinez.)
Gatto's opponent on Nov. 6 is Greg Krikorian, a Republican, middle-aged, Armenian-American school board member and business owner. The campaign's sole debate, held last week in the packed Glendale City Council chambers, was a study in contrasts. Gatto was articulate, well-spoken and full of proposals. Krikorian was vague, given to long pauses and non sequiturs.
At one point, Krikorian actually said, "My exact plan is to have plans."
Gatto has rocketed into power in Sacramento, appointed to the chairmanship of the influential appropriations committee. And yet there were glimpses, at this debate, of the Gatto prickliness, which some say has rubbed his Sacramento colleagues the wrong way. When Krikorian accused Gatto of reading his answers, Gatto responded, "I've never seen such pettiness."
Later on, he said Krikorian's staff has been spying outside his family's home.
"I just came outside my house, and there were his staff members," Gatto says. "The first time I came out and they were milling about their car. Then one time they were sitting outside their car."
An aide to Krikorian, Art Tavana, says: "What does he mean? ... Why would we do that?" He does not directly deny the charge.