Blunt Force

Los Angeles
April, 2004

Four years at Beverly Hills High and a half century in California have sanded most, but not all, of the Long Island grain off Laura Chick, the first woman elected citywide in Los Angeles. Her inflection still registers as subtly East Coast, yet it's what she talks about and the tone she uses to get her message heard - crisp, almost lecturing, in a "can't you see what's wrong here?" way - that have made her both respected and despised in less than three years as city controller.

Mellow is not a Laura Chick adjective. From a corner office in City Hall East decorated with voodoo dolls (she collects African art) and photos of her granddaughter, Chick is using a bundle of new powers she inherited to rail about realities that L.A. politicians rarely talk about in mixed company. Where others couch and evade, she is Ms. Blunt: Of course campaign-money givers want something in exchange; if they were pure, they would donate directly to philanthropic causes and take the tax deduction. Of course it helps to know somebody and pony up cash at election time if you, an ordinary citizen, hope to enjoy a piece of the city's business. "If there's a dirty little secret in L.A., and I think there is," Chick says, "it's how some of our contracts are awarded." She means that lucrative deals with L.A.'s airports and harbor have been turned into spoils, passed to friends as rewards and to financial angels as inducements to write campaign checks. Good people just looking to share in the city's billions "absolutely have been told that there is no way you can get your foot in the door unless you start showing up to events for elected officials and making whatever the maximum donation is," she says.

As a result of Chick's talking like this, many city hall insiders-including friends and allies she worked with during her two terms on the city council-are uncomfortable. Two grand juries are investigating possible corruption by airport and harbor commissioners. Mayor Jim Hahn is not a target, but the taint is spreading toward his office. A deputy mayor, Troy Edwards, testified in January and two months later resigned under pressure from some council members. Some old friends question Chick's motives - after all, she herself has raised money for three campaigns. Bringing up her name can kill the mood at the wrong party. That's painful, she admits, but "this really just had to stop." The system at city hall is not rotten, but she'd say it was rotting.

Chick dropped her biggest bomb last December while releasing an audit critical of the way Los Angeles World Airports - the department that runs Los Angeles International - hands out service contracts. (LAWA executive director Kim Day has disputed the report, calling it "factually incorrect" in a three-page letter to the mayor and Chick.) In discussing the audit, Chick made sure reporters knew that she had passed confidential evidence of possible corruption uncovered by her staff to the district attorney, the U.S. attorney, and the City Ethics Commission.

To friends and colleagues who demand to know what she is doing, Chick has a simple answer: her job. She is reinventing the public profile of what traditionally had been a low-key role as the city's accountant. You'd have to be a politics junkie to remember that Hahn began his elective life there. How many voters know what Chick's predecessor, Rick Tuttle, stood for, or even looks like, though he served for 16 years? When Chick took over in 2001, city charter reform had just given the controller additional powers to conduct performance reviews and audits. She has turned the strengthened office into a force.

Her staff and outside consultants have completed more than 60 audit reports on city agencies and programs, finding a mix of good and bad practices. Chick has called for fixing broken parking meters, changing the way police respond to burglar alarms, and even auditing the controller's office. She refused to approve exorbitant public relations expenses submitted by the Department of Water and Power. Catchy press releases make sure her actions get noticed (and when her daughter Katherine gave birth, an announcement on city letterhead declared Chick the "first grandma" to hold citywide office). In an attention-grabbing maneuver, she put out a public call for applicants interested in serving as her appointee to the Ethics Commission; she filled the seat with retired Los Angeles Times city editor Bill Boyarsky.

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Chick's higher profile gets her included on lists of potential candidates for mayor, either when Hahn is up for reelection next spring (when she will be 60) or four years later. She arrived at this lofty place in the city's political hierarchy the long way round. She achieved something rarely tried, winning from the distant West Valley, the "Boogie Nights" outer suburbs of the Third Council District, a place where secession actually won a slim majority and no Los Angeles mayor has ever lived.

It's also where Chick took up her sixth career at age 49, running for office in 1993 after being a social worker, a stay-at-home mom, a buyer and all-around fix-it woman for her dad's clothing shop in Glendale, a mental-health counselor, and a city council aide. She has been divorced twice. Her second husband, Robert Chick, was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Airport Commission under Mayor Tom Bradley. Ensconced as the wife of a well-connected member of the city hall administration, Chick socialized with political figures, especially in the Valley. In 1988, one of her new friends, Third District councilwoman Joy Picus, asked her to be her field deputy.

After raising her two daughters, Chick had gone back to school at 40 to earn a master's degree in social work from USC and was on track to get her clinical license. But, she says, "it was becoming clear to me that, no, I didn't have the personality and the inclination to be a psychotherapist." She rose to become Picus's top aide in the Valley. She quit after three years but didn't stay gone long. As Picus prepared to run for her fifth term, Chick stunned her mentor, and city hall's loyalty-valuing apparatchiks, with the news that she would be the challenger.

