L.A. city controller race guide: Paul Koretz vs. Kenneth Mejia

Diptych of candidates for city controller Paul Koretz, left, and Kenneth Mejia.
Candidates for city controller Paul Koretz, left, and Kenneth Mejia. (Los Angeles Times)

Term limits are forcing Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin to step down, nine years after he took office. The two candidates running to replace him, City Councilmember Paul Koretz and certified public accountant Kenneth Mejia, are now locked in one of the most negative campaigns of this year's municipal election.

Koretz has hit Mejia over incendiary social media posts where he called President Biden a racist, a rapist or both. He highlighted the activities of Mejia campaign workers who have disrupted or shut down mayoral debates. And he has reminded voters that Mejia, while supporting Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, circulated an image of himself holding an oversized, photoshopped image of Hillary Clinton behind bars wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.

Mejia, in turn, has portrayed Koretz as ineffective and unethical — an establishment politician supported by the city's police union, real estate interests and the fossil fuel industry. (After Mejia confronted Koretz over a campaign fundraiser that featured the president of a Bakersfield oil company, Koretz gave the businessman's donation back.)

On social media, Mejia has focused on management problems inside the city's animal shelters, undercutting Koretz's reputation as a longtime animal advocate. And he has been a relentless critic of the LAPD, decrying the size of the police budget, which he described as "bloated," and proposing audits on an array of police operations.

Mejia is now the frontrunner, having come in nearly 20 points ahead of Koretz in the primary. The winner will spend the next four years working as the city's auditor, chief accounting officer and paymaster, sending payment to contractors and cops alike.

Who are the candidates?

Koretz got his start in politics at UCLA, where he co-founded the Bruin Democratic Club in 1973. He worked for then-Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky and the California League of Conservation Voters. He also won a seat on the West Hollywood City Council in 1988. A dozen years later, he joined the state Assembly. And in 2009, he was elected to the L.A. City Council, representing parts of the Westside and San Fernando Valley.

In his first bid for citywide office, Koretz has touted his focus on renters' rights, his advocacy for animal anti-cruelty laws and his environmental policies.

Throughout his career, Koretz has been a vocal advocate for organized labor, particularly unions that represent public employees. But unions have not been heavily involved in the controller's race. Among the few to step in is Laborers' International Union of North America Local 300, which provided funding for the Committee for a Sane L.A., a group opposed to Mejia's campaign.

Mejia, for his part, has held jobs over the past decade with Ernst & Young, Canyon Capital Advisors, Activision and other companies. He is a three-time political candidate, having run for a congressional seat in L.A. in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

In his first bid for city office, Mejia has used his campaign to produce charts and graphics that illustrate city spending decisions and illuminate the working of city government. Those graphics, on social media and old-school billboards, have shown the amount of money provided to the LAPD, the cost of city legal payouts, the locations of park facilities and other information.

For L.A.'s political left, a Mejia victory would be a huge coup, possibly setting him up for a run for mayor in 2026.

An activist with the Los Angeles Tenants Union, Mejia protested last year outside the San Fernando Valley home of Councilmember Paul Krekorian, demanding that the city purchase a Chinatown apartment building where tenants are facing huge rent hikes. He repeatedly attended demonstrations outside the home of Mayor Eric Garcetti, where Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles denounced the idea of Garcetti securing a post in the Biden administration.

Where the candidates stand on public safety

The city controller does not have a say on how much each department receives in the city budget. But that hasn't stopped the two candidates from staking out different positions on police spending — and public safety overall.

Koretz, who has been endorsed by the Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file police officers, has called for an increase in hiring at the LAPD. He has voiced alarm about the increase in homicides during the first two years of the COVID-19 epidemic, some of which took place in his Westside district.

The three-term council member also has pointed to his work on gun legislation, including a measure targeting "ghost guns," which prohibits the possession, sale or transportation of firearms without a serial number.

Mejia has been a fierce critic of the LAPD, particularly its treatment of Latino and Black residents. He has called for funds to be shifted out of the department and into programs that "actually keep people safe," such as the city's guaranteed income initiative, which provided monthly stipends to families fighting to stay out of poverty.

Mejia's campaign has drawn support from some of the city's most prominent supporters of police abolition, including former mayoral candidate Gina Viola and former council candidate Albert Corado.

"He understands that policing is one of the biggest problems that L.A. is facing, and the fact that they're taking so much of the money," Corado said.

Where they stand on homelessness

Koretz and Mejia also differ on the city's response to homelessness, particularly restrictions on use of public space.

Mejia is a fierce opponent of the city's new anti-encampment law, which prohibits tents from going up on sidewalks next to school and daycare centers. He told The Times he would use the controller's office to show that the city should pursue alternatives to the law, known as Municipal Code Section 41.18.

That ordinance requires that sidewalks provide at least 36 inches of clearance for wheelchair users. And it allows council members to designate certain facilities — libraries, senior centers, freeway overpasses — as prohibited terrain for encampments.

Mejia said the anti-encampment law punishes people for being homelessness, causing them to experience trauma and mistrust, and disrupting their connections with outreach workers.

Koretz supports the anti-encampment law, saying he thinks it's reasonable to ask homeless people to move a block or two away to keep sidewalks clear around schools. Encampments can have conditions that are dangerous for children, he said.

“We have parents now that are driving two blocks to drive into a parking lot to drop their kids off to school, or driving even a block, just for their safety,” Koretz said in August. “That’s not a circumstance we should be in.”

Supporters

Mejia has secured the endorsements of an array of progressive organizations, including Ground Game L.A., the Jane Fonda Climate PAC, Sunrise Movement Los Angeles and the Working Families Party. Councilmember Mike Bonin is also supporting him, as are The Times' editorial board and Spanish-language La Opinión.

Koretz has drawn the support of state Atty. General Rob Bonta, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and several of his colleagues on the council. Garcetti and Galperin are supporting him, as are four former city controllers — Wendy Greuel, Laura Chick, Rick Tuttle and Ira Reiner.

Chick, in particular, sent a blistering letter to her followers saying that Mejia is unfit for the post.

Mejia responded by calling Chick, who stepped down in 2009, a "career politician," and said Koretz is "relying on smears" to win.

Past coverage

L.A. Times Editorial Board Endorsements

The Times’ editorial page publishes endorsements based on candidate interviews and independent reporting. The editorial board operates independently of the newsroom — reporters covering these races have no say in the endorsements.

How and where to vote

Ballots will be in the mail to all 22 million registered voters in the state no later than Oct. 10. Californians can return ballots by mail, drop them at collection boxes or turn them in at voting centers. They can also cast ballots early at voting centers or wait until Nov. 8 to vote at their neighborhood polling places.

Californians can register to vote or check their status at https://registertovote.ca.gov/.

Follow more election coverage

California voters head to the polls Nov. 8 to vote for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, controller, treasurer, attorney general, and races for U.S. representative in Congress, state senator and state assembly member. Local races include who will be the Los Angeles mayor and L.A. County sheriff. There are seven ballot propositions for voters to decide on the table.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.