The wrong city controller ran against Eric Garcetti.
As current Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel's run for mayor ended in defeat, one can't help but think that Laura Chick, the hard-charging, plainspoken controller between 2001 and 2009, would have mopped the floor with Garcetti.
“There is no way you can get your foot in the door [at L.A. City Hall] unless you start showing up to events for elected officials and making whatever the maximum donation is,” Chick told journalist Kevin Roderick in 2004.
That kind of candidness from Chick, which maddened L.A.'s political elite, would have undoubtedly won over voters of all political stripes — just as her hard-hitting audits did.
Once nicknamed “Ms. Blunt,” Chick, a Democrat who once represented the San Fernando Valley as an L.A. councilwoman, created a tough-as-nails reputation by unblinkingly auditing numerous city agencies.
At the Los Angeles Police Department, Chick exposed a backlog of thousands of untested DNA rape kits.
At the planning department, she found “an agency cast in a time warp of past practices, old procedures, and outdated technology,” according to her own words.
And at the housing department, Chick wrote in a scathing letter to the L.A. City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa:
“Once again, for the umpteenth time, we find a city department without the essential information systems and databases. Even if the Housing Department had measurable outcomes, they would not be able to validate their progress, because they lacked integrated data. Is this the year of 2007? Is Los Angeles really part of the 'Digital Coast'?”
And guess what? All of this stuff happened under Garcetti's watch, who's been serving on the City Council since 2001 — he was the powerful City Council president between 2006 and 2012. One of the City Council's duties is to supervise local government agencies.
In a Chick-versus-Garcetti contest, Chick would have known where all the bodies were buried. She would have had a field day asking Garcetti what he was doing to combat waste, corruption, and inefficiencies at City Hall when she was leading the charge.
“It would have been interesting to see,” says L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar, an early supporter of Greuel's, “because of that movement of Republicans to Eric. Would they have gone to him if Laura was in the race?”
Darn good question, and most probably not.
Former California Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, another Greuel supporter, says Garcetti would have never been able to slam Chick for being cozy with the DWP union the way he did with Greuel, which political observers say deeply damaged Greuel's standing among Republicans.
Chick could have then hammered Garcetti for such things as not keeping data on how billion-dollar upscale development in Hollywood was driving out huge numbers of working-class and poor Latinos in his district.
Garcetti, the City Council, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were also caught flat-footed by the exploding growth of billboards and pot shops around L.A.
Yet Chick didn't only criticize but also offered recommendations to fix the problems she had found, as was shown in her housing department report. She would have brought her specific problem-solving knowledge to the race as well.
Put Chick up against Garcetti, who never got too specific about anything during the campaign, and the former City Council president would have come across as a fast-talking, out-of-touch amateur.
“The next mayor,” Chick told L.A. Weekly in 2011, “unlike the current mayor, must force himself or herself to focus on the workings of city government, not the glamour of being on an international stage, not the glamour of being seen with celebrities.”
She added, Los Angeles “is not working well, and it will continue to get worse. It's a time to work with labor and management, to have a strong mayor.”
Chick's strength and integrity to do what's right for all L.A. residents would have never been seriously doubted during the campaign.
Those traits in Greuel and Garcetti, however, were constantly questioned by voters and political observers — both Greuel and Garcetti have very close ties to labor unions and big business, both of which hold powerful sway over L.A.'s policy makers.
The Weekly caught up with Chick, who's living in the Bay Area, on election night. She declined to discuss how she would have beaten Garcetti, but did suggest what the next mayor needs to do.
As Chick talked, she gave a glimpse into what her campaign would have looked like — and what kind of mayor she would have been. Everything boiled down to good government.
“L.A. needs good, transparent, accountable, responsible government,” said Chick. “The mayor needs to lead on this stuff. It doesn't come from the City Council.”
Chick thought the next mayor should immediately find out the top issues in each council district, help each council member address and solve those issues, and then use the resulting good will to push forward the mayor's citywide agenda.
“A great deal of politics is about dealmaking,” says Chick, “and it doesn't have to be bad dealmaking.”
Chick said “modernizing” city government was vitally important, using technology to streamline and fix waste and inefficiencies. “There's a lot of unfinished business,” she said.
Chick added, “L.A. city is being run in a piecemeal, spit-and-polish way.”
She thought that fixing a broken city government that's inaccessible to its citizens would create more interest in local politics and improve civic pride.
“When people think everything is broken [in government],” said Chick, “they just don't want to deal with it.”
Chick knows what she's talking about — in the nation's second largest city of four million people, only a few hundred thousand showed up to vote in the L.A. mayoral race. That's a whole lot of folks turned off and tuned out.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.