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Column: Kenneth Mejia rode the wave of the New Left and overwhelmed the LA political establishment

The new Los Angeles City Comptroller arrived for our interview on a scooter.

Kenneth Mejia, 32, is one face of a local political transformation in which a body of young people replaces the old guard, strong Democrats are overrun by the new left and politicians are replaced by activists.

This was not true in all local ballot races. But Eunisses Hernandez, who called for the abolition of the police department, expelled council member Gil Cedillo.

Hugo Soto-Martinez, who was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and said Councilman Mitch O’Farrell might as well be a Republican, easily kicked O’Farrell out of City Hall.

And in the race for controller, Mejia, an accountant whose mother was born in the Philippines, beat longtime city councilman Paul Koretz by 20 points, becoming the first Asian-American to hold office in any the city of Los Angeles. He will succeed Ron Galperin in three weeks.

Mejia walked to his campaign office on Wilshire Boulevard a few days ago dressed in campaign gear, with “Mejia for Controller” stamped on his dark blue hoodie, beanie and sweatpants. On its back was a pie chart with a summary of the city’s budget for the year 2021-22, with 46% of unrestricted revenue going to the LAPD.

I was in contact with Mejia last year, when I wrote about Los Angeles firefighters who refused to get vaccinated, racked up astronomical overtime, and lived out of state. Mejia, a candidate at the time, was already acting as a gatekeeper, and he had tweeted out a list of the city’s 20 highest-paid employees in the first nine months of 2021.

Mejia had discovered that 18 of the 20 worked in the fire department and that each had brought home more than $500,000 through September, including benefits and overtime.

“People have a lot of questions about how the city works and how the money is spent…and that’s my specialty,” Mejia told me in his campaign office.

As part of his campaign, Mejia produced an affordable housing map with instructions on how people could apply. He identified the areas where the most parking tickets were written. And he analyzed data during the city council’s debate on banning homeless encampments near schools and daycares, finding that 20% of the city would be tent-free.

He also managed to break the rules of traditional campaigning in a way that galvanized support, especially among young people.

He put on a Pokémon costume, the Pikachu character, and danced around Little Tokyo.

He danced again, along with campaign staffers, in a TikTok video drawing attention to police and firefighters living out of state.

He used his two corgis as campaign hosts and beat Koretz, who headed a city council animal services committee, over inhumane conditions at city shelters.

Along the way, Mejia has ruffled the feathers of the establishment, who have questioned his credentials and worried about his politicization of a department that exists as a watchdog branch of government.

Former City Comptroller Laura Chick called him erratic and extreme and said he was “unfit for public office”. She noted that Mejia posted tweets calling President Biden a racist and a rapist, and while he was campaigning for the Green Party’s candidate for president, he tweeted a picture of himself holding a photoshopped image of Hillary. Clinton behind bars.

“Certainly, I regret doing those things,” Mejia told me. He said that despite his political differences with establishment figures, the way he “expressed himself” is “definitely not the way I would have done today.”

To Chick’s point, I think Mejia lost a lot of votes for those explosive tweets, and yet he won in a landslide. And though Mejia said he had regrets, some young progressives and absolutists knocking on the doors of power in LA’s candidate forums have been unsettled and F-bombs flying at city council meetings.

You may question the tactic, but you cannot dispute the existence of a multiracial movement supported by labor activists, community organizers and those who are fed up with city hall corruption, the racism scandal and all the crippling unresolved issues, such as homelessness, the affordable housing crisis, and salaries that don’t cover rent.

Mejia, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, said his parents divorced when he was 7 and his mother basically raised him and his three older siblings on the money he got. she was winning as a registered nurse. His interest in social justice is rooted, he said, in observing the struggles of his single mother.

Mejia became an activist with the Los Angeles Tenants Union, he made three unsuccessful congressional runs on the Green Party ticket, and he became a follower of Bernie Sanders in 2015 when the Vermont senator ran for president.

“Millennials or Gen Z, when we see someone in politics who actually cares about the issues that matter to you, especially helping those on low incomes or those who have been marginalized by the systems, let them be it housing or homelessness, criminal justice or policing, or the environment…it’s a shock and it’s rare,” Mejia said.

The people who supported him, along with other progressives, Mejia said, “are tired of the status quo.”

That may be true, but the city comptroller has no direct authority over the mayor or city council, who can choose to ignore audits and declarations. But Mejia believes that by exposing inefficiencies and challenging spending priorities, he can educate voters and elected officials and potentially influence policy.

As for the LAPD, he said, “we just want to understand … how is this $3.2 billion being used? Is it used…effectively for public safety?

Regarding homelessness, Mejia said he wanted to “see where the money goes”. When it comes to housing, he wants to look at what the city’s housing department is doing “to facilitate more affordable housing.”

Mejia said he will also look into the operation of animal services and clean energy and sustainability initiatives.

Mejia said he had no interest in using the job as a springboard to run for mayor or another office. I asked how he would draw a line between audit departments and promoting a political agenda.

He said the job is to produce data, see if “performance metrics” are being met, and hold the mayor and city council accountable.

“No matter how I feel or see things, people need to know how their tax money is being used,” he said.

In three weeks, a young man shunned by the establishment will watch over her.

Mejia will lead a department of over 160 people.

He said the dress code will be casual.

California Daily Newspapers

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