"It was a scary decision, because inside my own household, amongst my closest friends and family, I not only did not have support, I had opposition or unhappiness," Chick says. Her family came around, but not some others. Picus still has little to say. "I make it a practice not to talk about Laura Chick," she replies when asked about her onetime friend. "Anything I could say would probably not make either of us look very good." Chick is less circumspect: "I actually thought it was morally wrong for her to be running for a fifth term because she had really stopped doing the job with the vigor and the attention that she had earlier on."

Acquaintances who are discomfited by Chick's moves as controller can't say they lacked for clear warning that, once elected, she would refuse to honor the unspoken pacts that so often dictate political behavior. On the council, she became known for taking contrary positions, even on issues in other members' districts. For instance, she fought Nate Holden over his wish to withhold landmark status and expedite demolition of the 1920s Stiles Clements-designed McKinley Building on Wilshire Boulevard near Western Avenue. (It was ultimately torn down and replaced with a drugstore.) She also took on then-mayor Richard Riordan over his plan to enlarge the police department by 3,000 officers. Chick demanded to know where the money would come from. The plan collapsed, but not before Riordan sent a mailing into Chick's district accusing her of being antipolice. Chick was more liberal than her conservative-leaning constituents on most issues, but even so, rank-and-file cops apparently adore her. She stuck up for officers while she chaired the council's public safety committee and gave her free city sedan to the LAPD's West Valley division for undercover operations.

Her aggressiveness as controller fits the pattern, but for some old friends her motivations remain mystifying. "I like Laura personally, but I just don't understand what she is doing," says Harvey Englander, a downtown lobbyist who ran both of her successful campaigns for the city council. "She seems to have adopted a policy of 'ready, fire, aim.'" In particular, he calls her talk of a pay-to-play atmosphere wide of the mark and especially curious since the airport commissioner believed to be most under scrutiny for raising campaign cash-Ted Stein-was also an early supporter of hers. Chick's first fund-raiser for the controller's race was held at Stein's home.

George Kieffer, chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, helped lead the charter reform panel that recommended additional powers for Chick's office. "It will take some time to judge the effectiveness of the controller's new role," he says. Another leader of the charter reform effort is fully sold. "I think Laura Chick has done a terrific job, exactly what was intended," says USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who is helping Hahn rewrite the rules for awarding city contracts. "No one I met in city government impressed me more."

Former councilman Mike Feuer, now an attorney downtown with Morrison and Foerster and a commentator on KPCC, sat next to Chick in the horseshoe of desks in the council chambers. He became a big fan. "She has never been afraid to shake up the status quo," says Feuer. "Even Laura's critics wouldn't want a controller to rubber-stamp existing practices. . . . She wants to be the best controller in the history of the city.'' Given her new powers and public persona as a reformer, no one on the council is eager to cross Chick. She worked closely with council members Wendy Greuel and Cindy Miscikowski in March to pass an ethics reform package that bans direct fund-raising by city commissioners.

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By several accounts, when term limits forced her off the council in 2001, Chick looked at running for mayor. But in a race crowded with better-known men such as Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, Chick saw she had no chance. Instead, she supported Villaraigosa and raised enough money to cruise to victory in the controller's race, even though Riordan backed her opponent in what was widely seen as payback for their spat over the LAPD. After she won, she moved from the West Valley to Silver Lake.

Chick endorsed Hahn's reelection early but recently has been assailing him for being "hugely responsible" for the ethics questions darkening the image of city hall. The mayor appoints the commissioners and should insist on higher standards, she says - a claim Hahn rebutted by proposing a sweeping package of reforms. Chick has put Hahn on notice that her endorsement might be withdrawn, depending on how the mayor reacts to the investigations and how the race shapes up. Hahn has money in the bank - thanks to aggressive fund-raising - but he could be vulnerable, especially if an ethics scandal erupts.

The field of challengers could end up including two of Chick's allies on the council, Villaraigosa and Bernard Parks, the former police chief who still resents being fired by Hahn. Other prospects are Valley state senator Richard Alarcon and former assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg. The more crowded the contest, the more likely it is that Chick will run for a second term as controller.

For her part, Chick stresses that no charges of official corruption have been proved or even brought against anyone. "I've always considered the possibility that no one is guilty of wrongdoing," she says. As she sees it, the investigations had to be conducted, just as her questioning of city departments is required under the new charter. "It's painful when you cause distress to your friends. But it's my job, and you have to redefine friendships and boundaries."

One criticism that seems to sting Chick is being called a headline hound who trades substance for quick media praise. She insists the audits have all been solid, but she admits to strategically seeking a higher profile and takes some satisfaction in the fact that her critics are noticing. "They are absolutely right. I do grandstand. I would like to ask them what they would do in my stead." The city needs to get clean and to stop wasting the people's money, and she's making it her cause. "I didn't invent that silly term 'bully pulpit,'" she says. "But I guess I'm using it."



©Kevin Roderick 2004

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